Opinion: A nuclear ravine?

A nuclear ravine? Why the UK shouldn’t be judging Germany’s nuclear woes

By Chris Friedler

It’s no secret that Germany and the UK have a friendly rivalry in almost everything these days, and that goes for climate policy too. Yet despite a much bigger and more longstanding investment in renewables, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions have reduced 27% in 2014 since 1990, the UK’s 36%. So what’s to blame for this? There are a multitude of reasons, but one of them is simply that Germany has a very anti-nuclear stance compared to the UK. It’s easy to forget, but renewables coming online are also, as new power sources, going to be replacing an older power sources on the way to

Hinkley_Point_A_Power_Station_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1951616
The original Hinkley Point A nuclear plant in Somerset, UK. Due for decommissioning in the next decade, its replacement has had multiple problems in planning and construction so far.

decommissioning. In the UK, that tends to be polluting coal plants from the ‘60s, but in Germany, that often tends to be nuclear power, due to ageing infrastructure and a government mandate. Therefore, new low carbon sources end up replacing old low carbon sources, doing little for overall emissions reduction. While it might be tempting to get proud of Britain’s record over Germany here, we could imminently be heading for a similar problem quite soon.

Here in the UK, we should be aware that this very same bottleneck of new and old low carbon energy is also coming for us, though not quite as quickly. How soon then? How long before the race to replace nuclear begins? Nuclear accounted for 21% of the UK’s electricity last year, and with nearly 9GW of electrical capacity, it will continue to provide roughly that figure until the 8 stations start to close. This will happen in 2023, (assuming the lifetime of at least one station isn’t extended) with around 2 GW coming offline, the same happening the year after. Therefore, we’re faced with losing half of our nuclear capacity in the middle of the next decade. Had that happened last year, we would have lost around 10% from our electricity mix.

While back up and additional capacity of course exists, we need to ask serious questions about what happens when 2023 rolls around. So what will fill the gap? New nuclear is an obvious answer, but given that new nuclear plant Hinkley Point C seems unlikely to be ready by 2023, as it  has had multiple setbacks. The same goes for Carbon Capture and Storage and more experimental renewables. What about our wind, solar and biomass technologies then? General lack of policy post 2020 is delaying new investment in all of these, but with increasing deployment in this decade until 2021, renewable electricity will start to replace coal in the electricity mix. But after this, will it then be forced to pick up the slack for offline nuclear, ‘freezing’ emissions reductions in the power sector for years into the next decade? Given the years needed to plan and invest in large energy projects, the lack of government energy policy for the mid-2020s isn’t encouraging.

The short answer is probably yes, that is what will happen. Offshore wind is predicted to be cost competitive by 2025, so investment in most renewable energy should be easier than in today’s market. The price for renewables failing to ‘plug the gap’ left by nuclear will be more gas stations, so it is imperative that renewables are hitting the ground running fast enough by 2023 to carry the weight of closed nuclear plants. There need to be enough renewables being brought online to ensure that emissions don’t go up in the power sector, but in order to continue emissions reductions, energy policy needs to be careful to provide enough new power to not only counter the gap left by nuclear but also go beyond it.

In short, while the nuclear gap seems intimidating, it leads back to an old argument; low carbon power needs clearer policy on its future in order to stave off negative effects and rising emissions. And Germany is dealing with this now rather than in the next decade, meaning we can learn much from how they are responding to this problem.

Opinion: Fixation on Fracking

Fixation on Fracking: Should fracking be getting LESS attention?

By Chris Friedler

Now that I’ve grabbed your attention, I will come clean: I’m not personally a massive fan of fracking. This might not come as a surprise giving the website you’re reading this on, but one thing that might be a little more controversial on an environmentalist website is this; I also am not a fan of the hype that fracking has been receiving by the environmentalist movement. Now before you either quote me in brackets as an environmentalist who endorses fracking (which I do not) or hating other environmentalist NGOs (which I also do not) let me explain.

From a climate change perspective, being opposed to fracking is no bad thing. Fracking involves the extraction of natural gas as a fuel, to be burned in electricity generation or for heating. That will not only push emissions up, it will also (as others have pointed out) ‘lock in’ gas to our electricity system. But getting angry about gas from fracking, or ‘shale gas’, and focusing exclusively on it, implies indirectly that somehow other gas that isn’t fracked is somehow fine, or acceptable. And herein lies the problem; focusing on fracking as a great environmental evil that must be vanquished pushes out other areas of attention. And it’s easy to do. It’s far more terrifying to imagine an area the size of the Isle of Wight being carved out of the ground to provide poisoning and polluting gas, than say, the need to install electric heating in people’s homes.

Put like that, it’s easy to see why fighting fracking is more romantic than fighting to install heat pumps, but this ‘fighting the good fight’ approach is damaging the environmentalist movement’s credibility in my view. It implies we only react to visible things that scare us, and haven’t taken a more holistic view of the whole problem. Polar bears are another example – while definitely a visible consequence of climate change, by posting it over the climate debate, it has crowded out the arguably more serious impacts such as extreme weather, ecosystem decline and water and food stress due to being a more digestible image of the problem. And by doing so, it dumbs down the problem. Let’s return to fracking for a minute. Say an eager new government comes into force in the UK. Seeking popularity, but not wanting to rock the boat too much, it promises to ban fracking in the UK. We environmentalists would be pleased no doubt, but in terms of climate change, all it would do is just make sure emissions didn’t go up further. Whereas those heat pumps, while far more boring to some, would make deep and sustained reductions in pollution.

Environmentalist and civil society groups are of course, free to choose what they want to campaign about, and that goes for DecarboniseNow as well. But we are granted this power to protect the environment by the public. We should be careful how we use it, and hopefully, for the best, not the most obvious strategy.