The role of renewables in the UK energy mix

Thursday 14 September 2017 17.54 BST


Your excellent editorial on the reducing cost of offshore wind power (13 September) is timely in identifying the increasingly futile case for new nuclear build. It does, however, repeat the fallacy that nuclear power “is a zero-carbon technology”. The carbon emissions involved in building such immense structures, in mining and transporting uranium, and in the transport, reprocessing and storage of waste, contribute to a considerable carbon burden. Estimates vary considerably, but studies suggest that the emissions from nuclear generation could be one-10th of those of fossil fuels, but twice those of wind power.

Furthermore, the need for a continuous supply is of only limited use when consumption patterns become distorted by, for example, the increased need to charge electric vehicles overnight, as your leader identifies. What is needed now, alongside continued investment in the latest generation of renewable production, is increased investment into a wide range of storage technologies, and further research and investment into the production of renewable heat.

Tackling the energy challenge is plainly within our grasp as new technologies come to the market. The challenge now is not a technological one, it is a political one. Sadly, that is a political challenge which our current government seem unable to address.
Ian Hill
Cockermouth, Cumbria

  • Yes, yes to more wind farms. But why do our politicians continue to ignore or reject the potential of enormous tides that rise and fall conveniently close to a huge proportion of Britain’s population – indeed, precisely as close as Hinkley Point? Nearly every time a picture of Hinkley is shown there is a strip of water in front of it, the Bristol Channel, home to the second-highest tidal range in the world. Twice every day that enormous body of water rises and falls between 11 and 14 metres. That represents energy of a similar order to that which may, eventually, and at enormous cost and perpetual taxation transfer to French and Chinese companies, be produced by Hinkley Point.

Marine turbine technology is not experimental, nor potentially polluting. A smaller tidal barrage has been operating successfully on the Rance, near St Malo in France for nearly 50 years. It is clean, the energy is free and perpetual, there is no noxious waste and the birds seem to have adapted quite well.
Will Taylor
Tiverton, Devon

  • To replace the UK’s current nuclear generating capacity with offshore wind turbines like those planned for Triton Knoll, and at similar spacing, would require a sea area equivalent to a 1.6km wide band around the entire coastline of the UK. This assumes perfect power storage, loss-free transmission and an optimistic through-life load-factor of 27%: real figures would almost certainly increase the required sea area. Is the UK population ready for the environmental impact such a programme would create?
    Tim Chittenden
    Past president, The Nuclear Institute
  • With reference to your editorial, you might find it easier to offer a few more-favourable words about Hinkley Point C nuclear power station by regarding it as a (partial) replacement for the UK’s seven AGR stations, some of which have been in service for more than 40 years but all of which will reach the end of their working lives in a decade or two. As base-load generation, their replacement if not by new nuclear stations will necessarily be 100% by gas-fired plant. Think how much that will contribute to reducing national carbon dioxide emissions.
    Jim Waterton
    Glasgow
  • You rightly report the welcome news that future offshore wind power projects will produce electricity significantly cheaper than future nuclear power. But there are other established non-carbon methods that are even better. Significantly cheaper still for consumers are onshore grid-connected wind power (now effectively banned by government planning policy) and onsite locally sized self-generation, generally from solar photovoltaic panels, but also from site-dependent wind turbines and mini-hydro. In addition, there are the cost-saving possibilities of battery storage and of local energy cooperatives.

Of course, the renewables options produce variable power because they draw from the natural environment with its diurnal and inter-seasonal characteristics. Consequently as an integrated resource they are not “intermittent”, which implies suddenly ceasing. Individual renewables generator variations average out when combined together with grid connection. This average is predictable from UK weather forecasts and certainly not “intermittent”. However the generation from nuclear stations is indeed “intermittent”, with total and sudden outages from predictable refuelling and unpredictable transmission failures. It is impossible that UK renewables could ever have the unwanted intermittency and cost characteristics of nuclear power.
Dr John Twidell
Horninghold, Leicestershire

  • It’s great to see your editorial on wind power – with offshore wind costs plummeting, solar costs halving in the last five years, renewable evolution is ramping exponentially. Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, has just broken green energy records by generating 35% of power from renewables in the first half of 2017. But here, sadly, inconsistent feed-in tariffs have meant a rush of investment then near collapse of the solar market. And we are still stuck on a large nuclear subsidy, even to the extent of distorting the UK energy market, backing an expensive technology come what may – finding ourselves in the surreal situation of planning the largest construction projects ever built on UK soil (Hinkley, Moorside and Sizewell), and contemplating buying reactors from bankrupt and disgraced companies using technologies that have failed wherever they have been built.

The nuclear industry says that future UK energy should be nuclear and renewables – but because nuclear is so eye-wateringly expensive, the real choice is actually nuclear or renewables. And the reality is that, in an even market, renewables just make more economic sense.
Dr Paul Dorfman UCL Energy Institute
Prof Steve Thomas Greenwich University
Duncan Bayliss UWE

  • As Rupert Jones says (Hurricane Irma has devastated British territories – so why such little aid?, 12 September), the UK government needs to be faster at responding to emergencies. But we also need people power to respond faster internationally to the underlying causes of those emergencies. Adapting to the risks of climate change needs to become a global system of assistance, ready and on call. This can be led by governments. Reducing the risks of further climate change needs new global campaigns of action, to bring governments into line. This can be led by civil society.

The cooperative sector worldwide, with one billion members, is supporting reconstruction in hurricane-hit islands and flooded coastlands. A new financial appeal across the UK’s 7,000 coops has been launched this week with founding support by the Co-op Group. At the same time, cooperatives worldwide are campaigning for deep cuts in emissions, putting this into practice in our own businesses, and for a step change in energy policy.

There are now 250 UK cooperatives helping to generate renewable energy or support energy saving. Emergencies like the hurricanes in the Americas or the floods in Asia are prompts not just for government action but also for a new spirit of self-help and mutual aid.
Ed Mayo
Secretary general, Co-operatives UK