Renewable power expanded exponentially under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition elected in 2010 and by 2015 the renewable industries had a turnover of £14.9bn and had reduced wholesale electricity prices. If this expansion had continued under the next government, an all-renewable UK electricity supply was achievable by 2025.
Though the 2015 Tory manifesto claimed onshore wind farms “often fail to win public support”, the government’s own surveys demonstrate widespread approval. Support remains high even for a large-scale local wind farm.
Onshore wind has far higher public approval than the Conservative party’s top priorities for energy: nuclear and fracking. These have higher carbon footprints and enjoy higher subsidies than renewables. Their low popularity would doubtless fall further if the surveys asked about local reactors or fracking.
The Tory manifesto mentioned cuts only to onshore wind, but all renewables have suffered since May 2015. At least six incentives to highly popular solar photovoltaic (PV) power have been cut. According to the Solar Trade Association, 32% of jobs were lost by last summer.
In November 2015, government scenarios for future electricity generation all showed renewable power, which had expanded 10 times in the nine years to 2015, hardly expanding at all over the next two decades. Most of the small renewable expansion permitted in the 2020s is expected to be offshore wind. Apparently the government intends there to be no new PV or onshore wind after 2020. Why cull such popular and successful industries?
The UK has more than 32 gigawatts of renewable power, 10 times the power the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant may achieve in 2030. Hinkley’s power is not only almost irrelevant; its inflexible nature will make it redundant.
Once operating, a nuclear reactor should run with constant output, 24/7, month to month, but power that complements wind and PV has to vary in less than one hour. China, where wind and PV are booming, already has too many nuclear reactors. Its government wants nuclear output varied day to night – an inherently unsafe procedure. The operators at Chernobyl were trying to vary output when the reactor exploded.
All the government scenarios assume the wholesale electricity price will increase in the 2020s. This is because they hope the electricity price will rise close to the ridiculously high value guaranteed for nuclear power. If it falls, the nuclear levy on household electricity bills will rise dramatically.
Despite the cuts, it is possible the renewables will expand faster than the government hopes and the wholesale electricity price could continue to fall. A calculation that assumes the renewables merely expand with their worst year’s performance in the past decade, suggests that, when the first new nuclear reactor starts in 2025, the UK could have about as much renewable power as Germany has now. This calculation predicts UK bill-payers could be funding 7p of the 9.25p per kilowatt-hour guaranteed nuclear price.
By 2030, when the government hopes for large amounts of nuclear power, their scenarios show all natural gas electricity generators providing power only a quarter of the year. This will make natural gas electricity even more expensive.
One low-carbon renewable technology already provides flexible power to the electricity grid: the anaerobic digestion (AD) of farm and food waste to bio-methane. AD provides extremely low-carbon electricity because it avoids greenhouse gas emission from waste rotting on farms or in landfill.
AD will be able to provide flexible electric power more cheaply than natural gas because at times when the electricity is not needed, the bio-methane production can be sold to the gas grid. If access for AD to both electricity and gas grids is improved, and incentives introduced to encourage farmers and the food industry to recycle waste, bio-methane is likely to be cheaper than fracked gas, the cost of which is still unknown.
The party that restores renewable subsidies (paid from taxation rather than levies), cancels Hinkley Point C and fracking subsidies while incentivising bio-methane will get my vote and, the graphic above suggests, such policies could win them a lot more votes.