8 October 2020

Is the answer to our energy needs really blowing in the wind?

By Zion Lights

Not long ago, members of the newly-formed environmental group Nuclear for Net Zero made their way to Trafalgar Square to hold up pro-nuclear banners and give out free bananas.

Why bananas? Because, it turns out, thanks to the potassium inside them, they’re pretty radioactive. It’s a gentle way of reminding people that there’s nothing inherently scary or dangerous about radioactivity, and we shouldn’t let fear get in the way of a viable green energy source.

The key argument we were making at our central London demo was not just that nuclear is safe, but that if the Sizewell C plant is approved, it can provide electricity for the whole of the capital.

A week later, Boris Johnson has made a similar claim, promising to build enough wind turbines to power all homes with wind by 2030. “We believe that in 10 years’ time offshore wind will be powering every home in the country, with our target rising from 30 gigawatts (GW) to 40 gigawatts,” the Prime Minister said in his conference keynote on Tuesday.

Do these claims stand up to scrutiny?

Even if offshore wind could generate half of the UK’s current electricity demand, the “every home” assertion is nothing more than spin. The other half of that electricity would still come from fossil fuels. 

A total of 40GW wind capacity would supply only 7% of current total UK energy demand, leaving the Government well short of its goal of net zero by 2050.

Building more wind turbines is just a small step towards solving an issue that requires much bigger steps.

The total energy consumption in the UK in 2019 was 1,663 terrawatt hours [TWh]. The proposed wind capacity of 40GW by 2030 will produce 109 TWh of energy per year. So, the proposed wind capacity will supply 6.5% of energy consumption. Where is the rest of the energy we need to keep our homes warm and our hospitals running going to come from?

And that’s supposing we can build and install a turbine a day between now and 2030, not impossible but certainly a tall order.

The other big issue is that wind capacity currently supplies a third of what it’s meant to. Offshore wind is not much more reliable than onshore wind. There’s more wind offshore (due to higher capacity), but when the wind doesn’t blow in the UK it’s the same inland as offshore, with similar level of intermittency.

For evidence of how misguided this approach can be, just look at Germany. Angela Merkel’s government has spent billions on renewables as part of its Energiewende project, citing concerns for the environment to justify phasing out nuclear plants – and they’ve still ended up burning more coal (which is of course one of the most polluting fuels). Compare them to France, where over 70% of energy comes from nuclear and is 1.7 times less expensive for the citizens who use it, and you might see a pattern emerging.

It’s easy to check the energy mix any day of the week, via www.electricitymap.org. In Britain nuclear chugs along at around 20%, wind can get up to 30% but on days when it isn’t windy enough that number drops, and the number for coal rises to fill the gap. Every time the wind stops blowing, the percentage of wind goes down and the use of coal goes up. That’s because the battery storage to do a better job isn’t there yet – and when building wind capacity into the grid it’s important to include the cost of battery storage, which is a cost that is currently many times more expensive than wind. 

A quick look at that electricity map shows you that we are still mostly dependent on fossil fuels.

So can a wind-powered grid power every home in the UK? Yes and no. It might do when the wind speeds are high enough – but that isn’t every day. If power is not provided to people’s homes on windless, foggy, days in winter then people are going to freeze. We need a plan for when the wind doesn’t blow, one that brings in an energy alternative that is as reliable and efficient as fossil fuels currently are, but without contributing to global warming and air pollution.

That solution is nuclear energy, but we are in real danger of letting it pass us by. The UK currently has 15 operational reactors, but 14 of them are due to shut down by 2030. In order to maintain the level of clean energy we currently get from nuclear, Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C need to be built. The Government has dragged its feet on committing to Sizewell C, and risks investors pulling out, as has just happened with Hitachi’s withdrawal from the Wylfa project. Johnson may prefer advanced nuclear technology, but that won’t be available for many years (particularly since it will require a lot of safety testing), and which certainly isn’t ready to build now.

And even if we could miraculously meet half of our energy needs with wind, we still need to consider the other half. The 1.5C mitigation strategy outlined by the IPCC indicates that swift action is needed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions now. We cannot afford to continue to rely on fossil fuels. If it gets to the point where they are phased out completely, then the policy of overreliance on wind will be properly questioned when the blackouts start.

Nuclear is a clean, zero carbon option that already provides electricity for 70% of UK homes. It is already powering our homes and it is already green. The government just needs to commit to investing in it. To do anything else would be, well, bananas.

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Zion Lights is Director of Environmental Progress UK.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.