The death of ‘He who shall not be named’

Alan Simpson, a former Labour MP and advisor on renewable energy who now advises Friends of the Earth, responds to George Monbiot’s recent article ‘Corporate Power? No Thanks’

It was as if George Monbiot had cued in the government to demonstrate his point about singing from the nuclear hymn sheet. Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, duly surfaced to proclaim that Britain was “on the brink of the biggest nuclear renaissance since the 1950s”, that Britain was to become “the number-one destination to invest in new nuclear” and that “nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon source of electricity around”. Of course its a lie, but don’t accuse the Minister of being unable to read a script.

We have been on the edge of this ‘renaissance’ for the best part of my adult life. It just never arrives. Nuclear power was not, is not, will never be economic. It is the only energy technology whose costs increase generation by generation. It is the only energy no one will insure, and it is only made affordable by massive, hundred-year public/taxpayer subsidies. Britain already faces an £85 billion tax bill for the last lot of nuclear waste. DECC has 40% of its annual budget creamed off to pay for this disposal and we’ve yet to face the next round of decommissioning.

Chasing delusions for all we are worth, Britain is the only place now throwing out nuclear lifelines. As George sang his nuclear eulogy to the Guardian faithful, RWE and E-on were about to announce they will not be seeking to build nuclear power stations in Britain. The economics do not stack up. France’s nuclear industry is propped up by the state (and the fact that EDF make most of their profits from the UK).

Investors are telling the industry that they won’t go within a million miles of new nuclear. Spiralling costs, as much as public approbrium, have driven this retreat. In the USA, investment has ground to a halt, despite huge subsidies thrown at it by the Republicans. In Europe, policy shifts in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Spain and Italy are taking energy policy in a radically different direction.

Perhaps the kindest way of getting this across to UK Energy Ministers (or the whole Cabinet) would be for me to take them to the final Harry Potter film. As the adverts say,”It all Ends”; the nuclear industry is dead. Its just that everyone is afraid to break the news. Even in death, Voldemort has a powerful hold on our belief that, without him, the lights will go out. The truth is exactly the opposite.

Under the guise of being a spin-slayer, George paints a quite dishonest picture of what is happening in Germany. Germany’s future will not be rooted in brown coal, but in renewable energy. In recent years, Germany has become a net exporter of energy, buying in only when it allows them to step down conventional fossil fuel energy. While Britain farts around with marginalised renewable energy programmes, Germany has been delivering wholesale transformation. In half a decade they have installed 43GW of generating capacity from renewables. Over half of this is owned by households, communities and public authorities. Moreover,

  • current German power prices are lower than before the 2007 economic crisis (despite operating without 7GW of baseload nuclear power and having faced price increases in coal (30%), oil (50%) and european gas (25%) over the last 9 months)
  • 370,000 renewable energy jobs have been created
  • 80% of ‘feed-in-tariff’ costs return to energy consumers in lower energy prices (and have broken the power of big energy companies to be energy price setters) and
  • the country has moved towards (diminishing) transitional energy market
    subsidies rather than permanent hand outs.

So did the lights go out? Well, over the weekend of 21/22 May, this year, 75% of German nuclear capacity was off line. With only 4 out of 17 nuclear power stations (5 out of 18 GW) in operation there were fears of power blackouts. They never happened. Solar delivered >10 GW of power, at peak times. In addition, peak power prices only hit €70/kWh (similar to peak prices in France and lower than German peak prices in November and December last year). Life went on.

George Monbiot may have ended his eulogy with the line “Corporate power? No thanks” but that is exactly what new nuclear demands. The really radical aspect of what Germany has done is in the democratisation of the power sector. By giving renewable energy ‘priority access to the grid’, this has helped reduce peak prices by some 20-40%. This, of course, is where big energy makes its money… and it is the ‘nice little corporate earner’ that renewables are helping to bring to an end.

Meanwhile, back in Hogwarts, Voldemort’s followers are plotting a new round of hidden subsidies just to keep him alive. Ministers will dress this up as a floor price for carbon, or make nuclear eligible for feed-in-tariffs. They will ask the public to pay for nuclear’s clean up costs, in ways they would never dream of were it (say) BP. And if this isn’t enough, Ministers will find a way of shovelling EU-ETS receipts into the nuclear coffers.

As an MP, I knew the nuclear game was up when I encountered energy company executives arguing that Britain must not race into renewables because it would destroy the case for nuclear. In reality, it was always their own economics that would do so.

George’s side-swipe at Tom Burke prompts me to register my own, pre-emptive, self-denunciation. As a former government advisor on renewable energy I have a bias. But I think that former colleagues (of all parties) would exempt me from the charge of “colluding with governments”. The stark reality is that renewable energy technology costs are falling at the same rate that nuclear costs spiral. Many will hit grid-parity within the current decade. Nuclear will not do so within any forseable lifetime.

Only in Britain does the power of the past get to define the shape of the future. Only in Britain does failure get dressed up as the new success. George’s renaissance would see corporate dominions flourish, but at massive public cost and precious little security. Time to move on, George. The Order of the Phoenix is still open to recruits.

Alan Simpson

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