French energy giant EDF will today give the formal go-ahead for the Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset, writes Chris Goodall. But that’s no reason for the UK to sign up to a disastrous deal that will cost us over £1 billion per year for 35 years – money that should be used to support the green technologies of the future. The nuclear power station will proceed not because it is good for Britain or its electricity users but because the French state thinks that maintaining the capacity to export nuclear power stations is a paramount objective. By 2025 the UK will probably have at least 18GW (gigawatts) of offshore wind and perhaps 12GW of onshore wind. My guess is that we might see at least 25GW of solar power, and it could be much more if photovoltaic technologies continue to surprise us with rapid declines in price. (We already have about 12 GW, mostly added in the last two years). The scope for continued improvement in the cost and performance of solar is substantial. Total demand for electricity falls as low as 19 GW in summer compared to the 55 GW of renewables. So there will be many occasions when the UK has too much power and nuclear power will be unnecessary. On other occasions, such as still December evenings, demand will be 50 GW or so and solar and wind will be producing a fraction of the amount required. The 3 GW at Hinkley will be helpful but insufficient. The real opportunity is finding ways of storing large amounts of energy for months at a time. This is where the need is greatest, and the possible return most obvious. More precisely, what we require are technologies that take the increasing amounts of surplus power from sun or wind and turn this energy into storable fuels. In The Switch, a book just out from Profile Books, I explore the best ways of converting cheap electricity from renewables into natural gas and into liquid fuels similar to petrol or diesel so provide huge buffers of energy storage. This sounds like alchemy. It is not. Surplus electricity can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon dioxide and hydrogen can then be merged by microbes to make more complex molecules, such as methane. Methane is the main constituent of natural gas, so it can be simply stored in the existing gas network. Other microbes take carbon and hydrogen molecules and turn them into liquids that can be kept in the oil storage networks. A few percent of the £30bn+ subsidy for Hinkley devoted to conversion technologies that can take cheap renewable electricity and use it to store energy in gas or liquids could help build British companies that could expand around the world. The UK’s ability in applied biochemistry is acknowledged and the country could become the global research and manufacturing centre. We missed the early opportunity to develop a large onshore wind industry and gave the market to Denmark 20 years ago. Brexit threatens to have the same impact on offshore wind fabrication here. Greg Clark has the chance to support an even larger industry developing chemical transformation technologies for seasonal storage. Let’s not miss this opportunity.
Ecologist 28th July 2016 read more »