A solution to the power struggle

UAE 5,600 MW energy park - equivalent to Scotland's peak load

The United Arab Emirates and Scotland have much in common. Both are small nations whose economies have been geared to the production and export of oil and both are rich in future renewable energy potential. The empty deserts of the Emirates have the capacity to produce vast quantities of clean solar energy, while the coastal waters of Scotland could generate copious wind, wave and tidal energy. However, while the Emirates have just awarded a contract for four nuclear power plants, in Scotland we are in the process of winding down our nuclear capacity.

Modern nuclear plants are compact machines with a design life of 60 years and provide continuous output of firm base-load power. The Emirates have therefore chosen a prudent policy which will guarantee a supply of clean energy into the far future. This is not to argue against the development of renewable energy. Too often a false choice of either nuclear or renewables is offered. In reality the key issue is to deploy an optimum mix of technologies to minimise cost and environmental impact while displacing carbon from energy production. In choosing this mix we should recognise that since the industrial revolution energy density has increased while carbon intensity has decreased at each transition from wood to coal, oil, gas and nuclear. These long-term transitions were not the result of bureaucratic targets, but technical innovations which greatly improved energy utility.

Having an apparently unlimited resource of wind, wave and tidal energy does not mean that it can be easily exploited, or that energy can be produced when it is needed. Due to their diffuse and intermittent nature, renewables require extremely large-scale collection and transmission systems along with guaranteed back-up. For comparison, the equivalent of the entire onshore wind resource of Scotland could be delivered with two new base-load nuclear plants on existing grid connected sites at Hunterston and Torness. Indeed, if the electrification of transport becomes a reality in the decades ahead, there will be an even stronger case for the growth of base-load power for overnight vehicle charging.

It is often stated that Scotland’s renewable energy potential is an opportunity on the scale of North Sea oil. Certainly similar levels of capital expenditure will be required for renewables as was sunk into oil in the past. However, oil made money whereas renewables need money to make them viable. While some will argue otherwise, it is clear that nuclear is a cost effective way to generate copious, reliable electrical energy while displacing carbon from energy production. Investment in renewable energy research is required to reduce costs, but decisions on the future of aging coal and nuclear plants need to be made soon. Proven nuclear technology can allow emerging renewable technologies to be developed and provide the base-load power to optimise their appropriate use.

Perhaps the most contentious issue with nuclear energy is spent fuel (wrongly classified as waste) which has significant quantities of untapped energy. Modern reactors will add little to existing stockpiles, much of which is a legacy from the cold war. In addition, the fleet of generation III reactors which are now being deployed are a stepping stone to generation IV reactors which are vastly more efficient and will consume this spent fuel to generate yet more clean energy. Nuclear energy is often claimed to be yesterday’s technology. In fact, it is one of the key energy technologies of tomorrow, with future plants delivering base-load electricity, process heat and hydrogen for green industries. We have only scratched the surface of what is possible with nuclear power to help deliver a truly sustainable supply of clean energy.

If we choose an energy policy which promises an appealing vision of a greener Scotland powered primarily by renewables, but ultimately delivers expensive energy for consumers, industry or export, Scotland will be at a significant competitive disadvantage. If we accept, as many other nations have, that nuclear can be a cost effective way to generate clean base-load electrical energy then we can have a balanced energy policy which supports the long-term development of renewables while ensuring and growing future energy supply.

Our present policy is betting on renewables at any cost, economic or environmental, simply to eradicate nuclear energy from Scotland. We need to widen the debate on our energy future.

First published at The Herald 23 February 2010