Friday, 16 March 2012

Renewables and Nuclear: Different Signals from Germany and Britain

On 11 March, one year on from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, Germany has reaffirmed its decision to abandon nuclear power.  The Germans shut down their eight oldest reactors shortly after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and reactor core breach, and pledged to shut the remaining reactors by 2022.

In the short term, this has meant an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power stations in Germany and neighboring countries.  Over the longer term, however, Germany's leaders want to replace the country's nuclear output with renewables.  Critics doubt the nation's electric grid can transport power from new renewable energy generators to power-hungry factories hundreds of miles away, but the initiative has the support of 76% of the public and Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to redouble her government's efforts.

The very next day, the Guardian newspaper reported that the British government wants to reduce the relative priority given to renewables over nuclear.  The Guardian reports that the UK has proposed to the European commission that explicit renewable energy targets for 2030 be dropped in favour of targets for "low carbon power".  This label would allow countries to choose whether they wish to reach climate change - related power targets with renewables, nuclear power, carbon capture and storage or a combination of the three.  While this change doesn't necessarily mean the British government would back away from its support of renewables, it leaves the door open for such a move.  In fact, this policy pressure would not make sense otherwise.

Just the possibility could have a chilling effect on investment in renewables in the UK.  Most renewable energy technologies are characterised by high capital costs and low operational costs.  The cost of renewables-based electricity can be cost-competitive or even superior to f that from ossil fuels, but only when those up-front costs and long-term savings are averaged over many years.  Without certainty that government will maintain its support for years or decades, investors are less likely to provide the millions, or even billions of pounds required to bring renewables to market on a large scale.

Nuclear power generates significantly lower carbon emissions than fossil fuel fired power stations and - despite Fukushima - it is a proven technology with a global track record.  However, it is by no means certain that the government will be able to overcome long-term opposition to nuclear power and nuclear waste in time to ensure that nuclear can play a significant role in Britain's lower-carbon future.

It would be unfortunate if government policy shifts damaged commercial support for renewables without providing sufficiently for a viable alternative.