Will nuclear U-turn leave an energy gap?

Features editor

Germany’s announcement that it is to abandon nuclear power and pursue renewable technologies to meet its energy generating needs isn’t a surprise. The country has always had an ambivalent attitude towards nuclear, unlike the diehard atomic enthusiasts next door, and the strong representation of the Greens in the German parliament, along with the general shocked reaction to the Fukushima crisis, meant that a retreat on the return to nuclear policy was always likely.

The country will have a struggle on its hands to match the generating capacity of nuclear reactors with renewables. There is much speculation that it will return to coal in the short term, or will end up surreptitiously buying nuclear electricity from excess French capacity; the new reactors in Flamanville are coming along and there’s no sign of the Paris parliament backing off from its nuclear built policy.

In the UK, of course, the mantra remains ‘part of the mix.’ Talk to the nuclear industry, and they’ll tell you that it would be theoretically possible to generate most of the UK’s energy using renewables, but it wouldn’t be affordable; equally, it would be possible to switch almost entirely to nuclear, French-style, but that would be too expensive as well. The energy specialists at the Tyndall Centre point out that there wouldn’t be any need for new nuclear if much greater efforts were made to reduce consumption. But the accepted view is that there is no single ‘silver bullet’ method to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and bring down carbon emissions. If we’re going to reach the goal of effectively decarbonising electricity generation in the UK by 2050 (and it’s worth pointing out that this has as much to do with diminishing reserves of oil and gas as it does with limiting carbon emissions), then we need a combination of on- and off-shore wind; marine energy from wave and tides; some solar, possibly via a link-up to solar energy concentrating thermal installations in Southern Europe and North Africa; new nuclear power stations; and carbon capture and storage for the remaining fossil fuel generation. No less of a tall order than the one Germany is facing, to be honest, and equally dependent of development of currently-immature technology.

But it’s not necessarily a good thing to treat the UK as a single entity. I’ve spent the last two weeks in Scotland, a region which, like Germany, has forsworn the option of new nuclear and is putting its trust in renewables. And, in fact, I was in one of the regions which will have to contribute a large proportion of these renewables, the Hebrides.

It’s hard to see the logic of the arguments about intermittency of wind and waves when you’re on the Isle of Lewis, struggling to keep your eyes open against the wind and watching three-metre Atlantic rollers send spray flying into the air against the rocks. Indeed, the recent approval for a 40MW wave farm off the coast of the island, using seabed-fixed Oyster devices linked to onshore hydroelectric turbines, is said to have a higher capacity than the linked islands of Lewis and Harris will require; a link to the mainland grid is sorely needed. And looking at those choppy seas brings home one of the biggest problems of wave energy: getting the wave energy converters into position and maintaining them there.

Equally, approval for tidal turbines in the Kylerhea Narrows between the Isle of Skye and the mainland, where an eight-knot tide rips through twice a day, shows up some of the other problems of renewables. Wherever the tubines are located and however they are installed, they’ll have to avoid disturbing an otter haven on the Skye side, two scheduled ancient monuments on the mainland side, the little community-run ferry that potters backwards and forwards during the summer months, and the breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

The manifesto of the Scottish National Party promised that the country would be self-sufficient in renewable energy within nine years; it seems like a tall order. Chatting to people in the islands and elsewhere, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for renewables; in Skye and Lewis, people can’t understand why it’s taken so long for them to be taken seriously. But despite the abundance of resources — they’ve everything apart from sunshine for solar — the technology and infrastructure is a long way from maturity. If someone could somehow work out a way to generate electricity from midges, they’d have it made.

It goes without saying that engineers have to play a major role in whatever mix of technologies end up being deployed, whether it’s in developing the technologies (including energy storage, because despite the exuberant Hebridean weather, intermittency is an issue which needs to be tackled) or deploying and maintaining them. Looking at the figures, it’s difficult to see how Germany and Scotland can meet their needs without nuclear. But if they do, they’re going to make a lot of commentators — including, I have to admit, me — look very foolish.