Monday, 27 February 2012

Dependent on nuclear?

Plaid Cymru’s leadership contest has exposed once again the difficulties the party faces over the question of nuclear energy, a subject on which I’ve often commented on this blog.  Syniadau has posted a  number of times on the issue in recent weeks, concentrating on the divergence between the views of the party as decided by the membership, and those of the current, and one potential future, leader on the other.
The debate which follows is often confused because there are two separate issues involved.  The first is the question of whether or not nuclear power is the right way to go; the second is about the problems of a party leader / potential leader unable to accept the party’s views on the issue; and they are two very different issues.  I’m sticking to the former of those today.
What is clear is that Wales has no direct need of nuclear energy.  We can produce all the electricity we need – and more – from entirely renewable sources.  It’s not just me saying that; the One Wales Government produced an excellent strategy confirming that, and all of Labour’s and Plaid’s AMs signed up to that.   And, as far as I’m aware, it isn’t really in dispute.
What we can’t do, though, (and this is likely to be true of any small country) is to produce all that electricity at the time that we need it.  Producing the total number of Mwh over a year as a whole is not the same as producing all the Mw we need at any given time.
Some have used that fact in an attempt to argue that we cannot therefore depend solely on renewables, and also need either nuclear energy or fossil-fuel energy as a backup.  However, that isn’t the only answer.  The alternative solution is that a renewables-based country like Wales needs to be able to export surpluses at some times and import at other times to replace the deficit (and that is the proposal put forward by Leanne Wood in her paper on energy).
The problem, for a country which wishes to be entirely renewables-based, is in controlling what the source of that imported electricity is.  I’m convinced that, by linking grids together across Europe and using a variety of renewable sources rather than wind alone, Europe can free itself of any need for conventional / nuclear power stations over a period if it plans so to do.  In that context, inputting into the grid at least as much electricity as we withdraw means that Wales could legitimately claim to be entirely renewables-based, the position which our Government has said it wants to be in.
There is a complication though.  What happens if one or more countries in Europe decide that they will continue with a conventional/ nuclear programme?  This is the argument that some have used about the German decision to move away from nuclear power – since their grid is linked to that of France, and since France has decided to continue with its nuclear programme, isn’t Germany effectively still depending on nuclear power, but on outsourcing its production to France? 
By the same token, if England decides on a new nuclear programme, even if no stations are built in Wales, can we claim that we are not dependent on that nuclear energy?  I think that we can.  What we would be dependent on is electricity from somewhere else; how that electricity is produced is beyond our control.  We might be using nuclear-produced electricity (we can’t easily pick and choose which bits of electricity we’re using), but it is the existence of that electricity on which we would be dependent, not on how it’s produced.
This is more than mere semantics.  England, like Wales, could (if it wishes) choose an entirely renewables-based future.  As long as that is true, and as long as Wales produces at least as much electricity in a year as we consume, I don’t believe that the decisions of another country as to how they produce their electricity can legitimately be said to undermine our claim of renewable self-sufficiency.
What would undermine that claim would be permitting, let alone welcoming, the construction of further nuclear or other non-renewable plant in Wales.

9 comments:

stuart said...

It's the exact same principle as a bank. The money that my employer puts into my account is not the exact same money that is taken out.

Even if it weren't all electronic it would be virtually impossible to guarantee the money I withdraw on the way to the pub wasn't the ill gotten gains of a cowboy builder.

The only drawback to producing as much as we consume is the differing price of tariffs at different times of the day.

If we are exporting the same amount at night as we import during the day then we will be losing out. As storage technology becomes cheaper and more efficient this wont be such an issue.

Draig said...

This is certainly one solution, but what strikes me is that it is a solution that is based around the concept of large-scale grids. But about Micro-grids?

The obsession with targets probably means that our available small-scale resource is also significantly under-estimated. Small scale hydro-power is a good example of this, where thresholds for assessment of viability are usually high (>25 Kw) compared to the nature of the small-scale resource available across Wales.

And what about figures for smaller scale tidal generation or even solar?

The other point relates to how realistic we intend to be about transitioning to renewable generation. It's not going to happen tomorrow and we need "bridging" fuel sources to see us through the difficult transition.

In Wales, the better option to Nuclear would probably be gas. Although we now import LNG we have our own coal seam gas resource. In a Welsh context this resource is very significant, and can probably measures in decades. It could free us from import dependency.

It does not have to be developed on a large scale, which is what is likely to happen under the current, privatised arrangement, but in many areas could play a role as a feedstock for reliable baseload generation when the wind stops, as it were.

John Dixon said...

Draig,

Micro-grids have their advantages, and there is a lot to be said for more local generation. However, to keep the lights on, there has to be the capacity within each micro-grid to be able to produce enough electricity at all times to cope with peak demand, regardless of the weather or state of the tides; otherwise, you're still dependent on power supplied through the grid. I'm not convinced that an entirely renewables-based electricity supply lends itself terribly well to that, although I'd like to be persuaded.

Boncath said...

John

Its all an illusion

We do not have any control at all at the present time over our energy supplies nor much else for that matter.

It was not lost on those currently who are looking to the west ie Wales to solve the water shortage in the South east of England and the Midlands by way of a wait for it a National water grid

green investment said...

As a former aid worker, I find the idea of micro-grids absolutely fascinating. Another thing that in my opinion frequently gets overlooked is the concept of Smart Grid. It is still in its early stages, but advances in "smart" technology in the power sector could really end up revolutionizing the industry. In theory, it really allows both utilities and individual consumers to make maximum use of the electricity produced. For example, with smart technology, utilities can charge more during peak hours and less during off-peak hours. They will also be able to balance their load factors better.

From a consumers perspective, it will really enable them to understand and quantify their electricity use. Right now, people have no way to correlate between their use of electricity and the bill they get each month. However, with smart meters installed, suddenly people are much more likely to see the link between their use of electricity and their bill. Once you do that, the incentive totally changes! Suddenly, people become much more keen to keep their bill down and to make the necessary behavioral adjustments necessary to do this.

Anonymous said...

Is this really the debate? Most Plaid people that back Wylfa B do so because of the jobs, not because of nuclear being good. There has to be an alternative way of creating jobs on the island, but it would have to be tangible.

John Dixon said...

Anon,

"Most Plaid people that back Wylfa B do so because of the jobs, not because of nuclear being good."

You're probably right, but supporting hugely expensive developments which they know to be the wrong thing in terms of energy policy just for the sake of jobs is not what I would call providing political leadership.

"There has to be an alternative way of creating jobs on the island"

And there are alternatives, of course.

You mean there's more??? said...

We also need to factor in the cost per skilled job.

How much would a skilled job at Wylfa requie from the taxpayer and how many jobs would be created from expenditure in smaller localised renewable projects.

Boncath said...

John
Did you miss the recent announcement of a 500mw connection between England and France using the Channel Tunnel as the carrier route.