On BBC Scotland’s evening news show “The Nine” last week, an energy consultant called Kathryn Porter told viewers that energy-rich Scotland would be in big trouble in terms of energy security without nuclear power.
It is necessary, she said, to provide a baseload supply when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
Porter appears to be the sole employee of a company called “Watt Logic”. What her credentials are for providing analysis to viewers of BBC Scotland or why she was booked, I don’t know, but it was clear that the presenters of the show didn’t have enough understanding of this admittedly complex subject to question what she was saying.
On her website, Porter references the American Experiment – a right-wing tank, linked to the Koch Brothers State Policy Network. She also makes various claims about renewable energy being “costly” – when it is far cheaper than nuclear. She refers to the market framework for renewables as a subsidy which it is not. Below is an alternative view.
Does Scotland need a nuclear-power baseload?
No. That is an old-fashioned way of thinking about it. A system that is based on renewable power needs a flexible top-up not a baseload. You want to be able to call on other sources when demand is higher than supply. The trouble with nuclear power as a baseload source is that it absorbs capacity and investment that would be better spent on renewables.
Unlike renewables, the cost of nuclear power is rising. When completed, Hinkley Point C will be one of the most expensive power stations in the world. The fuel it generates will cost £90 per MWh, at least double that of renewables. It also leaves a legacy of toxic waste and it is energy intensive and time-consuming to build.
Is renewable power intermittent?
Not really. Out at sea and hundreds of feet up in the air, wind power is almost constant, even when it seems as if there is no wind on shore. Modern solar panels work reasonably well, even when it is overcast. Tidal power is developing fast as a source that is variable on a daily basis but predictable over the long term. All of these methods are much cheaper and easier to build, run and decommission than nuclear power.
What would be a good source of top-up power for a renewable-based system?
You might have seen in the news last week that SSE is investing in Coire Glas, which is Scotland’s largest new hydroelectric facility for 40 years. Pumped hydro is a very effective method of storing electricity. When renewable energy is abundant you push it uphill and when you need to top up the system you can release it. Norway uses a lot of pumped hydropower for example.
But Coire Glas can’t go ahead yet because the UK government hasn’t signed off on a market framework – let’s hope that will happen soon. Private sector businesses are tied by legal obligations that mean they can’t invest without being confident of a return. The UK government through its energy regulator Ofgem created a cap-and-floor mechanism to enable private firms to build energy interconnectors between the UK and other European countries – that has been a key route to securing supplies. That means the government will guarantee a basic price – and when the price goes above a certain figure, the extra money goes to the government.
That is the kind of framework that is needed to enable pumped hydro – but renewable providers in Scotland have been lobbying for this unsuccessfully for 15 years.
What about batteries?
Battery power is becoming an increasingly popular way to stabilise renewable-energy systems such as in Germany. Several battery plants are being built in the UK. Ideally, batteries would be used in conjunction with renewables – when demand is high or supply drops for some reason you draw on the batteries. But in the UK they are effectively in competition with renewables.
The UK’s national grid – this country is almost alone in Europe in having privatised this key infrastructure – has a certain amount of capacity in each area. When a battery plant is brought onstream it is regarded as having absorbed the capacity it can use at maximum output. In fact, if the grid could switch between them – wind power when it is very windy, and battery power when the wind drops – that would bring more benefit to the consumer.
But having them in competition creates two issues, one, the battery plant owner can fill up with electricity when it is cheap and then undercut the renewables to sell it back to the grid at peak times. And two, because the capacity is regarded as being used up, it means new renewable projects in Scotland are being told they can’t connect to the grid for ten or 15 years and it will cost them millions.
Another way to make a renewable-based system more resilient is to manage demand. At its simplest, you can send price signals to people to change their usage patterns by making electricity cheaper at night or at weekends. But with technological development in automation and AI, it will be possible to match demand and supply in more flexible and responsive ways.
Machine learning can help predict demand. It can aggregate consumers or businesses who choose to opt-in to reducing demand in exchange for bill credits and use that to manage down demand when required. These sorts of technological advances will of course require infrastructure investment, to create a smart grid.
Nuclear not needed
Contrary to what you might have heard Kathryn Porter claim on BBC Scotland news, nuclear power is an outdated technology. Scotland can build a strong, resilient energy supply based on renewable energy.
First published b y Jackie Kemp on her Substack blog A letter from Scotland with accompanying image by Rob Bruce
Featured image by Mike Boening via flickr CC-NC-ND-3.0