‘It’s solar and wind power - not nuclear - which make economic sense’
12:35 03 February 2016
It is 20 years since I moved into a shared house, the only English native in a community drawn from France, Spain, Italy and Germany. There were two things my German friend, Marco, could not fathom about Britain.
One – this may not surprise you – was our sense of humour. The other was that all our rubbish went in the same bin. And from there into landfill. He couldn’t understand the wastefulness.
We could take our bottles and jars across town to the bottle bank – if we could be bothered. But our paper, our cardboard, our plastics, our metal cans, our food waste all went in the same black bag.
At Marco’s home in Germany, all those things had separate colour-coded receptacles. Sorting and recycling were not matters of choice for the concerned few – they were legal requirements.
We’ve come a long way since without quite catching up. And we could learn from the Germans’ environmental good sense in other ways too.
Rainer Baake is the minister responsible for planning Germany’s future energy provision. The key things he is now working on are efficiency, storage of electricity and “digitising” the grid, along with other energy uses such as transport, building and “industrial heat”.
He isn’t obsessing, as Britain is, on nuclear power. He puts it in the same bracket as coal, oil and gas, belonging to the dirty, dangerous past.
“The question is not about technology any more. We have them,” he told an international renewable energy summit in Abu Dhabi.
“There are two clear winners, and they are wind and solar. We have learned how to produce electricity with wind and large-scale solar at the same cost level as new coal or gas generators. I am confident we can succeed and that we will have a superior energy system.
“It is not a question about costs, because these new technologies produce at the same costs as the last ones. And, I should point out, they are much cheaper than nuclear.”
That last point should resonate here in the same week that doubts and delays were raised – yet again – about financing of the proposed new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
When plans for Hinkley were announced in 2007, Vincent de Rivaz of EDF Energy promised: “EDF will turn on its first nuclear plant in Britain before Christmas 2017 because it will be the right time.” He added, warningly: “It is the moment of the power crunch. Without it the lights will go out.”
Six years later, after several false starts and collapsed deals, Mr De Rivaz said: “In 2023, this project will arrive exactly when the country will need it.”
Last October the switch-on date was revised to 2025 and a funding agreement promised “within weeks”. Last week it was postponed. Meanwhile the projected cost of the plant has risen steadily, from £10 billion in 2007 to £18bn – or £24.5bn if you believe the European Commission’s 2014 figures.
The government promised EDF a subsidy that would give them twice the current market price for every unit of power generated.
Not everyone believes that would be money well spent. And the doubters are not all green activists or Germans.
Legal & General, one of the top FTSE 100 companies, is among the biggest investors in British infrastructure. Its chief executive, Nigel Wilson, considers nuclear power a dead duck.
If Hinkley runs into the sand, the Japanese firm Hitachi admits its plans for a nuclear plant in Wales are likely to follow. Sizewell C would become unthinkable.
“These things are massively delayed because they shouldn’t happen in the first place,” Wilson told BBC Radio 5 Live. “The world’s moving towards clean, green and cheap energy. Solar and wind play a much, much more important role going forward. The cost of that’s coming down all the time.
“There’s a lot of research and development going on. We should be giving people tax credits for spending more money on research and development into sustainable energy.
“Hinkley’s the most expensive energy we can think of right across Europe. The nuclear decommissioning costs in Britain are £80bn. All we’re going to do [if we go on building nuclear power stations] is add more cost for future generations to pay.”
Those words of one of the City’s top economists would get an approving nod in Berlin.
Explaining his wind-and-sun agenda, minister Baake added: “We want this to be economically efficient – not just an ecological success story, also an economic success story. If it is not an economic success story, then nobody will follow us and we will lose support in Germany.”
The consensus is strong at present. Opinion polls say 87pc of Germans back solar power, 78pc support wind and just 8pc favour nuclear. My old mate Marco is in a healthy majority.
•The views above are those of Aidan Semmens. Read more from our columnists each day in the EDP