Britain could save £1bn a year by pursuing cheaper alternatives to the proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power station, according to a report that says the Franco-Chinese project is not essential to keeping Britain’s lights on.
As few as four big offshore wind farms could provide as much electricity as the 3.2 gigawatts expected from Hinkley, with additional gas-fired power and interconnectors with other countries also helping to fill the gap if the Somerset plant is scrapped.
The findings from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit follows the decision by Theresa May, prime minister, to put Hinkley on hold pending a review, with a decision expected next month. Critics say that the £18bn project is too expensive and risky.
Richard Black, director of the ECIU, said the think-tank set out to determine whether it was possible for the UK to maintain adequate electricity supplies without Hinkley while keeping carbon emissions and energy bills in check.
“Our conclusion is that [Hinkley is] not essential; using tried and tested technologies, with nothing unproven or futuristic, Britain can meet all its targets and do so at lower cost,” he said. “If Mrs May decides to go ahead with Hinkley, all well and good — if she decides not to, or if the project stumbles at a later stage, we have alternatives.”
The report said that replacing Hinkley with more offshore wind power could shave £10-£20 per year off the average household energy bill, while greater use of gas-fired power to meet peak-time demand would save £16bn in infrastructure costs.
A combination of these alternatives, together with more cross-border interconnectors and measures to reduce electricity demand, would produce an annual saving to the UK economy of £1bn compared with the cost if Hinkley goes ahead, the report said.
The claims were seized on by critics of Hinkley, such as Paul Massara, chief executive of North Star Solar, a renewable power company, who said that it would be “madness” to proceed when there were cheaper, more flexible alternatives.
EDF, the French state-controlled company planning to build Hinkley with Chinese financial backing, said that the scenarios set out by the ECIU were “not credible” and highlighted the greater reliability of nuclear power compared with wind and solar.
“[Hinkley’s] cost is competitive with other large-scale low carbon technologies. It will generate electricity steadily even on foggy and still winter days across northern Europe.”
EDF will receive £92.50 for each megawatt hour of electricity — double the current wholesale price — for 35 years if the plant is approved. Advocates say that the high price was needed to incentivise EDF to invest in a project expected to meet about 7 per cent of UK electricity demand.
Responding to the ECIU report, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, said that the UK needed “a diverse and reliable mix of energy sources including nuclear, renewable energy and gas”. The government was “considering all component parts of the Hinkley project and will make its decision in early autumn”, it added.
Peter Haslam, head of policy at the Nuclear Industry Association, an industry group, said that nuclear power had a crucial role in replacing the 65 per cent of UK electricity generation capacity expected to have disappeared between 2010 and 2030 as coal-fired power is phased out and old nuclear reactors are decommissioned.
He said: “The debate shouldn’t be about nuclear versus other technologies, but how the UK can replace its ageing infrastructure with low carbon and reliable power.”
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