Powering the UK powerhouse

With the UK facing a future energy shortage and the Hinkley C decision delayed, Julian Francis looks at the alternatives for providing the UK with energy.

The UK has entered a new phase in its energy consumption, moving from a primary exporter to a primary importer of energy. Despite North Sea oil and gas output declining, the UK energy network mix until the end of the decade is still likely to be dominated by these two sources of energy. It is the combined move towards diversification of the energy network with a corresponding decarbonisation that has brought the issues of new generation to the top of the political agenda. 

The principal issue that needs to be addressed is securing major funding to enable the development of this new generation. The current liberalised market is unlikely to deliver the new electricity generating capacity and infrastructure that the UK urgently requires by the middle of the decade. Private companies are reluctant to make major investments in generation and transmission without greater certainty about the payback. And uncertainty about the planning regime is also deterring companies because of the possibility of costly delays.

It is for this reason that the current proposals for the building of Hinckley Point C have been dominating the thinking of government ministers. In January 2008, the UK government gave the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built. Hinkley Point C, in conjunction with Sizewell C, was expected to contribute 13% of UK electricity by the early 2020s. Combining private investment by EDF and, at the time, desirable Chinese investment in UK infrastructure, Hinckley appeared to be the answer to all the government’s prayers. With the fall of the Cameron government and the rise of Theresa May we have seen a further delay, perhaps a permanent one, to the project.  

So if Hinkley C were to be cancelled, what then? 

The UK is facing an unprecedented “energy gap” in a decade’s time, according to engineers, with demand for electricity likely to outstrip supply by more than 40%, which could lead to blackouts.

New policies to stop unabated coal-fired power generation by 2025, and the phasing out of ageing nuclear reactors without plans in place to build a new fleet of gas-fired electricity plants, will combine to create a supply crunch, according the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

There is still, therefore, widespread agreement that the UK needs nuclear - its low CO2 emissions in use and advantages for energy security against uncertainty over hydrocarbons are unarguable and the practicality of renewables for baseload power generation is questionable. 

Should the current Hinckley deal fail then the immediate future would see hopes shift to two other options. The first is another as-yet unproven design, Westinghouse’s AP1000, which is somewhat simpler in engineering terms than the EPR, and secondly the Hitachi ABWR which is still going through the Health and Safety Executive’s Generic Design Approval (GDA) process, although it does at least have a few units up and running in Japan (and built on schedule and budget).

The government could also opt for the British option and promote pressurised water reactors as a proven technology that could be implemented quickly. Pressurised water reactors are already being built in the UK. Rolls-Royce builds and maintains the reactors for the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines, and is currently developing a third-generation unit for use in the proposed replacement for the Vanguard-class Trident boats. 

This could be seen as a distinct advantage, because small PWRs are the basis for small modular reactor (SMR) technology, which is often stated as being a more practical option for the UK. SMRs can be built in factories, rather than needing specialised foundries (at least in theory: none are in production yet) and can be scaled up with multiple units forming the core of a large power station. The UK also has expertise in fabricating this type of structure, although not necessarily with techniques that are tried and tested in the nuclear sector - such techniques as near-net shape forging would have to be approved by regulators.

There are also other alternatives to nuclear that can and should be considered.

Improved energy efficiency must be considered alongside increased energy production. Figures show that electricity demand is already falling so much so that since Hinkley C was approved in 2010 UK demand has fallen by more than the plant will produce, about 25TWh a year or 7% of today’s demand. Due to repeated delays, Hinkley C is unlikely to produce electricity much before 2030, by which time six Hinkleys’ worth of electricity could have been cut from the national demand, according to a McKinsey report for the government.

Better access to the European energy grid could also be the answer although it will make the UK more depend on foreign producers. Another third of a Hinkley has been added to the UK grid since 2010 by new cables to other European countries, where electricity is currently cheaper. New interconnectors to Norway, Denmark and France could be laid by 2025, adding another two or three Hinkleys to the grid, according to a report for the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in February.

A further NIC report for the government found that four Hinkleys’ worth of electricity could be saved by 2030 by increasing the ability to store electricity, in large batteries for example, and making the grid smarter. This would also save bill payers £8bn a year.

Another option that that the government is looking at is the expansion of the UK gas fired power stations which offer a half way house between coal and nuclear. The process of generating electricity from gas is more efficient than other fossil fuels. This results in new gas-fired generation emitting around half the CO2 emissions when compared to the same amount of electricity generated from existing coal fired power stations. As gas power generation is a proven technology and already accounts for 30% of the UK energy mix, it is clear why ministers would look to it as an option to be considered. 

Finally, let’s turn our attention to ‘tidal lagoons’. The £1bn project, awaiting ministerial approval, is to build a walled lagoon in Swansea Bay that would generate (through largely British-built turbines) electricity on the ebb and flood of every tide, 14 hours a day for a project lifetime of 120 years. It does have some downsides however as it could only be brought into operation within five years with subsidy levels comparable to offshore wind or new nuclear generation. It will also radically alter the local environment for sea life and wading birds and this could lead to significant opposition from environmentalists. The cost is likely to drop for future lagoon projects and once established not only will tidal power help meet UK energy needs but as a new British technology it could also generate income for UK PLC.

All of this demonstrates that there are alternatives to the current Hinckley deal but ministers cannot let this blind them to the fact that a decision on the future of the UK energy network needs to be made now. To ensure that the UK continues to have sufficient energy supply to meet our economic and social needs, the government must make a decision in the autumn.   

Julian Francis is director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.


I am not sure that "early decisions" on most of the matters you set out are feasible or even necessary. Perhaps a more realistic ask is for the government to actually reduce the number of "revisions" it has been making to existing policies. So that would mean announcing the next CfD round asap and meeting its promises to remove regulatory hurdles for storage. As for gas that unlike storage and onshore renewables can apply for a long term capacity contract so the government doesn't need to do anything. Finally the government we have got is the government that the majority voted for in 330 constituencies. So the current mess is as predictable as a Laurel and Hardy farce as are the claims that someone else is a) responsible for this mess and b) that someone else should also fix the problem. The real answer is that we all have a part to play and we should be clear about what are personal responsibilities are and then work on them.
I don't want to appear curmudgeonly, but does no one sub your copy before you publish it? You have misspelt Hinkley C many times in this article. It just undermines the authority of the author.
Another option is to construct a new fleet of proven advanced gas cooled reactors. They're a well proven technology in the UK, their limitations are well understood: with developments in modern materials, controls and construction a revised version could surely be delivered quickly and constructed without significant delay.
Another option is to construct a new fleet of proven advanced gas cooled reactors. They're a well proven technology in the UK, their limitations are well understood: with developments in modern materials, controls and construction a revised version could surely be delivered quickly and constructed without significant delay.