On the day it was announced that – at one end of the scale – solar photovoltaic panels are to sold from UK branches of the flat-pack furniture retailer IKEA, I heard a radio discussion on whether the nuclear power plant proposed for the Hinkley Point site in Somerset, south-west England, would, if eventually built, be the most expensive object on the planet. At an estimated £18 billion ($26 billion), or rather more including finance costs, Hinkley Point C is not quite in the same impulse buy category as a couple of PV panels might be.
There may not be a definitive answer to the most expensive object on the planet – some suggest that Hong Kong airport and the artificial island it is built upon may have cost a little more than the bill for a 3.2 GW nuclear plant at Hinkley Point. (Off the planet, the International Space Station is by far the most expensive item ever built, by the way).
But the capital and financing costs of the proposed nuclear plant are causing problems; the final investment decision has been postponed again, several times now, and construction may never go ahead. This despite the ambitions and involvement of three governments: France the UK and China, who’s China General Nuclear Power Corporation has pledged a third of the cost.
I’m taking two extremes to prove a point. But in the eight years since Hinkley Point C was first mooted, the UK and many other electricity systems have seen some major changes.
Along with steady or falling total electricity demand and prices, the inexorable growth of renewables – both large and small-scale – has caused the closure of many large coal-fired plants. From the smallest new micro-generators, such as rooftop PV modules, micro-CHP units and heat pumps; to larger CHP, biomass, energy-from-waste and wind power plants, power generation is changing.
Local power plants can deliver several benefits – operational flexibility, lower system losses and a measure of energy security among them. Those based on renewable fuels or with particularly high efficiencies also offer important carbon advantages. They are also rather easier to finance than a new wave of fossil-fuelled, or nuclear, power plants.