Lib Dem Voice have put a poll asking Lib Dems to vote on Huhne’s new nuclear stance. The party’s official line is that new nuclear power is not necessary to combat climate change, and is a danger in itself. Since starting work in the energy industry, I’ve realised that’s almost certainly daft. However, a lot of older activists are passionately opposed to nuclear power, and Huhne’s sop to them has been to say that new nuclear plants can be built – but that the state won’t subsidise them.

This is a good policy, although Huhne’s been lambasted from the right for it. We’re shutting down a lot of old plant – both nuclear and fossil fuelled – over the next ten years, and we have an energy deficit coming up. DECC’s Pathways document, released at the same time as Huhne’s Energy Statement, attempts to map out our options to overcome this, while ensuring that we reach our 2020 carbon reduction targets.

Politics: the Right on Energy

The right tends to love nuclear as a solution to carbon targets and the power gap – read the rantings of Roger Helmer MEP for a surprising instance of a Conservative praising the French way of doing things. The reasons given are typically economic – they believe nuclear is cheaper than any of the alternatives. The problem is that this nonsense – as I discuss on the Embrace blog. The cost of installing new nuclear capacity is above onshore wind, and comparable to offshore once the financing costs for nuclear are factored in. It’s therefore not clear that nuclear is cheaper – especially as the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.

Sorry, let me say that again: the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.

That’s quite a subsidy you’ve got going on there. I’m fairly sure the taxpayer wouldn’t have to pay the costs for a wind turbine falling over.

On that subject, the right loath wind turbines in particular, largely because they’re a totemic symbol of the green movement intruding on their rural idylls where they’ve been consuming resources happily for decades without reality intruding at all. Nuclear allows them to shove all that dirty ‘production’ somewhere out of site, so they can continue pretending that an economy based on ever-expanding consumption has no impact on the world. James Delingpole in particular has a weird pathological obsession with them, viewing them as some sort of Martian intruder into the Arcadian landscapes of his youth. In the north, we’ve been digging up our landscapes for centuries to power our industry. To me, views like Delingpole’s are several centuries out of date.

Mechanics of Energy

If we’re looking for the most economic solution to cross the power gap and reach our emissions targets, you can’t just say ‘Wind Turbines!’ or ‘Nukes!’. This is because powering the UK is an incredibly complicated business presided over by the unsung heroes of our day-to-day life, the National Grid. They have to deal with daily fluctuations in power demand of between 20-25GW (to put that in perspective, the biggest generator in the UK, Sizewell B, produces about 1.2GW). To do this, they need two broad types of power stations: baseload plants and ‘peaker’ plants. The baseload supply the electricity that’s constantly demanded – around 40GW. The ‘peaker’ plants supply electricity to meet peak demand – around 20-25GW, as mentioned. Different types of plant are easier to ramp up and down than others – for example, gas can be switched on and off very fast, while it’s unsurprisingly difficult to tone down a nuclear reactor. The French model Roger Helmer advocates uses 80% nuclear, requiring some of their nuclear plants to run in ‘load-following’ mode, which is difficult and expensive to achieve. They have to do this because putting too much power into the grid at once would produce an effect analogous to a power surge in your house, except across the entire country. It has to be carefully balanced – which is why I said National Grid really were unsung heroes.

Even with load-following nuclear plant, the French regularly dump a lot of their excess electricity onto international markets to avoid overloading the grid – there’s a 1.2GW pipe under the Channel they use to give us electricity. They can do this because they’re heavily interconnected with their neighbours, reducing the risk of overload. We’re not. No-one serious is taking Roger Helmers’ position.

Wind turbines are good for peak power – their seasonal & daily output broadly follows demand trends, with a significant amount of variability. However, because they’re variable, they’re less good at satisfying peak demand. Typically they’re balanced with fast reserve plant, like gas.

You should be able to see the outline of a future energy mix from the above, and this is what I suspect Huhne’s policy is aiming at. Nuclear will receive a subsidy in the form of a carbon tax that will make all low carbon sources of electricity competitive. It will receive the mammoth public liability subsidy that no-one likes to talk about. It probably won’t get an additional subsidy along the lines of renewable energy. If it’s economic after all this, it will be built – but those building it will probably be required to set up a special bond for decommissioning, to pay the eventual clear-up costs. Something similar is required of mining projects, and constitutes a good model for dealing with economically useful but environmentally damaging projects.

How then should I vote?

Go for the top option on the poll – nuclear has enough subsidy to be built with the carbon tax and liabilities factored in. Reserve the right to change your mind if a privately-funded decommissioning bond isn’t required. In that event, a massive expansion of renewables is the most cost-effective option.

Isn’t telling people how to vote on a poll illiberal?

Yes. But so are blackouts. They constrain your ability to choose to have the lights on.