My ears perked up in eager anticipation when Keir Starmer, in his address to Labour’s Conference, started talking about setting up a state-backed renewable energy development company. But I sighed with despair when it became clearer that this would be an investment conduit for what would be failing, black hole-type, nuclear projects.
The current energy crisis reveals how UK Government misled people over renewables support during the debate over Scotttish independence in 2014.
During the Scottish independence debate in 2014 the impression was given by the UK Government that support for renewables under the renewables obligation would all but disappear, but the current debate in the energy crisis suggests that this was total nonsense.
Recent days have seen Government ministers blaming opposition parties for the failure to deploy nuclear power in the UK. But the problem is not politicians, not the Conservatives, Labour or anyone else; it is the extreme difficulty of delivering nuclear power itself. Financially, it is a basket case, and any other technology with similar problems simply wouldn’t get past the lobbyists’ meetings with politicians.
According to the latest issue of Energy Trends, UK natural gas exports to the European continent hit a new height in the second quarter of 2022. A quantity equivalent to nearly 10 per cent of UK natural gas consumption (80 TWh) was exported to the continent. This is in the context of a massive buy-up by European storage facilities to prepare for winter consumption.
The extent of this trade highlights the fact that even if much larger quantities of natural gas is sucked from the North Sea or through fracking on land, it will make no discernable difference to the price British consumers have to pay for natural gas. More gas drilling just means that more product is available to sell to the highest bidder around the world. And the price of the highest bid will be determined today by the price of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) on the world market.
Danny Kruger, who is quoted as organising a lobby against ‘windfall profits’ by renewable generators is implicitly admitting that renewables are a lot cheaper than gas.
The current practice whereby renewable energy schemes on old-style contracts earn excess profits from gas-led high electricity prices is to be reformed by the Government according to the Sunday Telegraph. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has announced that wind and solar farms will be offered secure fixed terms contracts to reduce excess profits currently being earned by them. This has been suggested by us earlier (see this post). But this still leaves nuclear power stations earning massive excess profits. Nuclear power plant in the UK are owned by EDF.
by Jerome Guillet (republished from his blog post, See full post for all the charts here)
The war in Ukraine is undoubtedly causing an energy crisis. It will have a potentially severe impact on the heating sector (muted for now as we are in the warm season) and an has an immediate one on industry (via price increases for gas and talk of curtailment), but it is actually not the main driver of what’s happening in the electricity sector in Europe. All the criticism one can hear about Germany’s decision to close down its nuclear plants misses the fact that gas supply is not the problem for the power sector: the real problem is French nuclear, which allows high gas prices to cause power price increases across the board
If you look at Germany’s power production (here, presented as a percentage of total electricity production), you see that the share of gas (around 15%) and coal (around 28%) have barely budged between 2021 and 2022, while nuclear was cut in half (from 11% to 6%), and the difference was taken by increasing renewables penetration. In other words, the gas price increases should have caused power price increases only at peak times, and not across the board.
And yet prices for electricity have gone up massively and for much longer periods than one would expect from a mere disruption to gas availability.
The absolute levels reached for power prices are definitely linked to the much higher gas prices (a normal consequence of power prices being linked to the marginal cost producer, which is usually gas), but the breadth of the increase has other causes.
Indeed, looking around Europe, one can see that the price disruption is not uniform, and not what one could expect…
Spain has relatively low prices. Some of that is linked to the price caps put in place, but it’s an isolated market that relies significantly on gas prices and is heavily exposed to international LNG prices given its strong regasification capabilities – so one could argue that this is what the consequences of higher gas prices should look like, overall, in a ‘normal’ market (after discounting for the price cap effect, which does not modify the underlying spot price).
Conversely, France now consistently has the highest power prices in Europe, despite in principle having the least fossil-fuel dependent generation fleet. That comes from no longer having enough generation capacity available………. even in the middle of a summer week-end (this Sunday 24 July at 1am), when demand is supposed to be near its lowest, and should be fully covered by ultra-cheap baseload such a nuclear, prices remain incredibly high in France, and “pollute” nearby areas, as France needs to import power even at that point in time – and throughout the day….
In fact, France’s nuclear fleet, with a theoretical total capacity of 63 GW, has not been cranking out more than 25 GW in recent times. Summer is a traditionally lower demand period in France, so a lot of maintenance is done at that time, and you would not expect the full capacity to be available, but you’d definitely expect enough to deal with domestic demand and some exports – but no, even at the time of peak prices in the middle of last week, production was still constrained………
Some specific, temporary, factors have played a role (like restrictions on water use during the recent heat wave), but overall, the French nuclear capacity is increasingly constrained and unable to provide for French demand. As a result, France is becoming an importer of power – a lot of the time, and increasingly, on a net basis (after years of being the largest exporter in Europe), pulling in supply from neighboring countries that used to rely on French surpluses and increasing the tensions there at a time when these countries are themselves under specific stress due to the higher gas prices:
As noted, summer is the traditional maintenance period for EDF, but 12 reactors (out of 58) are currently offline due to corrosion issues, and it’s not clear when these will be sorted out, as some seem to be structural are may require complex re-design (I expect discuss this in a separate post soon). The result is a material decline in overall generation, amplifying a trend that started a few years ago, with production set to reach about only half of the nuclear fleet’s theoretical maximum production capacity (63 GW at 100% capacity would generate 550 TWh in a year; the highest ever in practice was 450 TWh in 2005, a capacity factor of 82%)……..
That’s close to 100 TWh per year missing from the market, equivalent to the sum of what Germany produces from its nuclear and gas-fired power plants!
Thus the high prices in France, needed to draw power from markets that would otherwise not naturally export in such volumes (indeed, they would usually import cheap French nuclear power), and see their own market balance strained. France having become a net importer, with the highest price most of the time, shows conclusively that it is the lack of generation capacity in France that drive higher power prices in all neighboring countries.
The question then becomes: is this a temporary situation, or something more permanent?
Some of the answer is linked to the resolution of the corrosion issues in some of the French plants. That may end up becoming a political decision, to let these plants start production again, even if the issue is not fully solved, by accepting a higher level of risk on these plants, in order to bring back some much needed generation capacity and reduce the pressure on power prices.
But even if this problem is solved, or pushed under the carpet, and this leads to a reprieve on short term power prices, the long term issues of having an increasing old nuclear fleet are getting worse each year. With an average age now above 35 years, French nuclear plants are becoming increasingly costly to operate.
That means potentially increasing outages as production-stopping incidents increase (although it should be noted that ironically, the corrosion issues have affected the youngest plants) and generally lower fleet availability as large scale maintenance needs to be performed, such as the grand carénage heavy maintenance/upgrade required to extend the operating life of each plant.
And the problem is that nothing is getting built to replace these plants. The next generation EPRs were supposed to take over, but the first one in Flamanville is now over 10 years late (without a firm date yet to be put in service, and a quadrupling at least of its construction costs), and its cousins in Finland, the UK and China have all suffered from serious problems and delays, meaning that the large scale construction of new plants (even assuming that all technical problems with the early EPRs get sorted out) has also been correspondingly delayed, with an accompanying loss of skills as people have left the industry, and high uncertainty as to future costs.
Renewables have not been built on as large scale as would have been possible in France, given the argument (reasonable, for a long time) that France already had cheap and decarbonated power generation. New projects continue to be plagued by local hostility – which has become, if anything, stronger than before even as renewables projects became more competitive. Some new solar and onshore wind capacity continues to get built each year, despite the hostility, but nowhere near the volumes that would be needed. Tenders for offshore wind, in particular for floating capacity, are being programmed, but the volumes are nowhere near sufficient to replace a meaningful part of the nuclear capacity, and timing is still highly uncertain – the first generation of offshore wind projects, tendered in 2011 and 2012, are only being built now, with 10 years of delays due to legal action by opponents. Rules have been streamlined, but the new processes are still untested.
So we could be facing a period of 10-20 years when France becomes structurally unable to produce its own electricity in full, and has to rely on imports from neighboring countries, reversing the pattern of the past 30 years and straining the whole European power markets.
The recent decision by the French government to nationalise EDF is an implicit acknowledgment that this is becoming an existential crisis for the company and the country. The war in Ukraine is masking to some extent how deep the problem is (by hiding it behind an equally intense, but likely less long, crisis), but this is likely to become a core part of Macron’s to-do list throughout his second 5-year term, and it will definitely trigger an ugly debate in France, given how unprepared the political class is for this energy transition.
And given how large the hole caused by France’s vanishing nuclear fleet is, all of Europe will be drawn into that crisis.
NOTE: we have been unable to reproduce several graphs and charts that are included in Jerome Guillet’s full blog post. So, to see these please go directly to his website here
Latest Research – Baseload generators such as Sizewell C nuclear power plants are not needed in an all-renewable future and their use would simply increase costs.
Claverton Energy Group email release
Sizewell C is much more expensive and slower to build than proven and reliable alternative low carbon solutions say elite Energy Think Tank
NOTE: this is a partial republished version of the full report complete with figures and other data available at the Claverton Group website available here
Latest Research – Baseload generators such as nuclear power plants are not needed in an all-renewable future and their use will almost certainly increase overall costs to consumers says elite Claverton Energy Group of experts.
The Gas industry is boosting its efforts to promote hydrogen heating at homes, and in doing so is likely to derail efforts to ban fossil fuel heating in new buildings by 2025. That is because a key demand of gas lobbyists is to insist that ‘hydrogen ready boilers’ be allowed to continue to be installed from 2025.
The Government’s much heralded ‘boiler upgrade scheme’ to boost installations of heat pumps is resulting in a disappointing uptake of the grants being offered. So far the daily rate of grant applications is a little less than half what could be expected if the Government’s annual uptake of approaching 30,000 heat pump installations was going to be achieved.
EDF have implicitly admitted that the construction of Hinkley C may take at least 11 years to finish signalling cost overruns of 70 per cent or more.
Bloomberg reports that EDF is requesting the Government that EDF be given another 15 months to complete the plant and be fully generating beyond 2029. Under the terms of EDF’s contract with the UK Government if Hinkley C fails to generate power by 2029 it will start losing the amount of subsidy it can claim. Adding 15 months to this as requested (under a ‘force majeure’ clause) will take us into 2030.
Hinkley C construction was begun seriously in early 2019, meaning a total construction period of over 11 years. The plant was supposed to be operating by the end of 2025 according the EDF’ earlier plans. Using the rule of thumb that construction cost is directly proportional to the length of construction time this would imply a 70% cost overrun. That could mean a cost rise, in today’s prices from around the original £20 bn to £34 billion. However, one should in no way assume this will be all the time that is needed. Things may well get worse.
The amount that EDF will get paid for power generated from Hinkley C is pegged at £92.50 per MWh in 2012 prices or around £110 per MWh in today’s prices. Under the agreed contract the premium price, which is payable for 35 years, can start no later than the beginning of 2029.
This also means that it will have to be the French Government who picks up the costs of the costs overruns, especially since EDF is soon to be fully taken into French state ownership. But France will have its revenge yet when, under the financing deal being discussed, it will be the British energy consumers and state who will pay for the cost overruns from the planned Sizewell C power plant. Delays with building Hinkley C will have a knock-on effect on Sizewell C since there will not be enough relevant workers (or supply chains!) to build two projects at once. This is likely to mean that Sizewell C is unlikely to be completed until after 2040.
EDF bases its force majeure claims, according to Bloomberg, on supply chain difficulties resulting from Covid and the war in Ukraine. Cynics may say that every nuclear construction is just once big force majeure waiting to happen. Who is surprised by this turn of events? Not me, that’s for sure!
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Little in energy terms exercises the political right quite so much as demands for the abolition of the green levies. But this demand, would, if taken literally, put the British Government in court, both domestically and internationally. It is likely to lose if this happened.
OFGEM has backed the idea of giving all or most renewable energy projects so-called contracts for difference (CfDs) as the simplest means of cutting consumers bills. They are right of course, and I supported this idea recently in a blog post entitled ‘How electricity consumer bills could be slashed by reforming the way renewable energy projects are financed‘.
The Government has tasked Barclays Bank with finding investors for the proposed Sizewell C (SZC) plant. Reports surfaced in the Mail on Sunday that Centrica is planning on taking a stake in the company. Perhaps the fact that the report emerged in the Mail on Sunday rather than the Financial Times is a sign that the decision is still subject to vagaries.
This report has me scratching my head so hard it hurts! Why would Centrica, which in 2016 abandoned plans to invest in Hinkley C partly because of ‘the lengthening time frame for a return on the capital invested in a project of this scale‘ now opt for an investment in SZC? After all the doubt about return on investments in SZC may be viewed as, if anything, even more threadbare, to that of Hinkley C.