A good idea a decade ago?

Once again Kwasi Kwarteng MP talks up nuclear as “The only way we can get decarbonised firm power which isn’t intermittent …We will need a source of power that isn’t fluctuating, that isn’t dependent on the wind blowing and the sun shining”.

But what’s so good about firm power? One thing we should have learned from this summer of Covid is that power that is too firm can be a major hindrance in operating the system. Demand on the transmission network was low, thanks to the effect of Covid on businesses, and there was excess power. But when there is too much wind power, it can be easily and briefly constrained. When there is too much nuclear power it can’t – or at least, not for the few hours or few days that would be useful. Instead, the System Operator had to come to an agreement with EDF Energy to power down part of its Sizewell B plant for several months. Both forms of generation were paid – but some could be reimbursed by the hour, whereas our ‘firm’ power had to be reimbursed by the month.

This argument for ‘stable’ power (read – inflexible) goes back to the idea that there is a ‘base’ level of power demand that applies even during the overnight low, and that this can best be supplied by an unchanging power source. But it was as long ago as 2005 that Steve Holliday, then chief executive of National Grid, said that there was ‘no such thing’ as baseload.

The baseload concept stubbornly clings on. The idea that it will grow, as we swap to electricity for vehicles and other activities seems to be common sense. It’s not. EV charging and heat pumps are all about storage. The demand part of their usage will quickly flow to times when power is abundant, providing price signals are there.

Other old ideas cling on too. An entire ‘small modular reactor’ industry is being built around a 400MW nuclear plant that can take the place of CCGTs in our system. Why? It is practically impossible to get people to invest in a new CCGT to take the place of an old one, and they CCGTs are available ‘off the shelf’ (although of course they come with carbon) and without the baggage involved in developing and approving a new nuclear power plant. The plants that we have are often getting by on very short operating hours.

If you wanted to replace gas with nuclear, a more forward-thinking plan (but still liable to go out of date) might consider sizing the SMRs on a level with 2MW gas engines, which are being installed by the tens and hundreds up and down the country.

New industries are not immune to this reliance on the old familars. This week stories have surfaced on EV chargers that can charge your car in 5 minutes. I’m sure they have their place, but even in petrol stations the  ‘pull in and fill up’ model is becoming less common as forecourts try to boost their income with top-up shopping and on-site coffee (or sit beside a supermarket). Far better to think about where vehicles have to be – or where we would like them and their drivers to be – and match the charge to the dwell time.

It is hard to avoid beating a new technology out of shape to make it fit an old niche. Maybe the best test is to ask yourself, would I have been promoting this the same way a decade ago?

If so, it may be time to rethink the opportunity.