On Friday last week, within a few hours of Greg Clark (Secretary of State at the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) announcing that the UK Government would be reviewing the whole Hinkley Point situation, the Times came out with a thoroughly damning indictment of the Hinkley Point project. Going way beyond its usual sceptical hostility, it invited its readers to compare the already redundant, incomprehensively costly technology of Hinkley Point with the next generation of low-carbon energy breakthroughs – including Artificial Photosynthesis.
Artificial Photosynthesis! Of all the technologies the Times might have prayed in aid of its critique of nuclear, as yesterday’s technology, Artificial Photosynthesis would be quite a long way down the list. Emerging breakthroughs in nano-solar, storage, fuel cells, hydrogen, demand optimisation, smart grids and so on, would all take precedence in most analysts’ scoping of exciting future prospects. Even in ‘The World We Made’, I was fairly cautious about timing here:
In the early 2030s came the first commercially viable roll-out of Artificial Photosynthesis, co-ventured by US universities and a number of big Indian companies. Using silicon and nickel-based catalysts, the latest artificial ‘leaves’ use sunlight to power chemical changes to split water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms.”
But it’s just so brilliant to see the Times looking ahead in this way, prefiguring the cornucopia of unbelievably exciting new ideas, technologies and innovations that are already out there – now that the world is so much more focussed than ever before on the urgency of achieving an ultra-low-carbon prosperity for the whole of humankind.
I wonder if Greg Clark read that editorial? It’s Greg Clark, after all, who must now conduct the review that has been announced, and it’s Greg Clark’s voice that will weigh most heavily with Prime Minister Theresa May when she makes her final decision in a couple of months. And it will be a big decision – there would have been little point causing such disruption and offence by declining to sign on the dotted line on Friday last week if this wasn’t going to be a proper process.
Greg Clark has flown under the radar for so long that there are very few who know much about him – apart from the fact that he drew the short straw in having to work alongside Eric Pickles at the Department for Communities and Local Government in the Coalition Government!
I got to know Greg Clark when I was Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, and he was Shadow Secretary for Energy and Climate Change between 2008 and 2010. In our engagement with the Opposition, we saw more of him than any other Shadow Spokesperson, quite simply because he was open-minded, diligent, enthusiastic about the cross-cutting nature of sustainable development, and always keen on evidence-based policy-making – especially on matters like climate change and land use planning.
So I’m trying now to think through this critical review process from Greg Clark’s point of view, from what little I know of him as a conscientious, focussed politician of the kind that we’ve seen far too little of since 2010. And I would imagine that the officials already charged with oversight of the review will be looking at three big areas:
Greg Clark has always been a moderniser, and although he has dutifully signed up to the Conservative Party’s support for nuclear power, it’s never been ‘an article of faith’, or a matter of ideological conviction, as it seems to have become for some people.
So he will know that, with Hinkley Point, we’ve thrown in our lot with the worst possible nuclear option: the EPR. Its track record is so bad (at Olkiluoto in Finland, Flamanville in France, and even in China) that it’s impossible to imagine how anyone might suppose things are going to improve at Hinkley Point. One enthusiastic pro-nuclear engineer has described the EPR as ‘unconstructable’ – which may explain why no other nation on Earth (including France!) has committed to any more EPRs after the current round of construction.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Greg Clark isn’t much more enthusiastic about Small Modular Reactors – not my cup of nuclear tea, I have to admit, but far more promising (and future-oriented) than the EPR.
He’ll also be aware of the gamut of breakthroughs unfolding on a regular basis in the fields of renewables and storage – if not (as yet!) of Artificial Photosynthesis. There’s a consistent and hugely promising story everywhere you look: costs down and efficiencies up, with systemic synergies (surrounding electric vehicles, for instance, or smart meters) moving rapidly off the drawing-board into early prototyping and rollout.
To all intents and purposes, the EPR is dead – and that’s not just the judgement of anti-nuclear advocates like me, but of almost all independent experts, almost all informed investors, almost all the rest of the nuclear industry – and at least 50% of key decision-makers in EdF itself!
These days, security has a double meaning: first, security of supply, as in the contribution that any electricity generation option can make to meeting our energy needs here in the UK – ensuring that the lights really don’t go out, to use that increasingly hackneyed cliché.
Second, security against external threats, be they hostile nations, terrorists, cybercrime or whatever.
2.1 Regarding security of supply, Hinkley Point is a big deal, theoretically providing up to 7% of the UK’s electricity when it eventually comes on line. If Hinkley Point were to drop out of the future generating portfolio, it really will be a huge challenge to ensure that the lights don’t go out.
But it’s a completely do-able challenge – just so long as we don’t waste another decade dickering around with today’s prevailing nuclear fantasies!
And the starting point here has to be energy efficiency and demand management. Contrary to the myths so successfully pedalled by the Electricity Supply Industry, energy demand in the UK is not rising. Indeed, final energy consumption in 2014 was no less than 21% lower than it was in 2000, and continues to decline today – partly because of the shape of our economy, and partly because businesses have got better and better at saving themselves huge amounts of money.
But unlike Germany, the UK has never prioritised energy efficiency and demand management. With ‘Industrial Strategy’ now formally in his departmental remit, Greg Clark could build a completely new vision of a low-carbon UK, based on resource efficiency and smart energy systems. And he’ll have pretty much a tabula rasa on which to draw out such a vision; when he reviews the policy carnage in this area (on the built environment, zero carbon buildings, fuel poverty etc etc), I think he’ll be appalled at just how much ground has been lost since he was Shadow Secretary of State in 2010.
2.2 Regarding security against those who would do us ill, the debate has been galvanised by the dramatic surfacing of a set of concerns that have been ‘bubbling under’ ever since EdF realised it couldn’t deliver the project without a massive infusion of investment from China’s General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN).
The man responsible for that surfacing effect is Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s new Joint Chief of Staff. In October last year, he published an article on the ConservativeHome website, giving voice to some of the intense anxiety of UK security experts at the prospect of the Chinese getting access to a critical part of the UK’s national energy infrastructure – and indeed, in due course, to the operating code of all those reactors it will be co-invested in: Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Bradwell, where it’s scheduled to provide two-thirds of the up-front investment.
Suffice it to say, this stuff is for real. However offended the Chinese may be at the concerns now being aired about security risks here, it remains the truth that China deploys massive financial and human resources to maintain its supremacy in the world of cyber defence – and cyber attack.
This one is so obvious as to require barely any scrutiny by Greg Clark’s officials.
The deal offered to EdF (at £92.50 per MWh) is so egregiously beyond any known pale of rationality that only George Osborne’s ‘desperate desire’ to do a deal offers itself as an explanation. It’s consumers who will pay for that, every year, for 35 years, index-linked!
And during those 35 years, every other source of secure, low-carbon generation will become more and more competitive. Offshore wind, for instance, will come in at no more than £80 per MWh by 2025 (the very earliest point where Hinkley Point will start generating anything anyway), with both onshore wind and solar being subsidy-free (ie requiring no support at all) by 2020 at the latest. It’s a fair bet than even Artificial Photosynthesis will be cheaper than nuclear power by 2025! And tidal energy certainly will be.
Greg Clark is a man of principle. For him to repeat Amber Rudd’s despicable lies that this was a deal done ‘with the interests of the UK’s hardworking families’ at its heart would be uncountenanceable.
And that’s not the end of the hit on UK citizens. At the moment, we’re being reassured that all the risks associated with the construction of the reactors themselves will be borne by EdF and CGN. But guess what happens when (not if, mind you, but when!) the unconstructable reactors at Hinkley Point hit the same problems as have been experienced at Olkiluoto and Flamanville? At that point, with 7% of our electricity supply at risk, UK taxpayers will find themselves coerced by the government of the day into an endless, rolling bailout with literally no upper limit.
These three are the principal areas of concern that Greg Clark will be instructing his officials to look at. But there’s one further area of interest for Greg Clark that has received little coverage in our media.
On the basis of his past record, he’s a genuine advocate of localism, as part and parcel of his core Tory beliefs. He believes it to be of fundamental importance to the health of our democracy that people and communities are empowered to take responsibility for neighbourhood plans and for managing community assets. In that regard, I suspect that there were few people in the Tory Party more sickened by the ignominious collapse of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative.
Why is this relevant? In energy terms, we’re on the cusp of dramatic breakthroughs in community energy, enabled by smart meters (on which we’re already spending billions here in the UK), local area grids, ever more cost-effective self-generation (PVs on roofs, for instance, plus domestic storage systems), and the emergence of electric vehicles. There are literally hundreds of cities all around the world already seizing hold of this kind of empowering transformation – and it’s hard to suppose that Greg Clark isn’t aware of this emerging revolution.
Large-scale, massively costly, unyieldingly inflexible nuclear power stations are not necessarily incompatible with that emerging revolution – but they will act as a massive brake on its practical implementation. In fact, there’s no clearer example of the deadweight of yesterday’s energy paradigm potentially killing off some of the most exciting aspects of tomorrow’s paradigm.
So here’s how I see all this. If Greg Clark was still in Opposition, as Shadow Spokesperson for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, he would carefully weigh all that up – and in measured terms accuse the government of the day of an absolutely grotesque dereliction of duty in persevering with Hinkley Point. Given that we don’t actually need Hinkley Point, that we can’t afford it, and that it will fundamentally undermine the UK’s transition to a genuinely secure, affordable, low-carbon energy future, it’s difficult to imagine any other conclusion emerging from a review of this kind.
But Greg Clark is obviously not in Opposition – he’s in Government! So the politics becomes infinitely more complex, with any decision in the autumn to back out of Hinkley Point at this point bringing down on our heads the wrath both of the French (on whose goodwill we are now uncomfortably dependent in our Brexit negotiations) and of the Chinese (on whose readiness to invest in the UK we are equally uncomfortably dependent).
So, for me, everything hinges on whether this review is basically just providing a breathing space for Theresa May to consult further with our security forces, while simultaneously testing out the possibility of negotiating an even marginally less humiliating financial deal, or whether there’s an appetite for starting out to explore – in earnest – what plan B would actually look like – in other words, a UK energy strategy without Hinkley Point.
This is, of course, a theme to which I will be returning at a number of points over the next couple of months. In the meantime, all I can do is offer Greg Clark very genuine best wishes as he wrestles with a decision that could have as big an impact on the fate of our nation over the next 50 years as any other that the new Government will be taking in the immediate future.
Originally published in his personal blog.