The current British government is a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, an awkward marriage considering that the Conservatives favor increased use of nuclear energy and the Liberal Democrats most definitely don’t.
As part of the coalition agreement – or compromise – the liberals got much of what they want in energy policy, as laid out by new Energy Minister Chris Huhne (who is a Liberal Democrat):
The UK is blessed with a wealth of renewable energy resources, both on and offshore. We are committed to overcoming the real challenges in harnessing these resources. We will implement the ‘Connect and Manage’ regime [this has to do with connecting off-the-beaten-path energy sources to the electricity grid] and I am today giving the go ahead to a transitional regime for offshore wind farms.
Ah, wind. And a little more:
We also need incentives for small-scale and community action. We are currently consulting on a new micro-generation strategy. I am today laying an order to allow local authorities to sell renewable electricity to the grid.
This is all pretty small-bore, especially when you consider:
We face short term challenges as a result of the legacy inherited from the previous government. We have the third lowest share of renewable energy in the EU – the same ranking as in 1997.
Remember, in this context, renewable doesn’t include nuclear energy, so percentages of renewable and carbon emission-free energy generation are different. By this standard, for example, France produces about 12 percent of its electricity via renewable energy, but virtually all its production is carbon emission free due to nuclear energy (and those renewables, of course.)
Britain isn’t quite as low on the renewables scale as Huhne suggests, but it is at around 4.6 percent, clumped with small and eastern European countries. (Austria is best, at about 62 percent.)
Where does this leave nuclear energy?
The coalition agreement is clear that new nuclear can go ahead so long as there is no public subsidy. The Government is committed to removing any unnecessary obstacles to investment in new nuclear power. In the Memorandum I have outlined some clear actions to aid this. As a result, I believe new nuclear will play a part in meeting our energy needs.
In an exceptionally fair editorial, the (U.K.) Telegraph sees the difficulty here:
In the years to come, we will need both renewable and nuclear energy, but also honest thinking and straight talking about how they work in concord. Judging by what Mr Huhne says today, the necessary elements of a long-term strategy may be in place – but the correct emphasis is not.
And here’s why:
Yet by making nuclear power the poor relation among potential energy sources, Mr Huhne is making a strategic error. Although the exploitation of renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar power is undoubtedly sensible, Britain will imminently require substantial and reliable alternatives to fossil fuels, and there is little chance that renewables can deliver the assured quantity of energy in the necessary time-frame.
So true. There’s a reason why the Conservatives and Labour parties both embraced nuclear energy as a way forward and this is it. The smaller Liberal Democrats have seized their moment, as why shouldn’t they, but that may last only as long as the coalition is sustainable (er, or renewable).
I couldn’t find much beyond speculation whether Huhne’s approach will actually set back nuclear energy in Great Britain – but the speculation, as in this article at Der Spiegel (in English) – thinks that it will. That means it’s in wait and see mode.
So let’s wait and see.
U.K. Energy Minister Chris Huhne