LESS than three years ago the British government struck a deal with EDF, a French state-owned utility, to subsidise the first new nuclear power station built in Britain since 1995: Hinkley Point C on the Somerset coast. The agreement was hailed by David Cameron, the then-prime minister, as “brilliant news”. But a lot has changed since then—and not just the incumbent at 10 Downing Street.

On July 28th, hours after EDF’s board narrowly endorsed a decision to go ahead with the £18 billion ($24 billion) Hinkley Point investment, the new government of Theresa May unexpectedly slammed the brakes on, launching a review of the project that it says it will finish by the autumn. It is understood to want to probe a deal with China General Nuclear Power, a Chinese state behemoth, which had offered to stump up one-third of the price tag in exchange for permission to build a nuclear-power station of its own at Bradwell, in Essex. The delay is the clearest sign that Mrs May is rethinking the open-door industrial policies of her predecessor (see article).

Yet analysts say there is more to the delay than mere Sinophobia. Hinkley is “big and based on last-century technology, which is not what the UK’s power system needs for the future,” says Michael Grubb of University College London. A review of the assumptions prevailing when the government struck the deal reveals how flimsy the economic rationale was. In 2012 Britain’s energy boffins predicted that for the foreseeable future the price of non-nuclear fuels, such as natural gas, would be more than double where they are today. As a result, they estimated that wholesale electricity prices—the basis for determining the level of subsidy to EDF—would remain above £70 per megawatt hour. They are currently below £40. Last month the National Audit Office, a spending watchdog, said that forecasting error alone had almost quintupled the implied value of the subsidy, from £6 billion to almost £30 billion over 35 years.

At the time, the civil servants reckoned that by 2025, when Hinkley Point is due to open, the cost of producing electricity from a nuclear-power station would be lower than from a gas-fired one—and much lower than from wind farms and solar-power plants. They have since reversed those views (see chart). Since Hinkley became a serious proposal less than a decade ago, the cost of nuclear power has increased, that of renewables has fallen and the price of battery storage—which could one day disrupt the entire power system—has plummeted. What is more, EDF’s nuclear technology has failed to get off the ground in the two projects in Finland and France that have sought to use it. “When so much has changed, it would have been inappropriate not to pause,” says Professor Grubb.

Hinkley’s supporters counter that it would help to plug a looming gap in the country’s energy supply. Over the next 15 years, Britain plans to shut down its coal-fired power stations and decommission all but one of its ageing nuclear plants, losing 23 gigawatts (GW) of power-generating capacity. Hinkley Point C, with a capacity of 3.2GW, is intended to ensure there is enough clean energy to offset that, by kickstarting a broader revival of nuclear power in the country. It would also strengthen energy security, reducing reliance on Russian gas. And its power would be clean: without it, supporters say, Britain would fail to meet its obligation under the 2008 Climate Change Act to reduce greenhouse gases to 80% below their 1990 level by 2050.

But these arguments fail to account for how quickly the energy landscape is changing. First, as their costs continue to drop, renewables are becoming a bigger part of the energy mix. They currently account for about one-quarter of Britain’s power output. But renewables are intermittent, generating little power on days that are calm or overcast. So they must be complemented by alternative sources of energy, which add to the total cost. Big power stations such as Hinkley Point cannot fill that role: nuclear power is hard to flex up and down. Combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) are cheaper and more nimble. As a backup to renewables, they can enable Britain to “muddle along” at least for another 20 years, says Deepa Venkateswaran of Bernstein Research, a firm of analysts. That would buy time to assess the progress of other clean technologies, such as battery storage and carbon capture.

Smaller businesses are also jostling to step into the breach, offering standby power when shortages occur. One such firm, UK Power Reserve, uses small gas-fired generators that can be switched on and off quickly. It calls itself a “scalpel” compared with a CCGT “sledgehammer”. Another, Upside Energy, proposes selling to the grid surplus power stored in battery systems that back up everything from office computers to traffic lights. Others enable companies to shift their power consumption to times of lower demand, cutting their bills. Such options may not provide the bedrock of power or thousands of jobs that EDF promises at Hinkley Point, and may require more innovative policymaking. But in terms of value for money, they could beat it hands down.



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