The wider lessons from nuclear power cost inflation

The Guardian newspaper of Monday 19 October broke the story that the UK government is preparing to guarantee a minimum price for carbon dioxide emissions to encourage the development of nuclear power stations. Putting a high cost on greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will force up the wholesale price of electricity, ensuring a better financial return for nuclear power stations (and for renewables such as wind). The decision to create a floor price for carbon demonstrates that the full costs of nuclear technology are probably well above today’s wholesale electricity prices. We may well need nuclear power but we are going to pay heavily for it. The government’s optimistic noises from 2006 to the middle of this year about the commercial viability of nuclear power have turned out to be wrong.

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Kingsnorth: why does E.ON want to build a new coal plant without CCS?

E.ON’s £1bn plan for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is waiting for approval from the UK government. Other generators have shifted away from coal. Drax, which owns by far the largest coal power station in the UK, is investing in biomass. Other companies have focused on new gas plants. Why is the world’s largest investor-owned utility pushing ahead with a project to burn coal without carbon capture? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that burning coal to generate electricity is extremely profitable. Very low prices for emissions permits and tumbling coal costs mean that a profit-seeking management team is highly incentivised to try to push for permission to use coal in power stations. This article provides the background calculations for an estimate that the new Kingsnorth will generate an operating profit of about £300m a year if current fuel and carbon prices persist. Additionally, it also tries to show that the cost of fitting CCS equipment and running the plant to capture the large majority of all carbon emissions is likely to add no more than about 1.5p per kilowatt hour to the cost of generating electricity at current coal and carbon prices. This means that a new coal fired power station *with CCS* may have operating costs only marginally above gas power plants

Nevertheless, E.ON has just asked for government subsidy to install CCS at Kingsnorth from day one. The purpose of this article is to offer an estimate of the maximum the government ought to offer E.ON in order to get it to invest in CCS prior to opening the new power station.

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Power Station 571 needs to be paid

People like me who buy solar panels tend to become unreasonably fond of them. Many homeowners come to regard these silent blocks of silicon on our roofs as part of the family. I’m also particularly proud that our panels are registered at Ofgem, the utilities regulator, as Power Station 571. The reason for going through the cumbersome process to convince Ofgem that my silicon should be listed alongside Drax and Sizewell B was to benefit from the government incentive scheme for renewable electricity generation.

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Conservative Party policy on local generation of electricity and heat

The Conservative Party published a policy paper in early December on decentralised production of energy. It argues for heavy subsidy for small-scale generation of electricity. The report is useful in focusing on the need to minimise the finance and administrative burdens on small generators. However, it omits any consideration of the costs of the scheme it proposes. It is woefully ill-informed about developments in other countries. The Conservatives have subscribed to a romantic view about micro-generation and are choosing to ignore the huge costs of subsidising inefficient local generators. If they want large-scale low-carbon generation they should either back nuclear, remove the planning problems with wind, subsidise tidal or biomass power, or invest in CO2 capture.

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E.ON's new wood-burning power stations

Do dedicated biomass electricity generating plants make financial sense? E.ON UK has recently announced a plan to build a second power station using 100% energy crops as fuel. The first investment – a £90m power plant at Lockerbie in Scotland – will open within the next few months. The second plant, still only in the planning stage, will be in Sheffield on the site of a previous generating station. Both power plants will use wood from forestry and specially planted willow but Sheffield will also burn waste wood from other sources, such as industrial pallets. These are the first two large-scale plants in the UK if we exclude the ill-fated Arbre plant of several years ago. (Arbre was an extremely advanced wood chip gasification plant built in Yorkshire. It was never fully commissioned.)

By the standards of the electricity industry, the E.ON investments are tiny. The proposed Sheffield plant has a price tag of £44m compared to £1bn for E.ON's intended investment in the new super-critical low(ish) emissions coal power plant at Kingsnorth in Kent. Nevertheless, Lockerbie and Sheffield do appear to make good financial sense, at least in part because of the revisions to the renewable energy subsidy scheme announced in the government's June 2007 Energy White Paper.

This article looks at the prospective financial return from operating a power plant burning wood and other energy crops.

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