Why are renewables suddenly trouncing nuclear energy?

Wind turbines loom behind a solar farm in Germany. Image: Getty.

If recent trends continue for another two years, the global share of electricity from renewables excluding hydropower will overtake nuclear for the first time. Even 20 years ago, this nuclear decline would have greatly surprised many people – particularly now that reducing carbon emissions is at the top of the political agenda.

On one level this is a story about changes in relative costs. The costs of solar and wind have plunged while nuclear has become almost astoundingly expensive. But this raises the question of why this came about. As I argue in my new book, Low Carbon Politics, it helps to dip into cultural theory.

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2017.

Culture wars

The seminal text in this field, Risk and Culture (1982), by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas and American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, argues the behaviour of individuals and institutions can be explained by four different biases:

  • Individualists: people biased towards outcomes that result from competitive arrangements;
  • Hierarchists: those who prefer ordered decisions being made by leaders and followed by others;
  • Egalitarians: people who favour equality and grassroots decision-making and pursue a common cause;
  • Fatalists: those who see decision-making as capricious and feel unable to influence outcomes.

The first three categories help explain different actors in the electricity industry. For governments and centralised monopolies often owned by the state, read hierarchists. For green campaigning organisations, read egalitarians, while free-market-minded private companies fit the individualist bias.

The priorities of these groups have not greatly changed in recent years. Hierarchists tend to favour nuclear power, since big power stations make for more straightforward grid planning, and nuclear power complements nuclear weapons capabilities considered important for national security.

Egalitarians like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth usually oppose new nuclear power plant and favour renewables. Traditionally they have worried about radioactive environmental damage and nuclear proliferation. Individualists, meanwhile, favour whichever technologies reduce costs.

These cultural realities lie behind the problems experienced by nuclear power. To compound green opposition, many of nuclear power’s strongest supporters are conservative hierarchists who are either sceptical about the need to reduce carbon emissions or treat it as a low priority. Hence they are often unable or unwilling to mobilise climate change arguments to support nuclear, which has made it harder to persuade egalitarians to get on board.


This has had several consequences. Green groups won subsidies for renewable technologies by persuading more liberal hierarchists that they had to address climate change – witness the big push by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for the feed-in tariffs that drove solar uptake in the late 2000s, for example. In turn, both wind and solar have been optimised and their costs have come down.

Nuclear largely missed out on these carbon-reducing subsidies. Worse, greens groups persuaded governments as far back as the 1970s that safety standards around nuclear power stations needed to improve. This more than anything drove up costs.

As for the individualists, they used to be generally unconvinced by renewable energy and sceptical of environmental opposition to nuclear. But as relative costs have changed, they have increasingly switched positions.

The hierarchists are still able to use monopoly electricity organisations to support nuclear power, but individualists are increasingly pressuring them to make these markets more competitive so that they can invest in renewables more easily. In effect, we are now seeing an egalitarian-individualist alliance against the conservative hierarchists.

Both sides of the pond

Donald Trump’s administration in the US, for example, has sought subsidies to keep existing coal and nuclear power stations running. This is both out of concern for national security and to support traditional centralised industrial corporations – classic hierarchist thinking.

Yet this has played out badly with individualist corporations pushing renewables. Trump’s plans have even been rejected by some of his own appointments on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In similarly hierarchist fashion, electricity supply monopolies in Georgia and South Carolina started building new nuclear power stations after regulatory agencies allowed them to collect mandatory payments from electricity consumers to cover costs at the same time.

Yet even hierarchists cannot ignore economic reality entirely. The South Carolina project has been abandoned and the Georgia project only survives through a very large federal loan bailout.

Contrast this with casino complexes in Nevada like MGM Resorts not only installing their own solar photovoltaic arrays but paying many millions of dollars to opt out from the local monopoly electricity supplier. They have campaigned successfully to win a state referendum supporting electricity liberalisation.

Casino solar, Las Vegas. Image: author provided.

The UK, meanwhile, is an example of how different biases can compete. Policy has traditionally been formed in hierarchical style, with big companies producing policy proposals which go out to wider consultation. It’s a cultural bias that favours nuclear power, but this conflicts with a key priority dating back to Thatcher that technological winners are chosen by the market.

This has led policymakers in Whitehall to favour both renewables and nuclear, but the private electricity companies have mostly refused to invest in nuclear, seeing it as too risky and expensive. The only companies prepared to plug the gap have been more hierarchists – EDF, which is majority-owned by France, and Chinese state nuclear corporations.

Even then, getting Hinkley C in south-west England underway – the first new nuclear plant since the 1990s – required an extensive commitment by the UK treasury to underwrite bank loans. There is also an embarrassingly high price to be paid for the electricity over a very long 35-year period. Such has been the bad publicity that it’s hard to imagine a politician agreeing to more plant on such terms.

Where does this reality leave hierarchists? Increasingly having to explain prohibitive nuclear costs to their electorates – at least in democracies. The alternative, as renewable energy becomes the new orthodoxy, is to embrace it.

In Australia, for example, a big utility company called AGL is trying to seduce homeowners to agree to link their solar panels to the company’s systems to centralise power dispatch in a so-called a “virtual power plant”.

The ConversationWhen the facts change, to misquote John Maynard Keynes, you can always change your mind.

David Toke, Reader in Energy Policy, University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.