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.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.