Around the world, there are millions of sworn opponents of nuclear power stations. I am not one. Nor am I a committed advocate for the technology. For six decades, it has contributed to the energy security and economic stability of many nations. For some rich countries with little in the way of dependable and secure sources of fuel, nuclear has been a central player in energy policy. But it is now by far the most expensive electricity generating option. Nuclear stations are very complex, take a long time to design and build, are very expensive to construct and maintain and increasingly costly to keep secure from terrorist threats. When things go wrong with nuclear, as they did at Chernobyl and Fukushima, they go wrong catastrophically.
Then there is the small matter of nuclear power stations being engineered to produce material for nuclear weaponry. While this is a critical consideration it is not one I’m going to discuss here. My case is based on cost, convenience, and speed and economic development and environmental benefits, though the weapons issue can never be far from mind.
The central question for Africa is why have nuclear power when the cost of generating electricity from the sun and wind fell by around 20% in 2016? All the evidence is that the cost of renewables technology will continue to fall.
Why would parts of Africa with abundant water for hydro generation choose nuclear over the obvious benefits of clean and safe energy from the power of fast-flowing water? Why have nuclear when every modestly sized town can have its own solar or wind farm, or sometimes solar, wind, hydro (along with battery storage technology that is getting better and cheaper every year) and conventional fossil-fueled generation for back-up?
Tide running against nuclear
Until the tsunami that devastated the Fukushima nuclear plant and torpedoed public confidence in nuclear generation, Japan produced around 10% of its energy from renewable sources. It now aims to triple power from renewables by 2030 and is investing $700 billion into the sector.
8th June 2017, was the first day that half of all the power made in the UK came from renewable sources, mainly wind and solar. In the USA, the adoption of renewables technologies appears unstoppable. Wind power now accounts for 5% of generation in the US. Wind and solar made up 66% of all new energy generating installations in America in 2015.
Renewable generation technologies are getting cheaper, cleaner, smarter and more productive. Demand is being driven by a combination of forces, including improving energy security, cutting costs, the ability for businesses, communities and homes to be “off grid” and the human health benefits from less pollution. Just about the only case for nuclear generation is energy security, but with such a diverse range of dependable alternative technologies that combined can deliver fuel security, the case for nuclear is weaker than ever.
Nuclear generation has its place, though it seems to me to have something of yesterday’s answer about it. In the UK, the government has approved the construction of a huge 3,200 MW nuclear power station in the west of England. It will cost at least £20 billion and take 8 to ten years to build. To persuade investors to back the scheme the government agreed that consumers will pay a very high price for the power the plant will produce; £92.50 per megawatt hour. Two new wind power farms were also recently approved. Cost per megawatt hour? £57.50. Even they will need a government subsidy, as the current market price for a megawatt hour in the UK is £40. But the wind farms are likely to be amortised, profitable and producing even cheaper power well before the Somerset nuclear station is ready to start production.
Forty years on
Forty years ago, E F Schumacher wrote his famous book, Small is Beautiful. He argued that “appropriate technologies” can empower people, as opposed to the “giantism” of “big technologies.” Giantism was his way of describing what he saw as a misuse of capital and resources on large and complex facilities that produced a “one size fits all” way of addressing many of the world’s needs and did little to encourage economic sustainability, particularly in developing economies.
Forty years on from Schumacher’s book we have the technologies, money, and understanding and across Africa, we are seeing something of his vision beginning to come to pass. Uganda perhaps deserves particular note. It has encouraged the construction of hydro and solar plants across the country, many in rural areas. But it is still early days across Africa. The need is great.
Laura Sandys is chief executive of the consultancy, Challenging Ideas and a former Conservative MP in the UK parliament. A life-long champion of renewable energy, she has frequently advised ministers on strategies that tie the widespread use of renewable power to stimulating economic development.
Sandys says that the lack of mile upon mile of towers and cables carrying electricity into Africa’s smaller towns and rural areas is a great advantage. Her argument is that big and complex grid systems are expensive to build, need endless attention to keep them in good condition, affect market pricing and can tend to favour the interests of the carrier rather than the consumer.
“The “plug in and play” nature of solar and wind power generation shifts the balance to consumers and communities. A solar farm can be built in months and a local grid developed at an affordable pace. When you have highly localised production and distribution, energy production and security no longer depend on remote corporations and remote bureaucracies. What you have is local infrastructure responding to local needs and empowering local initiative and enterprise,” says Sandys.
One thing you can be sure of is that building a nuclear power station only makes economic sense if there is a very large grid system to distribute the power from producer to customer. When we have technologies that reduce the need for large and complex grid systems the economic case for nuclear becomes more fragile.
An incomplete jigsaw
Like any form of infrastructure development, creating renewable energy facilities comes with its own challenges. Across most of Africa, money can be found to construct alternative energy facilities. It comes from African and foreign institutional and private investors and from development finance institutions like the International Finance Corporation, African Development Bank, and the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund. In most cases, the facilities built are sending their power to national grids to service big urban areas and industry.
What appears to be missing in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa is financial products and structures that can finance “off grid” small towns and villages. One exception is M-Kopa, a Kenyan business that specialises in selling affordable solar kits to very poor people in remote places. For US$200 (payable over a year and once paid the buyer owns the kit outright) the customer gets a solar panel, a battery, lighting, a rechargeable radio and mobile phone-charging adaptors. In May 2017, the company announced that it had reached the milestone of connecting 500,000 homes to affordable power. It says 500 new homes are being added every day.
The M-Kopa approach is “plug and play” at its most basic and it’s most exciting.
Simon Nicholls is a founding partner of en/power, an African business with three core offerings. It is an early stage investor in renewable energy projects, an incubator helping projects come to fruition and a technical and financial adviser to governments. Considered one of the early champions of renewable power in Africa, Nicholls speaks from 25 years of African energy development experience. He says power is the key to developing Africa’s human capital.
“A boy or girl who can study in the hours of darkness because their home has an M-Kopa battery powered by a solar panel has the chance to be tomorrow’s scientist or IT engineer. The only access to power can allow the farmer deep in the country to call his hotel and restaurant customers in the city to find out how much fresh produce is wanted for the next day. Systems like M-Kopa can be a real boon to isolated areas.”
For Simon Nicholls, the single most important issue facing the majority of African countries is lack of tariffs that reflect the costs for the producer and committed, adequately funded and qualified host governments that can see projects through to completion. He dismisses nuclear generation as unrealistic.
“Some African governments are leading the world in energy policy, but others are failing to reform electricity markets and failing to create the conditions of speed and efficiency necessary to attract mobile capital looking for investable energy projects. The time for joined-up thinking and education and resourcing of government departments to empower them to see projects through is long overdue.”