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Innovation and diversification: why the UK’s energy policy should encourage a mix of technologies

Nuclear power stations play a key part in the UK government’s current energy strategy; the intention being that this carbon-free fuel source will go on providing our system with the baseload requirements formerly filled by fossil-fuelled power plants once finite resources are exhausted.

Government plans have until recently revolved around a new fleet of power stations coming on line to fill the energy gap as coal plants and older atomic plants close, and these plans seemed to be on track when work began on Hinkley Point C in Somerset during March 2017.

However, the recent news that Toshiba have put their Moorside project in Cumbria on hold won’t have come as a surprise to those within the energy industry. Doubt was cast upon the project after Engie withdrew from the NuGen consortium last year to focus on solar power. This shift in attitudes from such a major industry player, alongside the uncertainty created by Brexit, questions about the UK’s membership of Euratom, and doubts about the future viability of nuclear power, clearly underlines the need for the UK to revisit its energy strategy. It’s time now for our policy makers to develop a strong, sustainable plan for the future; one that incorporates a mix of technologies, enables investment, and delivers security of supply.

A more diverse mix for the future

As we transition to a more forward-facing, sustainable energy future, we are forced to address new challenges. Our UK policy should address these challenges with a strategy that encourages innovation and diversification, rather than one which simply seeks to replace like with like.

Renewables such as solar and wind power are fast becoming economically viable alternatives to traditional ‘dirty’ power sources. The problem has always been that whilst they are infinite energy sources, they are also intermittent – so balancing the grid becomes a problem. The problem starts to disappear once wind, solar and hydro power are used in combination with storage and digital technologies. Suddenly, these renewable sources become a viable alternative to large scale power plants.

The power of batteries

Battery storage may be the long-term solution we’ve been seeking for our baseload energy gap. It provides a clean, carbon free energy source that is both fast and flexible, reducing our reliance on coal and on nuclear. Awareness of battery capability is growing as steadily as costs are declining, and with batteries behind the meter providing a way for businesses to participate in balancing the grid whilst also creating a new revenue stream, any strategy that fails to encourage growth and innovation in this industry would certainly be missing a trick.

A call for investment in innovation

While nuclear power stations play a role in the UK’s energy mix now and potentially in the future, it’s important to remember there are alternatives that the UK should be investing in. The ideal is a mix of technologies that offer flexibility, security of supply and carbon reduction, while stacking up commercially.

Businesses have an essential part to play; no longer passive energy consumers, their participation in demand side response schemes and their willingness to take an active role in balancing the grid is crucial to the long-term stability and cost efficiency of our energy infrastructure. Government policy should also reflect their needs, not only by delivering infrastructure investment to alleviate security of supply concerns but also by offering them the certainty and stability they need to enable them to plan ahead, from procurement strategy through to budgets for energy reduction projects and beyond.

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