Approval on Hinkley Point nuclear plant expected on same day UK releases energy stats revealing renewables have overtaken coal

The controversial nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, Somerset, is finally set to get the go-ahead on Thursday, as EDF’s board meet in Paris to give the project its final investment approval. Hinkley Point C was first proposed in 2006 and has faced heavy criticism from all angles due to the huge costs of development and subsidizing, and because of the environmental damage it is likely to cause, leading many onlookers to ask in vein why the investment is not being spent on renewable energies instead.

It will be the first nuclear plant to be built in the U.K. in 20 years, at a mind-boggling cost of GBP 18bn (US$23.7bn), making it the most expensive nuclear plant in the world. French company EDF is fronting the majority of the bill, backed by the French government that owns 85% of the company, while China General Nuclear Power Corporation is expected to invest a third of the money needed – raising eyebrows in various quarters.

The project’s many doubters

Once built, it should provide enough energy to power 7% of the U.K.’s total energy requirements. This won’t be until at least 2025, which is the projected date of commissioning, but even this is considered hugely optimistic as EDF has badly failed to complete similar projects on time and within budget.

“Every time EDF has tried to build a reactor like Hinkley, it has failed,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace. “There isn’t a shred of evidence that Hinkley can be built on time or on budget, and if it hits the same problems as its predecessors, it can’t be relied on to keep the lights on in the U.K.”

There are a number of fears about how the nuclear plant may affect the financially temperamental EDF, as well. The only member of the company’s 18-strong board with any background in renewable energy, Gerard Magnin, resigned in light of the impending decision, stating it was financially “very risky” and would take France further away from renewables.

One aspect of the project that has come under stern criticism is the GBP 92.50 (US$121.5) that the U.K. has agreed to pay for each MWh of electricity that it generates. This is more than double the cost of existing wholesale electricity prices today, and is likely to be even more once the nuclear plant is finally operational.

“It is locked into a price that is far too high and for too long,” Nick Butler, visiting professor and chair of King’s Policy Institute at King’s College London, told the BBC. “Energy has moved on; natural gas, solar and wind are all falling in price. Nuclear is the only form of energy that is getting more expensive.”

The Solar Trade Association (STA) of the U.K. made a similar point back in 2015, claiming that solar, in particular, would require 50% less subsidy than the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in order to deliver the same amount of power over the same amount of time. Thinktank Intergenerational Foundation then echoed this point in April of this year, with a study that found that projected the U.K. could save GBP 40bn over the next 35 years if the money for Hinkley was invested in solar instead.

"The cost of nuclear subsidy is to be double that of large-scale solar, costing £29.7 billion compared to £14.7 billion," the report said. “In the case of the solar subsidy, it is also worth noting that a significant proportion of that – £10.9 billion – is for the development of energy storage and flexibility infrastructure that would also be of benefit to other variable but predictable renewable sources, such as wind, therefore bringing added value.”

Renewables in the U.K. usurp coal

While the solar industry, and the entire renewable energies industry in the U.K., must now look on at what could have been, a landmark worth celebrating was also reached on Thursday, as official government statistics revealed that renewable energies generated more electricity than coal in 2015 for the first time.

Electricity generated by renewable sources accounted for 25% of the country’s total electricity generation in 2015, compared to just 22% generated by coal in the same year. The rise of renewables and the fall of coal has been a trend in recent years, as renewable electricity generation grew 29% from 2014, while coal dropped 30% from the same period.

Speaking specifically for solar PV, there was an incredible 87% increase in electricity generation, from 4, 040 GWh in 2014 to 7,561 GWh in 2015. On top of this, solar PV experienced a 69% increase in installed capacity, up 3.8 GW. Total capacity of all renewable energies grew 23% to reach 30.5 GW by the end of 2015.