Can we give up on nuclear yet?


1,850 GWh. This number won’t mean much to most people but what it means for the UK is transformational. This number has the capability to make nuclear power redundant. It has the ability to put new grid scale battery storage out of business within a decade. Finally it can enable the UK to run 100% on solar and wind for our electricity, providing us with infinite clean energy at a time of a looming climate crisis. It’s that moment in the film where it’s late at night in the offices of an up-and-coming multi-billion-pound investment firm. There are a few tired people left at their desks, sleeves rolled up and hair a mess from another tough day. The analyst looks at the number and, convinced there must be a mistake, checks and checks again but it’s true. The analyst had modelled the inevitable and the implications were worthy of a dramatic thousand-yard stare.

It’s a pretty simple calculation but the impact on investment models is significant. 50kWh: a fair but conservative assumption for the size of an average car battery in an electric vehicle. 37,000,000: the number of vehicles registered on UK roads. Multiply the two together and you have 1,850 GWh, the equivalent of 2.5 days of electricity demand in the UK.

So if every vehicle in the UK turns electric, they can act as a giant, dispersed battery storage system, storing surplus solar and wind energy to be used as and when required, and enabling the UK’s electricity generation to be 100% renewable.

The forecast was that by 2035, 37 million vehicles would be electric in the UK. This may be a little optimistic but remember there are vans, buses and trucks with much larger batteries and the number of cars has generally increased year on year. Just as the uptake of smart phones was rapid amongst consumers, we are seeing a similar uptake in electric vehicles. This means that by 2035 the UK will have a 1,850 GWh battery at its disposal, that is geographically spread (reducing requirements to upgrade the grid) and concentrated in the higher populated areas.

Some people will say that vehicle-to-grid technology, whereby power can flow from the battery to the national grid, is a long way off but the truth is it exists today; it is not the fancy of science fiction. A key question would be who controls the power flowing into the grid from vehicles. Just as Airbnb is the largest property rental company but owns no properties and Uber is the largest taxi company but owns no taxis, there is a space here for the largest electricity storage company which owns no batteries.

So what does this “Airbnb”-style battery mean? Well, for a start grid-scale batteries will not be required. The UK consumer will have purchased the battery for the ability it gives her/them/him to move from A to B. They are buying it anyway; they don’t need to rely on money from the grid to justify that purchase. So as long as it is made really simple for the consumer and it is profitable then they will sell their electricity. They will not have to cover any upfront costs unlike those purchasing grid-scale batteries purely for supporting the grid.

Secondly nuclear power won’t be required. This isn’t an anti-nuclear piece; it just simply won’t be the best economic solution. In light of Hinkley Point this will be frustrating news for many whose jobs, livelihoods and political careers are wrapped up in those projects. The car batteries enable us to store power from solar and wind to use any time. Solar is following a similar cost curve to that of computer chips. This isn’t new news; there are scientific papers on the subject and many decades of data. Extrapolate this curve and you hit a price for wholesale electricity of less than £20/MWh by 2040. When we compare £20/MWh plus the minimal cost of this cheaper storage to the price being paid for Hinkley it starts to make you feel a little nauseous. For information the price offered by the government for power from Hinkley Point C was £92.50/MWh increasing with inflation from 2012.

The most exciting outcome though is that this means that we can power the UK 100% from wind and solar alone. Many nay sayers cite the times when the wind is not blowing and when the sun is not shining as the issue. However, we will have a battery that lasts the UK 2.5 days or 1.9 days when you take into account people using electricity for driving. Good luck finding a period in our island’s history when the sun has not risen during the day.

There are so many arguments and assumptions that people will challenge in this thought experiment. However, it is worth noting that since this initial calculation, the new breed of car batteries are already four times larger at 200kWH, the total number of vehicles registered in the UK is continuing to rise and cars that plug in have around 10% of market share. So whilst some assumptions may be mildly out, there is plenty of margin to account for oversimplifications given where technology will be in 2035.

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