Nuclear vs. Wind: A UK Perspective

Jun 28, 2011 1 Comment by

Last month, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change released the Renewable Energy Review. The review focuses on two key areas: firstly, whether or not the Governments renewable targets for 2020 should be raised, and secondly, to provide more detailed advice beyond 2020.

The report compares the viability of a whole host of renewable and low carbon technologies including, wind power, photo-voltaics, tidal energy, wave, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage. The report also touches on the ongoing debate between greens and the nuclear lobby over how much wind and nuclear energy should contribute to the UK’s future energy mix.

There are well documented (and well known) advantages and disadvantages of both nuclear energy and wind power as a low carbon source of energy. Nuclear energy provides a reliable and consistent source of electricity which copes well with base electrical demand, albeit through an (uranium) energy source that is ultimately finite. Wind power is genuinely renewable, but without the widespread deployment of technologies such as electrical storage, and demand response, wind power plants will never be fully utilised and some energy will have to be curtailed. The two technologies also prick the public consciousness in different ways: wind power plants are often deemed an ugly blight on the landscape whereas there are genuine concerns about the long term safety of nuclear power.

According to the report, consumers are likely to be paying between 5p and 10p per kWh for nuclear energy and between 7p and 13.5p for wind (at a 10% discount rate). On costs alone, it would seem that nuclear is edging out wind as the most economical option.

However, one aspect that the report does not quantify in detail is the economic benefit which the UK will gain from strategically nurturing either the nuclear or wind industries. The UK’s growth in both of these industries will derive from firstly deploying and maintaining the new generation output and secondly, by exporting ancillary services and manufactured products.

At first glance, there would seem to be a huge potential to export manufacturing expertise and services on the back of successful local deployments. For wind power especially, it is easy to see how the UK could become a market leader. As one of the windiest countries in the world, the UK has the potential to generate over 400TWh per year from offshore wind energy, which represents double the energy currently generated by the UK’s nuclear reactors.

To add some figures to the debate, the following table compares the economic benefits in terms of jobs and GDP for both the wind and nuclear industries between now and 2050. Nuclear energy is forecasted in the report to still be a large contributor to the UK’s energy mix in 2050, but it is not expected to grow significantly. In contrast, the Carbon Trust expects that the UK could employ up to 230,000 people in the wind energy sector by 2050, with 80% of those employed in the export sector. This could mean a contribution of £10 billion to year on year GDP by 2050.

Economic Benefits of Nuclear & Wind Energy in the UK

Table 1: A Comparison of the Expected Economic Benefits in terms of GDP and Employment for both Nuclear Power & Wind Power in the UK between 2010 and 2050.
Percentage of Generation20%20%4.4%20% to 50%
Employees40,00040,000*10,80080k to 230k
GDP£3.3 billion£3.3 billion*~£250 million£10 billion
* Assuming figures scale in proportion with generation output with all valuations in today’s money.

Just how much benefit the UK gains from its development as a UK wind energy hub will depend on many factors, not least the competitiveness and quality of the manufacturing and services offered within the UK. However, the potential for extra economic benefits adds an additional argument for the development of the UK’s offshore wind capacity that is sadly lacking form the climate change report.


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The owner of Thinking Grids is a published author in smart grid topics ranging from smart monitoring and advanced computational techniques for distribution networks, power quality and stability. He's particularly interested in the business benefits of Smart Grid technology, and the overlap between information technology and electrical engineering.

One Response to “Nuclear vs. Wind: A UK Perspective”

  1. Lincoln Leeds says:

    Nuclear power is here to stay weather you like it or not. This radiophobia that is spread by the media has to stop.

    Wind generation will occupy land areas of over 50 Acres Per Megawatt of power output. At the most 60,000 acres would be required to produce the same power output as a large, 1.2 gigawatt, conventional power plant which occupies less than 200 acres of land. That means that wind turbines would use about 300 times the amount of land as conventional power plants.

    It is interesting to note that France, being 79% nuclear, has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per person in Europe (aswell as cheapest electricity) and Denmark which is leading the way with wind technology (20% wind) has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person.

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