On the banks of the River Thames, just on the edge of Greater London is a lesson the energy industry could well do to heed...
Listen up John Mc Cain... (and Ms. Hilton, if you are serious about running - I hope you're making notes)
The oil-fired power station on the Isle of Grain is a modern-day fossil of the UK's energy industry. Originally designed to be the largest oil-fired power station in the whole of Europe, the station was first designed before the oil shocks of the early seventies. By the time construction was finished, the UK had entered a different energy era - cheap oil was suddenly looking rather pricey.... and expensive electricity had got a lot cheaper. The economics of using an expensive fuel to produce a cheap product didn't make sense anymore.
Designed to have a capacity of 3300MW, the station now only operates at a maximum of 1320MW due to parts of the station being mothballed - and that is only 'when' the station operates - as the station is only used occasionally as peaking plant for "want of cheap oil"1
The Grain power station was built at a time of heady optimism and cheap oil, but as the prices of oil began to rise, the economics of the plant began to look very shaky indeed - we risk making the same mistake with Uranium. In the video that accompanies the Pickens Plan, we hear that 'New Nuclear Power Will Not Be Ready In Time' - by the time that anything does get built (with the nuclear industries long history of tardiness, missed deadlines and failed promises) the price of uranium will have moved and cheap renewables will be starting to come on stream.
No one in their right mind would build a power station fired on oil today, it's simply too precious and expensive, however, for some 'Nuclear Power' is still an option that is on the table. If a nuclear renaissance does ever get off the ground in anything more than a tokenistic way, I'll give you a tip - URANIUM WOULD BE THE NEW OIL.
Mr. Pickens, an astute oil man, who has made a tidy sum out of the black stuff and knows way more than a thing or two about making money backs wind - it's a safe bet. For a given outlay Mr. Pickens knows that he can produce a facility which will produce a given amount of energy which can be sold at a minimum of today's cost - but with rising energy prices, the chances are he'll make a tidy mark-up.
You don't need to be an environmentalist anymore to support renewables. Mr. Pickens has finally made it acceptable for business to embrace clean energy in America - not out of any moral persuasion, altruism or left-wing dogma; but because it's a secure, safe, sane way of making a lot of money. The chances are, when other cotton on to the fact that there is money to be made, an awful lot of cheap wind power will start to come on to the grid.
What would this mean for nuclear power?
With a long supply chain with carbon emissions at every stage of the processing operation caused by the need to use energy to manufacture and dispose of nuclear fuel; nuclear fuel is doubly sensitive - reliant on conventional energy sources in manufacture, and also, as a finite resource itself, reliant on the laws of supply and demand [and the voodoo economics of the hedge-fund profiteers that mediate between the two].
The cost of the wind, and the cost of the sun does not fluctuate - it is free, gratis. The beauty of renewable energy technologies is that once the infrastructure is built, the prices are fixed, known, and predictable. We pay for the kit upfront, and have a sound idea of how much it is going to cost to maintain.
Contrast this with Nuclear Power - we haven't really got a clue what it is going to cost to maintain designs that have barely left the drawing board (and don't look like they will be any time soon) and we haven't got anywhere near a realistic estimate of how much nuclear waste will cost to dispose of - because we simply haven't got a clue how to do it safely in a robust manner that will last for the length of time the fuel is dangerous.
Rather than being at the whims of speculators and hedge-fund profiteers who profit from the unknowns of finite energy supplies without ever touching the resource themselves, with renewable energy we can avoid the artificial price rises factored into our energy supplies by speculation.
With virtually zero-running cost wind power, and nuclear power stations that are subject to the rising costs of maintenance and fuel supply - the chances are those that continue to be bought out by the nuclear fraternity will be red-faced in years to come.
I wouldn't like to be Monty Burns as Mr. Pickens idea gains traction.
1. Boyle, Everett & Ramage (2004) 'Energy Systems & Sustainability' Oxford University Press / Open University
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