Nuclear energy’s cost, and a focus on alternative technology, including research on a new generation of hi-tech battery storage, is leading observers outside the green lobby to question the project’s value
Should Theresa May take the axe to the troubled Hinkley Point nuclear project, it will propel wind and solar power further into the limelight. And for renewable technologies to become really effective, Britain and the rest of the world need breakthroughs in electricity storage to allow intermittent power to be on tap 24/7, on a large scale and for the right price.
Cheap, light and long-life batteries are the holy grail, and achieving this requires the expertise of people like Cambridge professor Clare Grey. The award winning Royal Society fellow is working on the basic science behind lithium-air batteries, which can store five times the energy in the same space as the current rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are widely used today.
She is also focusing on sodium-ion and redox flow batteries; the latter store power in a liquid form, contained in vats or tanks that in theory can easily be scaled up to power-grid sizes.
“There has been an amazing transformation in this field. There is an explosion of interest and I am extremely lucky to have decided early on to concentrate on this area,”
she says, although she is keen to play down the idea that a eureka moment is just around the corner.
She is also thankful for Hinkley – if only because of the government’s long-term funding deal with EDF Energy that it gave rise to.
“It has put a price on [future] electricity in the market which is high, and this has potentially opened up further commercial space for new technologies such as batteries. But independent of Hinkley we do need better batteries and my chemistry will hopefully help find them,” she says.
The wisdom of bringing in the Chinese to help EDF, the French state-owned utility company, construct the proposed new Somerset reactors has been highlighted as a key factor behind the government’s reluctance to push the go button.
But ministers are also aware that, in the last 18 months, many experts in the field have concluded that the biggest argument against the plant is not that it is too expensive, at £18.5bn, but that the kind of “on-all-the-time” power it delivers is no longer what is required.
Read more: The Guardian