Electricity

The sun sets behind Hinkley Point B, and (R) Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations besides the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater on November 12, 2013 in Somerset, England (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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The EU approval of the nuclear development at Hinkley Point marks an important, if not decisive, chapter in the story of new nuclear in the UK. There are still legal challenges to be overcome and a financing package to be finalised within the constraints set by the EU ruling but this is a good moment to identify winners and losers.

The obvious losers are the UK’s consumers who are trapped into paying a price for electricity that is double the current wholesale price for 35 years after the plant starts up. The deal will go down in history, alongside the privatisation of the Royal Mail, as an example of the inability of the British government – ministers and civil servants alike – to negotiate complex commercial deals. The phrase “rolled over” will enter the French language and be accompanied always with a Gallic smile. Still, one should recognise talent and so chapeau to the French negotiators. 

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Why are renewables moving so slowly? Of course the output of renewable energy is growing in absolute terms and in terms of market share in most countries in the world. But the growth starts from a very low base. On the International Energy Agency’s latest numbers, renewables provide just 13 per cent of total global energy needs at the moment, and will provide only 18 per cent by 2035. If traditional biomass is excluded the figures are 7 per cent and 14 per cent.

The problem is cost. Electricity produced from offshore wind and solar costs somewhere between 50 and 100 per cent more per MW/hr than power from natural gas and, with some variations, will continue to do so for the next decade unless one makes the assumption that gas prices are going to increase. Onshore wind is cheaper and in the US in particular is the closest of all the renewables to being competitive without subsidies. 

A 220-page document entitled “Commission Staff Working Document: In-depth study of European Energy Security” is hardly designed to be a best-seller. Few outside Brussels will read the European Commission paper in full, which is a pity because it is an excellent piece of work. It also provides the basis for a series of proposals contained in an accompanying document, which if accepted and carried through could create a common energy policy for the EU comparable in scale, scope and cost to the Common Agricultural Policy

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Imagine being elected prime minister of a country with one and a quarter billion people, about 300m of whom live in absolute poverty. That is the challenge facing Narendra Modi in India. The hardest question must be to know where to start.

When it comes to energy Mr Modi’s first acts have been encouraging. He has set a high but achievable target for the installation of solar, on and off the grid, building on his experience in the state of Gujarat. He has also forced together three key ministries – covering power, coal and renewables – under a new minister, Piyush Goyal. He should probably have gone further and added petroleum and natural gas as well. Structural change in the complex bureaucracy of the Indian government matters a lot. 

For a long time it has looked as if the large-scale gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean would be stranded. The Leviathan field, located 80 miles off Haifa in Israel, which holds some 16tn cubic feet of gas was discovered five years ago but remains undeveloped and is not even completely defined. Israel has enough gas for its own needs from the smaller Tamar field, and politics and economics have combined to deter any of the wider development options. Now though a new option is emerging which makes development much more likely. The gas can be sent to Egypt. The move is rich in irony but it makes commercial and political sense. It could also mark an important moment of change in relationships across the region.