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UK cuts China from Sizewell nuclear project, takes joint stake

Move comes as National Grid decides not to fire up blackout prevention scheme

The UK government today confirmed it would take a joint stake in the Sizewell C nuclear plant, allowing for "China General Nuclear's exit from the project," which it said was "set to generate reliable, clean electricity for 6 million UK homes."

The UK will spend £700 million ($843 million) on Sizewell, a funding figure that will be matched by French partner EDF.

The move cuts out China General Nuclear from construction of the new power station, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying in his first foreign policy speech yesterday that Britain's "golden era" of China relations is over.

Against the backdrop of ongoing anti-government lockdown protests, Sunak said: "We recognize China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism."

Nuclear plants take a significant amount of time to build and bring online, with the plant expected to start producing electricity only in 2035.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said: "Today's investment in Sizewell C represents the biggest step on our journey to energy independence – the first state backing for a nuclear project in over 30 years. Once complete, this mega project will power millions of homes with clean, affordable, home-grown energy for decades to come."

UK response to the European energy crisis

The news comes the day after the country awarded £32 million ($38 million) funding to five projects that are developing new energy storage tech and the UK's National Grid decided not to switch on a blackout prevention scheme that pays consumers not to use electricity.

The National Grid told The Register yesterday it "no longer needed the service to manage margins," although it had earlier expected to do so.

Critics have said the UK's response to the energy crisis has not been robust enough, with some blaming power vacuums created by change in government and the death of the Queen, and others stating that future funding isn't that helpful when current storage capacity isn't where it should be.

Europe's largest battery energy storage installation went live in the UK earlier this month, with the capacity to store up to 196MWh of electricity. The Pillswood project, based in Hull near England's North Sea coast, aims to provide load balancing services to the UK grid. It is claimed the project, developed by Harmony Energy Limited, will store enough energy to power around 300,000 homes for two hours – not that many or that long relative to the country's consumption, but a step in the right direction.

Rolling blackouts

The National Grid earlier this year included scenarios [PDF] in its outlook for the winter that included rolling electricity blackouts of up to three hours.

The Electricity System Operator said: "Electricity storage will need to increase significantly to support the decarbonization of our electricity system, with as much as twelve-fold and seven-fold increases in capacity (GW) and volume (GWh)."

Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Graham Stuart, when asked earlier this month what recent steps his department has taken to increase energy security, stated: "We are confident in our plans to protect households and businesses in the full range of scenarios this winter, in light of Russia's illegal war in Ukraine.

"To strengthen this position further, we have put plans in place to secure supply this winter. This includes supporting coal plants to remain open, ensuring an additional 2.4GW of generating capacity to be used as a last resort over the coming months. We continue working closely with key international partners, to monitor and share information on energy supply, demand, and preparedness for the winter."

At least one of the coal plants he's referring to is owned by Germany's Uniper, which is keeping its Ratcliffe coal power station in Britain open to help the country maintain its electricity supplies this winter.

The fresh funding includes money going to projects developing thermal and liquid flow batteries, which the government claimed would help increase the resilience of the local electricity grid while also maximizing value for money.

The money pot is part of the second phase of LODES, the Longer Duration Energy Storage competition, meant to help participants to develop technologies that can store energy as heat, electricity, or as a low-carbon energy carrier like hydrogen.

Moves in Europe to maintain energy supplies

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin reduced gas supplies to Europe before suspending flows altogether in September, Europe has been preparing for a winter energy crisis.

The UK, which has some of the continent's lowest gas storage capacity, brought its Rough gas storage facility in the North Sea back online last month, though it will only be operating at a fifth of its previous capacity.

This comes after decisions taken in the UK over the past decade or so that grid-scale storage (of electricity or gas) between seasons was no longer cost effective. The Rough site was closed in 2017 after Centrica decided it did not make sense from a "commercial perspective" to pay for expensive repairs and the government refused to help.

Meanwhile, over in Europe...

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen earlier this year called for cuts to electricity use across the bloc and windfall taxes on energy firms to tackle high prices, and asked for electricity consumption to be cut at peak hours by at least 5 percent.

Germany, with its oversized reliance on Russian gas, has made many of these moves, with the city of Hanover turning off the heating and switching to cold showers in all public buildings.

The German government has since increased its stake in Uniper SE to 99 percent, taking the historic step of fully nationalizing the country's biggest gas importer.

The EU held an emergency meeting in September as the energy crisis became a pressing issue in the region.

Von der Leyen said at the time: "We are facing an extraordinary situation, not only because Russia is an unreliable supplier, as we have witnessed over the last days, weeks, months, but also because Russia is actively manipulating the gas market."

Germany, the financial powerhouse of the European Union that is heavily reliant on Russian gas due to decisions made over a period of decades, has come under fire over plans to keep two of its three last nuclear power plants open only until mid-2023 — beyond the original end-of-2022 deadline – as well as calls to stop the decommissioning altogether.

You can't just switch a nuclear plant off and on again

Anger intensified after government officials appeared to suggest keeping the nuclear plants as an "emergency reserve" – a phrase widely derided by engineers, with the operator of one of the reactors telling Der Spiegel in a remarkably subdued statement that any plan "to send two of the three operational reactors into a cold reserve status, to power them up if and when necessary, is not technically feasible."

Energy minister and deputy chancellor Robert Habeck, incidentally a member of the anti-nuclear Green Party (the green part of the current government's "traffic-light" coalition), then reportedly accused one of the plant's operators of not understanding the government's plan.

Meanwhile, JPMorgan's European offices have carried out power outage simulations, tests to help the bank prepare for a potential loss of power.

In a speech to the Eurogroup Press Conference, Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni said:

We know that the key cause of these problems is Putin's war against Ukraine and we should have this very clearly in mind and repeat this to citizens and on public occasions. Putin's war and his weaponization of Russia's energy exports' aim is to divide Europe and to weaken the resolve of the collective West to support Ukraine. The Russian government will try to use our economic difficulties. And he will fail.

The Kremlin shut off its natural gas flow to Europe via the key Nord Stream 1 pipeline in September and said it wouldn't reopen it until the West lifts sanctions against Moscow put in place after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

German gas reserves at the time of publication stood at 98 percent of storage levels, with consumption standing at 21 percent, 3 percent lower than the average consumption in the past four years.

Energy is an issue in the US as well, where a heat wave recently strained California's grid to the point that energy authorities in September asked residents not to charge their electric vehicles during "flex alerts" designed to reduce stress on the grid. However, despite the States having less exposure to pricing surges and supply issues in energy markets than Europe has, the Biden administration passed measures in the Inflation Reduction Act to help. These included some funds to help people with energy bills, along with a large chunk of climate legislation.

President Biden also plans to release 15 million barrels of oil from the US strategic reserves in an attempt to stop gasoline/petrol prices from rising now that OPEC and its allies plan to cut production. ®

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