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Gossage:gossip September 2017

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Christmas cheer

So farewell then  to Vincent de Rivaz. Mr de Rivaz has been with the French state-backed energy giant Electricité de France for the past forty years. and has stood at the helm of the UK business since 2002.

At first he was chief executive of the London Electricity Group before it merged with Seeboard and the Eastern Network to become EDF Energy in 2003. His appointment coincided with Prime Minister Tony Blair launching the first energy policy government White Paper for almost forty years, stating that there was little or no future for nuclear power.

That policy altered 180 degrees, and by 2006 Blair was instead promising a vast new nuclear programme now estimated by energy finance expert professor Steve Thomas of Greenwich University to cost over £125bn. Subsequently de Rivaz has spent practically all of the ensuing period locked in negotiations over the Hinkley Point C new nuclear project, which received ostensible government approval in September last year. And may, or may not, be completed by 2024.

Mr de Rivaz’s retirement will apparently start just before this Christmas. This is fortuitous. It was after all he who so famously promised Blair, and all the rest of us, that we would be able to be cooking our 2017 Christmas turkeys with electricity generated at Hinkley Point C. I understand that the de Rivaz family is planning a distinctly abstemious Christmas this year.


South of the wall

US president Donald Trump is proposing a radical way to fund his proposed Mexican border wall: cover it in solar panels.

Yes, this is the same Donald Trump who has spent years criticising renewable energy as uneconomic, and is pulling his country out of the Paris climate agreement. But it seems he  now wants to add solar panels to his proposed barrier along the  US–Mexico border in Texas.

The president believes the panels would transform the wall, which he envisages would be 40 to 50ft high, into “beautiful structures”. But there are many areas along the border where it will be physically impossible to build a wall, with or without solar panels. 

Even if the government could do so, the wall’s configuration is not appropriate for a solar farm. There are no photovoltaic power stations – solar panel farms – that are arranged in a line. That is because it is inefficient to disperse panels like that.

But the key point seems to be that, to be effective and face in a productive direction, all of the solar panels would have to be placed on the Mexican side of the border.  And the Mexican government is entirely opposed to the entire project.

Nonetheless Trump apparently has told congressmen from his Republican party that they should talk about his solar-panelled wall positively, “just as long as they say it was his idea.”

To those who query whether, given how few people live close by the border, such a project could ever be cost-effective, Trump may have an idea as to how any surplus electricity might be used. “I imagine that solar powered electric chairs would be popular in states that still have the death penalty.”


Third time lucky?

Just to prove that all is not completely doom and gloom in the wonderful world of the Great God Atom, you may be interested to learn that the Bulgarian government is seeking private investors to revive the Belene nuclear power project. This had been cancelled, for the second time, in 2012.

This led to the Bulgarian government ending up having to pay €620m in December 2016 to the Russian nuclear group Atomstroyexport (part of Rosatom) as compensation for having cancelled the €10bn project. But now the government is considering privatising the project.

They are confident that – uniquely in Europe –  the entire project can be built without state guarantees or mandatory long-term power purchase contracts. Apparently our old friends the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has expressed its interest in investing in the project.  And the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) has announced that it might consider financing Belene.

Might this be a case of third time lucky?  After all, construction of the Belene power plant was started all of thirty years ago, back in 1987 by the Communist government, but was stopped in 1991 under pressure from ecological movements, objections from neighbouring countries and a new, rather less profligate, non-Communist government.

Then the project was revived in 2002, and Atomstroyexport was selected in 2006 to build two 1,000 MW VVER-1000 reactors. However, the €10bn project failed to attract any external investors. It in turn was cancelled in 2012 due to financial constraints combined with American and European concerns over its energy dependence on Russia. This prompted Atomstroyexport to file a lawsuit against the Bulgarian Government claiming €1bn in damages. In June 2016, an international arbitration court ruled that Bulgaria should pay compensation of  €620m for the nuclear equipment it ordered from the Russian company before cancelling the project.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again? And again? And again?


Pity the poor Helms-man

The Oxford academic Dieter Helm has until October 31 – precisely thirty working days – in which to produce and present his much-trumpeted Report to Government on the costs of electricity. He is explicitly  barred from making recommendations on any future tax changes ,or upon the status of individual projects like Hinkley Point C.

All this hasn’t stopped the world and his brother from rushing in to tell him what to write. They are wasting everyone’s time. From past experience, I am confident Mr Helm will have established precisely what answers his paymasters are seeking before he started work.


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