Time to get smart on decarbonisation

8 November 2023

Micro modular reactors are among several nuclear options that potentially offer an attractive solution to decarbonise industry. To do so means the right structures have to be in place though.

In just over a year, energy has become the conversation, as the existential issue of climate change has been joined by another critical threat to UK livelihoods and economy – the energy price crisis. The public have never been more aware of the need to insulate their homes, cut unnecessary consumption and reduce bills – but the struggle faced by the public is only one part of the picture.

A lesser-told story is how the British industries that provide many of the jobs, products and services we all rely on are also facing significant challenges, and soaring energy costs is one of the biggest. Despite government support, businesses have had to shoulder significant additional burden, and it’s no secret that this is forcefully driving businesses in droves to look for new ways to secure competitively priced power.

Of course, as we move towards 2050, energy prices aren’t the only paradigm shift being grappled with – savvy businesses know they need to decarbonise to remain competitive as the world accelerates towards net zero. This poses a wealth of opportunities and challenges alike, with investment urgently needed in new emission-cutting technologies and processes, as well as access to clean power supplies.

Act now to develop the green industries of the future

The UK currently has a real window of opportunity to rapidly decarbonise its industrial and manufacturing sectors. But we need a clear and ambitious strategy from government to support businesses with the low-carbon transition, and to develop the new green industries that will build the foundation of a net zero economy.

As we face difficult economic headwinds, setting out a clear plan for industry will allow the UK to stay ahead in the global green economic race. Across the media, we hear calls for government support to attract investment in new green steel manufacturing and gigafactories, highlighting the challenging UK context. Businesses need to make significant investment decisions, and the next few years will determine if the UK is able to retain and build its industrial and manufacturing sector, or see these relocate abroad.

With all this talk of the UK, we must not forget that we are players on a global stage, and policy decisions and tools elsewhere have knock-on impacts for our domestic industries. For example, the US Inflation Reduction Act, a major stimulus for green technologies and industries, increases the risk of us being left behind in the global race.

The EU has responded, and UK ministers know that we also need to come up with a plan. Government should set this out soon – a coherent plan that takes meaningful steps to help industry investment for the future.

Regional reindustrialisation and smart, local energy

The Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) frequently emphasises the importance of this plan being centred around regional reindustrialisation that puts smart, local energy at the heart of industrial efficiency and competitiveness. Ultimately, the factories, farms and furnaces that make up the backbone of the economy need to have a clearly defined pathway to get to net zero.

The plan must be followed by action – specifically, abundant and affordable clean energy for industry to benefit from. A central pillar to any strategy for industrial decarbonisation is the supply of low-carbon power that is internationally price-competitive.

Industry must benefit from the decarbonisation of the power system and the UK has already had great success in decarbonising its power system. However, our industry is not necessarily benefitting from this – businesses that rely on on-site power generation from gas are still exposed to volatile costs, while new renewable power projects often face challenges in integrating with the grid, which can be expensive and slow.

Nuclear is an opportunity, and in more ways than you might think. Although the Government has backed progress on nuclear, most support has focused on large-scale nuclear plants. We also need to move faster to deploy innovative technologies like small modular reactors if we are to decarbonise the power sector and provide the supplies of clean and affordable power that industry needs.

The major opportunity at a micro-scale

There is now a major and largely unexplored opportunity to build nuclear infrastructure in a completely different way. By choosing to deploy small-scale, on-site and well-proven nuclear technologies like micro modular reactors, developers can access vast pools of private capital through long-term energy supply contracts with businesses (Power Purchase Agreements), rather than relying on government-backed contracts. Micro modular reactors, already being offered by businesses such as Last Energy, offer a solution to large energy users with high demand, as they can be directly sited in industrial areas to supply low-carbon heat and power directly to customers.

Above: Mock-up graphic of the Last Energy micro modular reactor

These reactors can also supply power directly to the grid, and critically, their roll-out will involve the UK’s mature nuclear supply chain being called into action as projects are developed.

As with any innovative technology, government will need to move quickly to ensure the necessary regulatory and planning regimes are in place to allow businesses to do what they do best – invest and grow for the future. This is totally achievable, but one thing is certain: a clear strategy is required, which includes a plan that specifically helps industry access affordable power from low-carbon sources such as small modular reactors.

The announcement at the Budget of a new competition for small modular reactors shows a recognition of the importance of this technology, but the Budget falls short of setting out a full strategy or funding for both large fleet technology or emergent small reactors. Successfully leveraging the opportunities offered by micro-nuclear reactor technology would help tackle both the climate and energy price crises for the British public and industry alike once and for all.

Author: Charlotte Nichols MP

Top image courtesy of www.dvlcom.co.uk / Shutterstock.com

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