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Solar renders nuclear unnecessary

There is absolutely no need for nuclear power in the UK, or anywhere else in Europe, because there is a simple, mature technology that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days.

This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and currently provides power for about 100,000 Californian homes. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, there are not many of these in Europe. But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' (High Voltage Direct Current)  transmission lines. With transmission losses at about three per cent per 1,000 kilometres, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to London with only about one per cent loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

The potential is absolutely massive. Less than one per cent of the world's hot deserts could produce as much electricity as the world currently consumes (see Energy initiative proposes desert power plan). A report from the American Solar Energy Society says that CSP plants in the south-western states of the United States "could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity — about seven times the current total US electric capacity."

In the 'TRANS-CSP' report from the German Aerospace Center it is estimated that CSP electricity imported from North Africa and the Middle East could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. That report shows in great detail how Europe can meet all its needs for electricity, make deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and phase out nuclear power at the same time.

All the necessary technologies are ready to go now. It would be technically feasible to start delivering solar electricity from North Africa to the UK within five years. What is mainly required are changes in the regulatory framework governing electricity trading and transmission, and the right framework of incentives.

Further information may be found at TREC-UK and DESERTEC. Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded here. The many problems associated with nuclear power are summarised in this article.