Centrica stokes energy fears by revealing EDF nuclear timescale has doubled

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Centrica has ratcheted up fears over Britain’s energy security by warning that its rival EDF will take twice as long as originally planned to build the first of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The British Gas owner abandoned its 20pc stake in the £14bn project at Hinkley Point in February, opting instead to give £500m back to shareholders and invest in gas in North America.

Sir Roger Carr, Centrica chairman, told its AGM on Monday that since it first considered the project the price had “rocketed hugely”, adding: “Nuclear is not a cheap option.”

Sam Laidlaw, chief executive, said: “Not only had the cost increased but also the schedule had lengthened very considerably. So instead of taking four to five years to build, EDF were telling us that it was going to take nine to 10 years to build. That is a long time to be writing out a cheque for this project.”

He added: “EDF’s agenda is different to ours. They are 85pc owned by the French government, they are using French technology and they see nuclear as a core part of their strategy going forward. Our strategy is to have customers at our core and provide the lowest cost low-carbon energy for our customers.”

Centrica later added that he was referring to the timescale for the whole project, not just construction. EDF declined to comment.

The French company is in talks with the Government over the financial terms for Hinkley Point. Energy minister Michael Fallon last week said they were “inching” closer but warned there may be no agreement.

EDF wants a guaranteed price for the electricity it will generate for up to 40 years, subsidised by levies on consumer energy bills. Rival companies SSE and Npower have urged ministers not to proceed with the deal.

Sir Roger said: “Nuclear is important to this country. It is for [EDF] and government to find a fair price at which this country can have nuclear and the provider can afford nuclear. That is a negotiation that we hope is successful because it is part of an energy plan this country needs as old capacity and coal capacity shuts down.”

There are mounting concerns that the lack of new nuclear could mean power shortages as older power plants are retired.

Centrica also cast doubt on whether it would proceed with the £2bn Race Bank offshore wind farm off Norfolk, which will also require subsidies. The company is willing to spend up to £200m on the project and said it had made a proposal to the Government to deliver it along with a financial partner.

Sir Roger warned: “If the government wish to have as part of their mix the renewable wind offshore, there is a price for that. We are happy to deliver the product provided we get the return that is reasonable. If we do not get the return it is not something, like nuclear, we can contemplate.”

Earlier, Centrica said that British Gas customers had used 18pc more gas in the unusually cold first four months of the year. It pledged that, in recognition of the tough economic times, it would use this profit boost to delay future price rises rather than enjoy a profit “bonanza”.

Annual British Gas profits would therefore stay in line with expectations of £602m, flat on last year, with group operating profits expected to rise 7pc to £2.93bn.

The company, which raised prices by 6pc in November, said its board had decided that “any benefit arising from the exceptionally cold weather will be used to maintain our price competitiveness”.

But it stopped short of committing to a price freeze or cut, saying only it would “hold prices for as long as possible”.

Nick Luff, Centrica finance director, told the Telegraph: “We are studiously not saying what exactly that means in terms of pricing because we don’t know.

“We avoid commenting on the direction of prices and timing of price moves. We are studiously avoiding commenting specifically on what it might mean for prices but whatever scenario evolves it will enable us to maintain price competitiveness for longer, or more than we would otherwise have done.”

The company faced swift rebuke from consumer groups who said consumers “deserve a price cut”.

Sir Roger told AGM: "We are a very responsible and thoughtful company. We are seeking not to profit from the extremes of the winter.

"While there is no doubt that politicians find us an easy target, as all energy companies - the phrase 'rip off' and 'energy companies' seems entwined forever - it has no foundation."

The company said it had gained 28,000 new British Gas customers in the first four months and took a thinly-veiled dig at its rivals, saying it continues to “lead the industry in ensuring our energy proposition is simple, fair and transparent”.

Posted in |