Princeton’s Net Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure and Impacts charts five challenging, tortuous, investment-intensive paths to “net-zero” by 2050. A presentation that contains 345 slides of text, colorful graphs and wide area maps provides details about the selected scenarios. The Princeton research team promises peer-reviewed journal articles in the near future.
According to sponsor organization promotional materials, the slide deck was released before the journal articles “in recognition of the urgency to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the need for immediate federal, state, and local policy making efforts.” There’s little doubt that the project sponsors and the authors have a strong policy-influence agenda.
All five chosen scenarios involve technology and infrastructure deployments “at historically unprecedented rates across most sectors.” They represent “expansive impacts on landscapes” that have not yet been planned in communities whose permission has not yet been obtained.
The NZA study ignores a straight, wide, blazed trail. As documented in Goldstein and Qvist’s 2019 book titled A BRIGHT FUTURE: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, several major electricity grids have successfully eliminated coal and been nearly completely decarbonized.
In those grids–France, Sweden, and Ontario–a combination of nuclear power and hydroelectricity did the job. In each case, it took about two decades of sustained effort.
None of history’s successful decarbonization efforts required a complete reordering of the economy. The nuclear energy portion of the country- or providence-wide efforts that now provide reliable, abundant electricity from non-combustion sources that do not dump carbon dioxide to the environment did not result in “expansive impacts on landscapes.”
Electricity can do most of the work
Though electricity is only a part of total energy use, the Princeton study makes the reasonable assumption that decarbonized electricity grids can be expanded to supply the energy services needed to decarbonize most of the rest of the energy supply.
That same assumption continues to work if the electricity decarbonization path includes a successful effort to improve nuclear energy products and projects. Unlike wind and solar, atomic energy is a thermal energy source that can directly supply heat energy useful for industrial processes. Some of the electrification expansions that NZA assumes to be necessary to supply all energy demands might be accomplished more affordably with direct heat use.
Improved atomic energy systems can provide a major share of the energy that NZA scenario models supply using combustion accompanied by some form of carbon capture. If the carbon capture systems are retained while replacing combustion with abundant nuclear energy, we can draw down the current excess CO2 that has been accumulated in the atmosphere. Warming doesn’t stop if the blanket remains in place.
Choosing to discount nuclear improvements
Unfortunately, all three of history’s successful efforts to replace combustion stopped growing several decades ago. They were halted before making major impacts on energy consumption outside of electricity. Other jurisdictions that started down the nuclear energy path quit even earlier in the process.
Such a long time has passed since those successes that many, including the Princeton research team, have either forgotten they ever happened or assume that the conditions enabling atomic success can never again be achieved.
A discussion with Jesse Jenkins, one of the lead authors of the Princeton NZA pathways study, helped me to understand why nuclear energy played only a minor role in the modeled results. Based on a handful of recent nuclear projects located in “western” nations, the group assumed that nuclear generation would cost $6,600/kw in 2020 and only decline to $5,500/kw by 2050.
Since the NZA study uses models designed to produce “cost optimized” selections, nuclear didn’t make the cut until after 2030. Only then did it get selected and only in the single scenario that included modest constraints on siting renewables and transmission lines. Waiting until 2030 to begin building new nuclear helps to guarantee a significant delay in improving nuclear.
It’s difficult to improve anything without practice. It’s also difficult to displace recently built infrastructure.
Assuming that nuclear doesn’t improve very much makes some unlikely actions look more attractive. It can even can make actions described in the following statement seem almost reasonable.
“The current power grid took 150 years to build. Now, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge amount of change,” said Jenkins.Princeton University: “Big but affordable effort needed for America to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Princeton study shows”
Aside: It might not be obvious to people who aren’t deeply entrenched in the electricity supply business but building major transmission lines is never easy or quick. The planning and execution process often takes decades; it’s not uncommon for projects to be abandoned after substantial investments are made.
The Energy Institute at the University of Texas Austin has a 25 page white paper titled Estimation of Transmission Costs for New Generation that helps explain some of the complexities in an intrastate system. Those can expand geometrically if multiple states get involved. End Aside.
Does improved nuclear change the conversation?
A growing and strengthening group of independently minded experts agree that expensive nuclear will never be an optimum choice, but they also have evidence to believe that it’s possible to dramatically improve nuclear costs. Choosing just one example out of many, General Electric – Hitachi (GEH) has published a cost target of $2,250/kw for their simplified, tenth generation BWR, the BWRX-300.
If the Princeton researchers gave as much credit to atomic innovators as they did experts from BP, Exxon and Occidental, they might have produced a scenario that included achievable nuclear cost improvements. Instead, they sought expert advice from major multinational oil companies to develop a “notional capacity-cost curve for CO2 transport and storage” while more than doubling estimated costs coming from nuclear energy experts. (Note: Alluding to page 4 of “Annex I (NZA). CO2 Transport and StorageTransition DRAFT 2020-12-13.pdf”, which is available from the folder titled Princeton NZA Annexes at https://bit.ly/NetZeroAmerica)
Princeton researchers deny that they are fundamentally opposed to nuclear. They advocate for an investment of almost $20 B during the coming decade for advanced nuclear energy R&D. This suggestion, however, should be understood in the following context.
“Its comprehensive modeling of the country’s future energy pathways for decarbonization indicates that $2.5 trillion in additional investments will be needed over the next decade, on top of an estimated $9.4 trillion the country would be expected to invest in energy over the next decade under a “business-as-usual” pathway.”GTM: “Princeton Study Charts a $2.5T Pathway to a Net-Zero Carbon US”
For those who don’t routinely do math with big numbers in their heads, that means that the Princeton team recommends spending 0.8% of their recommended additional energy investments for the 2020s developing improved nuclear energy products.
When asked about including improved nuclear in future model runs, Jesse Jenkins provided a thought-provoking answer. “I’ve run plenty of models with very cheap nuclear. That’s why I can confidently say that if costs are <$3500 the model eats nuclear up, and if not, it doesn’t.”
What can we do to improve nuclear energy outcomes?
Nuclear energy improvements are not guaranteed, but they are at least as credible and achievable as the massively impactful efforts envisioned in the Net-Zero America study.
In many places, the proven decarbonization path based on reasonable improvements in atomic energy needs to be cleared of accumulated debris. In other places, there are fewer barriers but a greater need for new infrastructure that has not yet been deployed. We–in the global, humanity-wide sense–have done this before and can do it again.
We can build better fission power sources now than we did in the past. Some countries, notably Russia, China and South Korea have nuclear energy industries that are already building cost-competitive nuclear projects on reasonably predictable schedules.
Even under democratic “disadvantages” we can manage nuclear projects better; we can enable a wider variety of systems that supply a wider variety of customer demands; we can mobilize abundant, affordable capital and we can ensure that “safety” is not used a code word for stopping innovation and continued expansion.
Not only do we have historical examples of success to follow, but we have developed many useful tools in the several decades since those successful efforts were abandoned before achieving full potential. Those new tools will enable us to achieve even greater success this time than during the First Atomic Age.
The better Atomic Age will require new thinking and aggressive actions. It is being influenced by disruptive ventures led by people who believe we can learn from history without repeating the same mistakes again and again.
Disclosure: Rod Adams, the author, is a Managing Partner at Nucleation Capital. He has a keen, vested interest in enabling advanced nuclear energy system success.