By Paul Lorenzini
Two recent reports ought to frame the conundrum for environmental activists who oppose nuclear power and offer guidance for all who are concerned about carbon.
Renewables and efficiency are not enough
The first was BP’s Energy Outlook 2035. It challenges the prevailing narrative that has been driving the thought of many environmentalists for four decades: the notion that we can meet all our energy needs, including carbon reduction, with renewables and energy efficiency alone.
Partly the narrative claims we haven’t been giving enough support to these initiatives. BP’s report shows that is not the case. First, energy efficiency is not only working, it is a major assumption in the plan. They project a decline of 35% in energy intensity (the amount of energy required per unit of GDP), with an expectation that this trend will accelerate: “the expected rate of decline post 2020”, they report, “is more than double the decline rate achieved 2000-2010.” OECD countries have, they argue, “started to ‘crack the code’ of sustaining economic growth while reducing energy demand”.
Even so, global energy production rises by 41% by 2035, with 95% of that growth coming from emerging economies. Embedded in this assumption is an increasing trend toward electrification, with electricity accounting for 57% of the growth in primary energy consumption.
In other words, efficiency has limits. Energy consumption still grows, driven mostly by the need for improved living conditions in emerging countries.
Second, the report shows a major shift toward renewable energy resources. “Renewable energy”, they write, “will no longer be a minor player”, growing more than three times faster than any other resource:
Yet even with these successes with efficiency and renewables, carbon emissions increase by 29% through the period. Coal and gas each contribute 38% of the increase, and coal remains the largest source of power through 2035:
Taken together there is a critical point here: focusing only on efficiency and renewables will not solve the carbon problem; carbon emissions continue to grow in spite of global efforts to move forward with efficiency and renewables and don’t approach the levels needed to achieve the kinds of reductions most consider necessary, illustrated above by the IEA 450 scenario.
Seeking a real non-carbon energy policy
The pervasive dependence on fossil fuels that is driving carbon emissions has been and will be intractable until we alter our thinking on energy policy. The IEA has attempted to frame the magnitude of the challenge with their “450 Scenario”, a path forward that would keep atmospheric carbon concentrations at levels below 450 ppm. It will require a significant course change.
By way of background, in their World Energy Outlook for 2013, the IEA compares their “450 scenario” with a “Current Policies” scenario (only policies enacted by mid-2013), a “New Policies” scenario (includes commitments not yet enacted). Focusing on the period we can most influence today – 2020 to 2035, the contrast between energy futures in the three scenarios is shown below:
The message here is pretty clear: to achieve the kinds of carbon reductions required by the “450 scenario”, global coal generation must decline significantly and gas generation does not grow. To replace gas and coal, nuclear, hydro and renewables all increase: nuclear by 2.5x and renewables by 2x.
The nuclear challenge
The second report, released in December, draws attention to one of the major challenges to be faced as we think about a future role for nuclear power. To fully utilize nuclear power, not only must we consider policy support for new builds, we must assure existing plants continue to operate safely. The American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs studied the pending problem of nuclear plant license renewals beyond their current regulatory limit of 60 years, drawing attention to the fact that 100 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity will begin shutting down by 2030 and would need to be replaced by other resources.
APS stressed the urgency of this situation by observing:
- Nuclear plants “do not emit any of the six air pollutants identified in the Clean Air Act”;
- In contrast to coal and gas, “nuclear plants provide near carbon-free energy, currently accounting for over 60% of the nation’s near-zero carbon energy production and displacing an estimated 600 million tons of carbon per year”; and
- “Renewing licenses preserves a low-carbon energy source at a time when there is no economical way to replace that capacity.”
There are technical and regulatory issues that must be addressed and resolved in order to achieve these license extensions and the focus of the report was on steps needed to address them. An important point was the urgent need to achieve resolution since resource replacement or life extension choices will need to be made well before plants retire, roughly by ten years.
Putting nuclear power back on the table
More broadly, however, the APS report reaches beyond life extension issues to address basic policy questions, arguing for three major policy initiatives.
The first is an “Enhanced Energy Strategy Pathway”, emphasizing not just license renewals, but arguing that “the federal government or more individual states could enact policies that support lowest-carbon sources; or, financial institutions could weigh environmental impact in evaluating utilities”. One of the major recommendations is the adoption of “Clean Energy Standards” (CES) that include nuclear power. A second suggestion relates to financing and the inclusion of nuclear power in Environmental Societal Governance Criteria, a means of encouraging nuclear investments.
The second is an “Enhanced Research Pathway” aimed at addressing issues specifically related to life extensions, while the third calls for an “Enhanced Leadership Pathway”, calling upon the U.S. to adopt “a concentrated program to support the development, manufacturing and licensing of new nuclear reactors that can be built, operated and eventually decommissioned in a manner that is safe, environmentally sound, and cost effective.
Nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world
The growth of nuclear power is problematic given the persistent opposition from environmental groups. It surfaces in several ways, one of the most important being the exclusion of nuclear power from renewable portfolio mandates, a problem not just in the US, but with many global policies as well. Last November, for example, the World Bank announced that $600-$800 billion will be needed to support the United Nation’s “Energy for All” program, targeting universal access to electricity; yet nuclear power would be excluded: “we don’t do nuclear energy”, said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.
For nuclear power to be considered a real option, it must be recognized nationally and globally as an important resource to be added to the mix and that interest needs to be reflected in energy policies. It is especially critical that it be done in the post-Fukushima world given the obvious public concerns left in its wake. There are reasonable answers to these concerns if we look for them, such as newer, safer nuclear plants of many stripes.
During the past year a shift has begun to take place within the environmental community, influenced to a great extent by Robert Stone’s documentary “Pandora’s Promise”, reinforced by numerous articles in the punditry calling for a re-examination of nuclear power (see this discussion between Michael Moore and Robert Stone following a recent showing); a study co-authored by climate change scientist James Hansen showing the real environmental and safety benefits of nuclear power measured in lives saved for the past few decades; and a letter signed in November by four leading climate change scientists including Hansen, urging their colleagues to re-consider their historical opposition to nuclear power.
It has been an encouraging development, but it is a shift that needs to be translated into policy actions, such as those recommended by the APS leaders.
The environmental movement is key here. Over the years they have gained credibility and influence and their thoughtful consideration of nuclear power, urged as noted above by key climate scientists, will be an important step forward. Ultimately we need to stop thinking about renewables and nuclear power as competing resources. It is not “either/or”, but “both/and”. To that end, we also need to rethink the way we integrate resources to create the least cost, lowest carbon and most reliable operating grid.
Integrating wind and solar into the grid
Current thinking is that renewables need gas generation to complement their intermittency. Gas works because capital costs are low and it is a suitable resource for load following and intermittent operations. The contrasting cost profiles are shown below.
There are, however, some issues here that don’t get the attention they deserve.
First, as gas runs at lower capacity factors (CF) its economics deteriorate (see above). Once the CF reaches levels near 30%, its economic advantages over nuclear power and coal in terms of life cycle costs are virtually lost, ignoring completely the impacts of carbon penalties or adding carbon capture/sequestration technologies. This is not an academic number: the global capacity factor for gas generation in 2035 under the 450 scenario in WEO 2013 is roughly 31%, reflecting a diminished role for gas to accommodate the growth of renewables.
Second, gas is, after all, gas. Other than coal, it is, by at least an order of magnitude, the largest carbon emitter in our energy portfolio. As California considered its future, they found the heavy use of gas can compromise carbon goals:
“If electric generation is predominantly intermittent renewable power, using natural gas to firm the power would likely result in greenhouse gas emissions that would alone exceed the 2050 target for the entire economy.”
While gas has been popularized as a “bridge fuel”, rational common sense says that is not compatible with reducing carbon emissions. The whole point of the 450 scenario is that reliance on gas needs to be curbed. While gas is clearly the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a carbon emitter and it should be a last resort, especially if non-carbon alternatives such as nuclear power are available.
Losing the plot?
The notion that gas is the best approach for integrating wind and solar has become so locked into our thinking that it can lead to some strange thinking. One emerging narrative is that the benefits of wind and solar are measured by their ability to “displace” existing fossil generation. A co-author of the NREL’s recent study on the cost impacts of cycling fossil fueled plants (Dr. Debra Lew) was quoted by Greentech Media making this point: “we all know that the primary benefit of 1 megawatt-hour of wind and solar is to displace 1 megawatt-hour of other generation, typically fossil fueled generation because that is what’s on the margin. Displacing a megawatt-hour of fossil-fueled generation displaces the costs and emissions associated with that fuel.” Stop and think about this: gas generation is installed to be sure the system can serve load at all times, then solar and wind are installed to make sure the gas does not generate unless absolutely necessary.
This is basically what California has done. During the last decade they installed over 14 GW of gas generation, accounting for roughly 88% of new capacity; wind and solar installations during the period were less than 10%. By the end of the decade, there was sufficient excess gas generating capacity that gas plants were running, on average, at under 30% capacity factor. Now, with plenty of excess generating capacity in hand, they had the luxury of turning to wind and solar, which they did not need to meet load – they had plenty of gas – but was required by their renewable portfolio standard. During the next two years, over 90% of all new generating capacity was wind and solar. When the San Onofre nuclear plants were taken out of service, the deficit was easily accommodated with increased gas generation as capacity factors for gas facilities in California increased from 23% in 2011 to 31% in 2012. Renewables played virtually no role in filling the San Onofre deficit.
In the end, a state that is bleeding red is spending billions on renewable generation they don’t need.
Rethinking the link between gas, nuclear and renewables: is there a role for nuclear power?
As more and more intermittent generation is being installed under the force of mandates and subsidies, there is a growing appreciation of the challenges the system will face.
In CitiGroup’s recent analysis of Germany’s grid, they note the role solar is currently playing, picking up peak loads during the day, with a typical winter workday (left), a sunny workday (middle) and a sunny weekend (right).
They then show what is expected to happen as more solar is added to the grid for the same three scenarios:
What they observe is the daily solar loads eventually close down baseload generating facilities pushing them to the shoulder periods.
The picture at the far right is not dissimilar to the so-called “duck curve”, named for its duck-like shape, generated by California’s system operator as they face the realities of growing solar installations:
As more and more solar is added to the grid, solar generation during peak hours increases and dispatchable resources such as gas are cut back. As the sun sets later in the day, dispatchable resources must increase in both amounts and ramp rates to match the dropping levels of solar generation. Today it is not a big problem, but by 2020, the increased solar generation causes the “belly” of the duck to increase in size, magnifying the rapid changes in generation as the sun goes down, just as loads are increasing toward the end of the day when people return home and fire up air conditioners.
The solution will be difficult as even gas generation will be stressed by these rapid changes. Some form of fast acting storage will be needed.
But it is only a problem because of the way we have chosen to integrate solar into the grid. If adequate storage were used instead to store solar generation during peak hours for use during off-peak periods, management of the grid would be greatly eased. But thinking this way poses another opportunity: if intermittent generation were integrated with some form of storage, they could together provide an energy resource that becomes dispatchable, facilitating both load management and control of frequency and voltage fluctuations. Excess energy generated during peak periods could be stored and used to balance the system while operating baseload generating facilities such as nuclear plants at high capacity factors where they are most economic. As a by-product, nuclear plants would replace gas facilities, minimizing carbon from gas and avoiding the capital investment in gas generating facilities that were never intended to carry much of the load anyway.
The need for a national nuclear policy
None of this will happen unless there is a recognized national interest to be served by encouraging the role of nuclear power in national energy policies, much as the APS report recommended.
We have for too long been guided by utopian visions that are impractical, and uneconomic. At issue is the “renewables-only, no-nukes” energy vision first articulated four decades ago by Amory Lovins and now embedded in the DNA of too many long time environmental advocates. As many studies have shown, it is possible in theory, but at what cost and with what infrastructure challenges?
The problem was summed up well by Kevin Bullis, editor of MIT’s Technology Review:
“… delve into these roadmaps and you’ll often find jaw-dropping numbers of solar panels and wind turbines, radical changes to existing infrastructure, and amazing assumptions about our ability to cut energy use that make switching to renewable energy seem more daunting.”
In October 2013, a study was released by Megan Nicholson and Matthew Stepp of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation critiquing what they called the “clean energy deployment consensus”, meaning the view held by so many that such futures are a legitimate aspiration. They conclude these scenarios “downplay significant and possibly infeasible renewable capacity scale-up”, they “overlook or misrepresent persistent storage and integration challenges that will pose significant costs to consumers at high levels of renewables penetration” and they are weakened by limiting “the technology options of a renewable future to wind, solar, and water resources, instead of incorporating other low- and zero- carbon solutions into the projections to maximize cost effectiveness”. They further argue that nuclear energy “should not be excluded from future plans when considering economically feasible futures.”
It is long past time to face the global realities of the energy challenge facing this generation: decarbonization, serving emerging nations, and doing so with an achievable and sustainable pathway that will actually achieve these ends. It is not that renewables per se are the problem, but that the focus has been too intent on using renewables only with gas as a bridge fuel while excluding nuclear power, in some cases taking on the character of a parlor game (e.g., “Wind power is poised to kick nuclear’s ass”), with various interests competing against each other.
If the same intellectual and financial energies were invested in an alternate vision, one that uses our best non-carbon resources including nuclear power in the most cost effective, complementary and resource efficient ways, it would be possible to pursue policies that offer a much greater chance of achieving our energy and environmental goals with lower social costs. Getting there will require a shift in old paradigms, and agreement that such a vision serves the national interest. Given developments during the past year, there is positive hope for such a change.