The Clean Energy Conundrum

The worldwide movement toward a clean energy future is barreling ahead. Most clean energy advocates seem to focus on wind and solar power as their resources of choice, and it shows, as the installed capacity of both are growing at remarkable rates.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)—the national trade association for the U.S. solar energy industry—the U.S. installed 10.6 GW of solar PV capacity in 2018, reaching 64.2 GW of total installed capacity by year end. SEIA expects the U.S.’s total installed PV capacity to at least double over the next five years.

Likewise, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)—the national trade association for the U.S. wind industry—said U.S. wind power capacity increased 8% in 2018 to 96.4 GW of total installed capacity. In April, AWEA said more than 35.1 GW of wind power capacity was either under construction or in advanced development across 31 states and would come online “in the near future.” Furthermore, AWEA expects the U.S. offshore wind sector to scale-up rapidly in coming years, so the future looks bright all around.

Emissions-free Nuclear Power

However, one clean energy resource is seemingly being forgotten or cast aside. According to a ScottMadden Management Consultants report titled Spinning Our Wheels: How Nuclear Plant Closures Threaten to Offset Gains from Renewables, nuclear power provided about 54% of U.S. carbon-free generation in 2018, more than wind, solar, and hydro combined.

The report suggests the U.S. electric generation sector needs to achieve 100% decarbonization in order for the nation to meet the Paris Agreement’s 80% decarbonization goal for the entire economy by 2050. That would require nearly tripling the current production of carbon-free sources.

“To make such meaningful progress is not a choice between nuclear and renewables, but a need to keep and grow both, as both technologies can displace carbon-emitting generating sources,” the report says.

But therein lies a problem. Not only is nuclear not growing—only one new construction project is in progress in the U.S. and there seems to be little interest in beginning others—but there are also several plants at risk of permanent closure. That means renewable resources would have to make up even more ground to reach the 100% decarbonization target.

ScottMadden defined four at-risk categories, which were retired, announced, in jeopardy, and reprieved. Beginning with 2008 as a basis year, the company identified more than 310,000 GWh of nuclear generation at risk. Furthermore, researchers reassessed the at-risk categories by factoring in license expirations, assuming no license extensions given the current economic and political climate. It found that licenses would expire in the next 15 years for 35 of the remaining 60 operating U.S. nuclear reactors. In that case, early retirement of all at-risk nuclear plants would represent a giveback of more than 649,000 GWh in 2035.

For comparison, hydro, wind, and solar combined to produce slightly more than 660,000 GWh in 2018. Thus, the U.S. would essentially be starting down the clean energy path from scratch today compared to 2008 levels if all the at-risk nuclear units were ultimately retired.

The German Case

A similar scenario has already been experienced in Germany. The ScottMadden report notes that in 2000, Germany’s Renewable Energy Act established feed-in tariffs and priority grid access for renewables. Since then, renewable energy has increased as a percentage of Germany’s gross electricity generation from 6.2% to 37.8% last year. However, roughly 40% of Germany’s nuclear plants were closed in 2011, and despite spending nearly $222 billion on renewable energy subsidies, greenhouse gas emissions only decreased about 4% from 2000 to 2016. Today, coal remains the single largest source of electricity in Germany.

To add insult to injury, Germans also pay the highest power prices in Europe, with residents billed more than €0.30/kWh compared to an average of less than €0.20/kWh in the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, Germany’s seven still-operating nuclear power plants are all slated to close by 2022, suggesting the country’s emissions profile will take another big hit.

Action Needed

A similar message was delivered in a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report titled Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol wrote in his foreword to the report, “Without action to provide more support for nuclear power, global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly.”

The IEA report suggests lifetime extensions of nuclear power plants are crucial to getting the energy transition back on track. Yet, life extensions are merely a stop-gap measure. New construction and/or advanced technology will eventually be needed to replace existing units. But there is some hope in that regard, the IEA said interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) is rising, and it suggested there is a case for governments to fund further research and development. “Standardisation of reactor designs would be crucial to benefit from economies of scale in the manufacturing of SMRs,” the report says.

“Policy makers hold the key to nuclear power’s future,” Birol said in a statement announcing the release of the IEA report. “Electricity market design must value the environmental and energy security attributes of nuclear power and other clean energy sources.” The question is whether lawmakers have the political will to save reactors. Nuclear proponents failed to get legislation enacted in Pennsylvania that would have saved Three Mile Island Unit 1. Exelon announced in May that the plant will close permanently in September.

The ScottMadden report concludes: “If the goal is to grow overall clean energy in a significant way, the United States will need to preserve existing zero-carbon resources and develop more zero-carbon resources, such as renewables and nuclear.” I couldn’t agree more. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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