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In 2017, the myth of powering the world with 100% renewables has started to crack

When thinking about 2017, it is easy to see the bankruptcy of Westinghouse and the subsequent cancellation of its Summer project in South Carolina as this year’s big issue.  But as the year has drawn to a close, the continuation of its AP1000 project at Plant Vogtle in Georgia has been approved by the regulator and there is every expectation that Westinghouse will emerge from bankruptcy in 2018.

So while important, to us there is a much more important defining issue for 2017.  It is the very real start of a movement that recognizes that powering the world with 100% renewables is a myth – and that chasing a myth will not get us to our global goal of meeting the world’s increasing energy needs while reducing carbon emissions and successfully combating climate change.

There were a number of defining moments in 2017 that highlight this change in attitude.

First there was the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar”, by 21 prominent scientists taking issue with Mark Jacobson’s earlier study claiming that 100% renewables is feasible in the USA by 2050.  In a nutshell, the paper found many poor assumptions in the Marc Jacobson paper and ultimately finds that its conclusion that 100% renewables in the United States by 2050 is false.  And how does Marc Jacobson respond to this criticism?  Does he review his work, make changes and then show that his conclusion remains valid?  No, he does what some would do when their beliefs are under attack, he sues.  This is one of the most shameful episodes of the year.  A scientist suing when others disagree with him is just not the way things are done.  Science is about skepticism and continuous questioning.  A peer reviewed paper that is critical of another one is to be applauded and responded to, to continue the discussion.  Suing those who disagree is simply not one of the options.

Second, we saw Germany called out for its lack of progress on decarbonization in recent years while holding COP23 in Bonn late this year.  While massively investing in new renewables, these are unable to take the place of its closing nuclear plants, thereby making coal king in Europe’s most polluting nation.  This story shows how a 12-thousand-year-old forest that has been almost completely consumed by the country’s ravenous addiction to coal power.

Other countries have seen the light as well.  The UK is strongly committed to new build nuclear and Sweden and France have realized that removing nuclear from the mix will do nothing to achieve their climate goals.  In Korea, the public decided to continue with a new build going against its new government’s policy.

And finally, we saw something this past year, we have not seen before – the rise of the pro-nuclear environmental NGO – as those who care about the environment and climate change are starting to realize that renewables alone is a path to nowhere.  This includes such organizations as Environmental Progress, Energy for Humanity and Mothers for Nuclear.

A look at the 2017 edition of the World Energy Outlook tells an interesting story.

Source:  World Energy Outlook 2017

Even with massive investment in renewable technology, fossil fuels remain king in electricity generation by 2040 still producing about half of all global electricity.  Wind and solar increase to anywhere from 20% in the New Policy scenario to about a third of electricity generation in the Sustainable Development Scenario (the scenario that shows what can be done to meet Paris objectives).  This is even though wind and solar make up about 45% of the total investment in new capacity and global subsidy for renewables grows from about $140 billion per year to $200 billion.

Looking deeper at the numbers, it can be seen that this investment results in a huge increase in wind and solar capacity of 5000 GW in the Sustainable Development Scenario. All other things being equal, this same amount of energy would only have required about 1500 GW of nuclear to be built since a nuclear plant produces about 3 times more energy than an equivalent size of solar plant and more than 4.5 times as much energy as wind capacity.  And this is before any consideration of the intermittency of wind and solar and the needed improvements to systems to accommodate that – and of course the predominantly fossil backup needed for when the wind doesn’t blow, and the sun doesn’t shine.

What this shows is that wind and solar are good ways to reduce fossil use, probably by about 30% or so.  But they are not good ways to REPLACE fossil fuels in their entirety.  This must be done by more robust alternatives such as hydro and nuclear.  These are the only large-scale base load options that are both reliable and low carbon available today.

And what about storage?  Often, we hear that once storage technology improves, this will be what is needed for renewables to break free of their intermittency.  Of course, this sounds better than it actually is.  In reality, storage would be ideal for base load plants like nuclear where it can help store energy generated during times of low demand reducing the need to build new peaking generating plant.  On the other hand, storing enough energy from wind and solar would require massive overbuilding of capacity to collect extra energy during the 20% of the time the sun is shining and the 30%, the wind is blowing.

Changing beliefs is hard.   We live in a time when all opinions are considered valid, whether from experts or lay people.  And most of all, people are challenging expert views as never before.  Yes, it is a romantic view of the future to believe that all of our energy will come from energy sources such as the wind and the sun.  But beliefs don’t change physics and if we really want to change the world, we need more nuclear power to replace a large portion of today’s fossil generation.  Only then will we be on our way to a truly low carbon economy.  We are under no illusion that this change is coming quickly, but 2017 saw the start.  There are now cracks in the 100% renewable myth.  It will take hard work and ongoing support from the new generation of pro-nuclear NGOs to keep broadening the crack in 2018 – and who knows?  Maybe the tide will shift, and we will be on our way to a truly sustainable future.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy new year!

An Inconvenient Reality – Nuclear Power is needed to achieve climate goals

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon, I decided to go and see Al Gore’s update on climate change, “An Inconvenient Sequel:  Truth to Power”.  While certainly a powerful update on the importance of climate change and on the need to do something about it, I was disappointed.  Why?  Because, once again, after repeating the phrase “climate crisis” many many many times over its 140 minutes (would really like to know how many times this phrase is repeated), the solutions presented exclude the one with the largest potential, nuclear power.

While showing us melting glaciers and extreme weather, a case is then made that renewables are finally taking hold and the future is now within reach.   The film claims there are jurisdictions that are indeed close to 100% renewables and talks about some already achieving 100% for limited periods of time.

We have talked about this before in our discussion of the recently published study that criticized the popular Marc Jacobson paper claiming a 100% renewable United States is achievable by 2050.  It simply cannot be achieved; and it’s time to focus on a larger basket of solutions that can actually solve the climate crisis.

The large Banning Pass 615 MW wind farm in California provides as much energy as one fifth of a standard 1,000 MW nuclear plant – is this what we consider environmental progress?

After watching the movie, I went to the web site and signed up for emails from the Climate Reality Project.  On the first email, there was a box asking for donations labelled “Science Matters”.  And yes, it does.  Science tells us that nuclear power provides large amounts of low carbon electricity economically and reliably.  In fact, during the recent Hurricane Harvey that flooded Houston Texas, it was the South Texas Project nuclear plants that kept running ensuring ongoing electricity supply.  If you want to advocate to resolve the climate crisis, then all science matters, not just the science that supports a certain point of view.

However, there are also important lessons to be learned for the nuclear industry from this movie.  First of all, the environmental movement has succeeded in making the word “renewable” completely synonymous with both “low carbon” and “clean”.  There is little argument from the public when stating renewables are the solution to climate change.  Whereas in reality it is “low carbon” energy that is needed.  Look at any country’s projections for the future and they will talk about their target for renewables, not for low carbon energy.  If we really have a “climate crisis”, then limiting the solution to a subset of what is available when it comes to low carbon options will not lead to the outome that we all need.

There is no doubt that Al Gore is a very credible champion in the fight against climate change.  The nuclear industry does not have the same although change is in the air.  As we discussed last month, there are now pro-nuclear NGOs with credible leadership.  In the movie, Al Gore offers training to support those who want to become climate advocates.  This includes lectures and the provision of useful presentation materials.  I suggest that this is what is required for the nuclear industry.  Provide training in nuclear advocacy and offer up materials to be used.  While there is excellent information available on industry websites such as the Canadian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and of course the vast resources on the World Nuclear Association site, I would suggest there is still more work to be done.  We now live in a visual world so let’s make sure we offer a large photo gallery and useful charts and diagrams that can readily be dropped into any presentation.  This includes factual information on other forms of energy as well such as wind and solar – and information on countries such as Germany who have taken decisions on their energy future that clearly show their progress, or lack thereof.

So, if the movie is right and the world is in crisis, it makes absolutely no sense to not use all the options available to humanity to solve this crisis.  Limiting the fight to options that are clearly insufficient is akin to madness.   At the end of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power,” the audience is asked to take the pledge to be inconvenient — to keep demanding schools, businesses and towns invest in clean, renewable energy.  We agree, be inconvenient and also demand that nuclear power play the significant role that it can to really make a difference because the inconvenient reality is that renewables are just not going to get us there.

Sometimes we need to ask if, for many in the environmental movement, decarbonization is really the goal?  Imagine a world where all the electricity was suddenly generated by nuclear power eliminating carbon emissions completely so that the climate crisis was solved.  Would Al Gore consider this a win?  I just don’t know.

Energy policy cannot be based on fantasy – the truth may yet prevail

Over the last week or so, the internet has been abuzz with articles on the recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar”, by 21 prominent scientists taking issue with Mark Jacobson’s earlier study claiming that 100% renewables is feasible in the USA by 2050.   Given the strong desire to believe in this utopian future; and how many prominent people have referenced this Jacobson paper to support their energy views, it is somewhat surprising how much press the opposing view elicited.  That being said, most of the articles had titles like, “A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid” or “Fisticuffs Over the Route to a Clean-Energy Future” making it seem like this is about scientific debate, when it is actually about a paper that has been proven to be false.

As stated by this paper’s authors, “In this paper, we evaluate that study [the Jacobson study] and find significant short- comings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.”  These are pretty strong statements for an academic paper.

Of course, for most of us in the industry this study is telling us what we already knew, that 100% reliance on intermittent low-density energy sources is not going to meet the needs of an energy hungry world.  We suggest you read a few of the articles and of most importance, the actual paper.  We would also recommend you read the article by James Conca “Debunking The Unscientific Fantasy Of 100% Renewables” which takes aim at the issue of bad science.

But the world is passionately in love with renewables.  What can be better or more natural than wind and solar?  It makes you feel good – there are no problems that can’t be overcome with these wondrous technologies.  They definitely don’t cost too much [but they need subsidies], or have environmental or waste issues [solar waste is increasing] and of course their intermittency is a modest problem to be resolved by smart people [by building more gas to back them up].  On the other hand, fossil fuels emit carbon and while nuclear plants are low carbon, they are dangerous – everybody knows that.  And in this era of fake news and alternate facts, why would anyone want to change this glorious view of the future?

Of course, the option that does tick all the boxes for a low carbon energy revolution is nuclear power.  And we are starting to see this position being more widely accepted.  As the dream of a renewables only future fades, the merits of nuclear are once again coming to the forefront.  That is why the US government is taking action to save its operating nuclear plants that are struggling in de-regulated markets, the UK is strongly supporting new build, Canada is refurbishing its aging nuclear fleet and China is rapidly expanding its share of nuclear production.

Countries like Germany that are committed to phasing out nuclear for a 100% renewable future are further proof that this approach to decarbonization is flawed as they add coal production to make up for their nuclear shortfall.  Now Korea seems to be following this approach as their new president is committed to getting rid of both coal and nuclear (70% of their current system) for a renewable future.  We only hope this analysis of Jacobson’s paper is a wake-up call that is heeded in these markets that now seem to be following an unrealistic romantic world view rather than a realistic one.

Once again, I have to quote Michael Shellenberger.  In his proposal for Atomic Humanism his first principle is – “nuclear is special. Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment. Nothing else — not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering — can do that.  How does the special child, who is bullied for her specialness, survive? By pretending she’s ordinary. As good as — but no better than! — coal, natural gas or renewables.”

And it is this pretending that needs to stop.  There is no longer a need to be defensive when supporting the nuclear option.   Or as stated by the Department of Energy in the USA“…  we’re particularly proud of the contributions being made by the nation’s nuclear power plants. Nuclear is, in short, a clean, constant, and downright cool energy resource. Unfortunately, many people may not understand how remarkable this unique energy source truly is, or the role that it plays in our energy portfolio and Americans’ daily lives.

We are at a crossroad.  The time has come to strongly support the best technology that can reliably meet the energy hunger of the world and we need to make it known to policy makers everywhere.  Making energy policy on a hope and a dream is no way to plan our energy future.  Nuclear power is the only true path to a low carbon future with the vast amount of energy needed to fuel the world that is both economic and reliable – and yes safe.  If we work hard to support the facts, the truth may yet prevail.  Or as stated by Michael Shellenberger – Nuclear is special – let’s say it loud and let’s say it proud!

Nuclear Power Economics

At the World Nuclear Fuel Conference (WNFC) conference in Toronto this month, I will be presenting a paper Nuclear Power Economics and Project Structuring – 2017 Edition” to introduce the most recent version of this World Nuclear Association (WNA) report.  For full disclosure, I am the chair of the WNA Economics Working Group and this is the group responsible for the report’s preparation.

The report sets out to highlight that new nuclear build is justified in many countries on the strength of today’s economic criteria, to identify the key risks associated with a nuclear power project and how these may be managed to support a business case for nuclear investment and, of major importance, to promote a better understanding of these complex topics and encourage subsequent wider discussion.

When it comes to the conclusion, little has changed since the first report was issued back in 2005.  At that time, it concluded “In most industrialized countries today new nuclear power plants offer the most economical way to generate base-load electricity – even without consideration of the geopolitical and environmental advantages that nuclear energy confers.”  The 2017 version comes to the same conclusion stating, “Nuclear power is an economic source of electricity generation, combining the advantages of security, reliability, virtually zero greenhouse gas emissions and cost competitiveness.

Of course, while some will say this is no surprise given the report is prepared by the nuclear industry; it must also be noted that it is not based on any industry funded research – but rather it is based on high-quality mostly-government reports on the economics of various energy options such as the “Projected Costs of Electricity” issued by the IEA and the NEA.

While the conclusions may not have changed in the last decade, the nuclear world certainly has. Who would have guessed back in 2005 that the Koreans would have won a bid to build the first nuclear power plants in the UAE and that the first of these units would now be nearing completion while the first EPR in Finland continues to be delayed?  There was the accident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, major financial issues at the traditional large nuclear power companies such as Areva of France and Westinghouse of the USA; all while the companies from Russia, China and Korea have grown both domestically and with exports.  Projects in the East are being built to cost and schedule with their outcomes being predictable due to the large programs underway in places like China and Korea using largely standardized designs.  On the other hand, first of a kind projects in Europe and the USA are experiencing significant challenges.  With new build being a function of capital cost and schedule, clearly poor construction performance will have an impact on the economics. The global industry is now also contemplating a new generation of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) intended to reduce both project cost and risk.

And what about the competition?  There has been huge global growth in renewables strongly supported with government subsidies and a dramatic drop in the price of gas in North America.  The impacts of these subsidised intermittent renewables and ‘un-carbon costed’ gas have depressed wholesale prices in deregulated electricity markets creating a number of issues in maintaining existing large scale nuclear baseload generation (as well as other baseload options).  Policymakers are finally seeing the negative impact of these issues and are just starting to address these fundamental market design problems.

Yet in spite of all of these massive changes in the market, the reality remains that:

  • Existing nuclear plants are operating very efficiently and unit operating costs are low relative to alternative generating technologies in most markets
  • The global growth in demand for electricity creates opportunity for continued nuclear growth even when ignoring environmental considerations
  • Nuclear energy competitiveness depends mainly on the capital required to build the plant. At discount rates of 5-8% nuclear is generally competitive with other generating technologies

While there are a host of issues affecting the future of nuclear power that are far from easy to address, the fundamentals remain.  Overall, new nuclear plants can generate electricity at predictable, low and stable costs for 60 years of operating life and in all likelihood even longer in the future. Investment in nuclear should therefore be an attractive option for countries which require significant baseload amounts of low cost power over the long term.

In an era where facts no longer matter, consequences still do

Over the last few years, we have written extensively about the strength of peoples’ beliefs and how difficult it is to change them.  In spite of this, I thought we were making progress with a push to more evidence-based decision making.  For something as polarizing as nuclear power, facts-based decision making is critical to increasing support.  (I understand the paradigm of fear of radiation is more emotional than fact based and I agree that we need to appeal to emotions to create the change we need – but let’s leave that to a future discussion.  In any case it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the facts on your side.)

With the populist surge in 2016 we have seen an accompanying rise in complete disregard for facts; all the way to the propagation of absolute lies (or “alternative facts”) to support peoples’ beliefs.  I don’t want to get into a political discussion nor take sides on right versus left.  What I do want to do in today’s post is to discuss something more fundamental – i.e. that although we are free to believe what we want – that beliefs have consequences – and that consequences matter.

So, let’s look at what happens when countries believe they can eliminate nuclear power from the mix and replace it with more wind and solar power.  Of course, I am talking about Germany.  Reducing carbon emissions is a reasonable goal as evidence (alternative facts notwithstanding) shows that climate change is impacting our environment and has long-term implications for our entire society.  On the other hand, removing a low-cost low-carbon source of energy like nuclear power because of safety concerns is based on a strong element of fear rather than evidence.  In fact, Germany’s nuclear plants are likely some of the safest in the world and there is no reason to suspect they will result in a catastrophic accident that means the end of Germany as we know it – yet that is what people fear.

So, what happens in a case like this?  The results are in.  Fossil fuel use is increasing in Germany, carbon emissions are going up and so is the cost of energy.  The German people are paying more money for an outcome that does more damage to the environment and hence, their health.  Frankly, it’s a high price to pay for the piece of mind that comes from eliminating the perceived risk of nuclear.  Or in other words, the extreme fear of nuclear is driving policy more than concern for either energy cost or the environment.

As shown above, closure of another nuclear plant in 2015 resulted in increased emissions in 2016 (the first full year it was out of service) even though there was a substantial substitution of gas to replace coal.

And after adding 10 percent more wind turbine capacity and 2.5 percent more solar panel capacity between 2015 and 2016, less than one percent more electricity from wind and one percent less electricity from solar was generated in 2016.  So, not only did new solar and wind not make up for the lost nuclear, the percentage of time during 2016 that solar and wind produced electricity declined dramatically.   And why was this the case?  Very simply because Germany had significantly less sunshine and wind in 2016 than 2015.

This analysis was done by Environmental Progress and shows that the intermittency of these renewable sources of electricity both throughout the day and from year to year mean that even huge increases in capacity of these forms of generation will continue to require fossil backup in the absence of nuclear power making 100% renewables an unachievable goal.  Another study shows that to achieve a 100% renewable system in Germany would require a back-up system capable of providing power at a level of 89% of peak load to address the intermittency.

Comparing Germany to France, France has more than double the share of low carbon energy sources and Germany has more than twice the cost of energy as France.

So, trying to decarbonize by also removing nuclear from the mix at the same time is simply too high a mountain to climb.  The following shows that German emissions were 43% higher in 2016 without the nuclear plants that have been already shut down.  Keep in mind that they still do have operating nuclear and with more plants to shut down, the future trend is not likely to change.

It’s not just about Germany.  As Japan struggles to get its nuclear plants back on line after the 2011 Fukushima accident, its use of coal has skyrocketed.  In 2015 its use of fossil fuels for electricity generation was 82% compared to 62% in 2010 when the nuclear plants were in operation.  And now Japan plans to build 45 new coal plants (20 GW) over the next decade to meet its energy needs.

Finally, we can also look at South Australia, a nuclear free zone.  Recent blackouts due in part to lower wind availability and the inability of thermal plants to make up the shortfall are also leading to questions on ‘how much renewables is too much’.

So, we can all continue to hold our beliefs very dearly and only listen to those that support them, while vilifying those that do not.  However, please keep in mind that in a world where the farcical becomes reality, results still matter.  And for now, the results are clear, taking nuclear power out of the mix in Germany is not achieving its political-planners’ goals.  Yet these results are also not likely to change any German minds when it comes to nuclear power.  But hey, why worry about the outcome when you know you are right or as said by comedian Chico Marx in the famous Marx brothers movie Duck Soup “Who you gonna believe – me or your own eyes?”?

Want to minimize radiation from power generation – build more nuclear

Yes, you read that right.  For years, there have been efforts to demonstrate that people who live near nuclear plants or work at nuclear plants are getting sick from all that darn radiation they are receiving.  Over the years these stories have been debunked as study after study has shown that there is no impact from radiation from living near or working at a nuclear plant.

But now a study has been done that shows that of most of the options to generate electricity, nuclear actually releases the least amount of radiation.  This is documented in UNSCEAR’s, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, on its study to consider the amount of radiation released from the life cycle of different types of electricity generation.

The Committee conducted the comparative study by investigating sources of exposure related to radiation discharges from electricity-generating technologies based on nuclear power; the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and biofuels; and geothermal, wind and solar power. The results may surprise some, especially those that strongly believe that nuclear pollutes the earth with radiation, coal with a range of air pollutants and carbon, and that solar and wind are environmentally wonderful.

solar-panels-and-wind-turbines

Coal generation resulted in the highest collective doses to the public, both in total and per unit energy.  Coal radiation emissions result from coal mining, combustion of coal at power plants and coal ash deposits.  The study also considered occupational doses to workers.  Here is the biggest surprise.  As stated “With regard to the construction phase of the electricity-generating technologies, by far the largest collective dose to workers per unit of electricity generated was found in the solar power cycle, followed by the wind power cycle. The reason for this is that these technologies require large amounts of rare earth metals, and the mining of low-grade ore exposes workers to natural radionuclides during mining.”  It is important to note that in all cases these levels of exposure are relatively low and have little impact to public health.

This study only addresses normal discharges during the lifecycle of the station.  Possible larger releases as a result of nuclear accidents are not considered and we recognize that many will argue it is accidents and their consequences that create the largest fear of nuclear power.

So why talk about this?  The reality is that this information is not likely to change even one single mind on whether someone supports nuclear power or fears it.  We live in a world where facts no longer matter – the only truth is the one that any one person believes.  Well, we believe that scientific study remains the best way forward to establish truth and that studies such as these are part of the path forward.  No one electricity generation technology is perfect.  Coal is cost effective and technically strong, but is also a strong emitter of a range of pollutants (including radiation); renewables such as solar and wind are clean but their resource is intermittent and they have issues with both their front end (mining of rare earths) and disposal at the end of their life cycle.

Nuclear power continues to have a good story to tell, with respect to its economics, reliability, environmental attributes and the many good jobs it creates for local economies.  Concerns about nuclear relate mostly to one major issue – fear of radiation.  And fear is a strong emotion that is not easily changed.  But at least what we have here is another study to show that radiation emissions from normal operations of the nuclear fuel cycle is not something to fear – and in fact if you really want to minimize the collective dose to the public, nuclear power remains the option of choice.

Dreaming of a future with abundant clean reliable energy – then dream about nuclear

When we look to the future, people the world over are hopeful for an era of abundant reliable electricity supplying all of our energy needs; all at a reasonable cost and with little to no impact to the environment. Unfortunately, in many western countries the politics of electricity planning has become largely a case of exploring the depths of our imagination with no real path to achieving this essential goal.

As stated by Malcolm Grimston at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Annual Symposium last month in his brilliant talk “Sclerosis at the heart of energy policy” (in advance of a book he has coming out), we have become so accustomed to reliable and cost effective electricity supply that we can no longer ever consider a scenario where this can be at risk. He noted we even use the less than frightening phrase “keeping the lights on” when talking about reliability which greatly understates the importance of reliable electricity supply to our modern society. (As he said, he turns out his lights every night without concern – certainly a large scale disruption to our energy supplies would be much worse than having the lights go off.)

Given we can’t imagine electricity reliability to be at risk; and given we have relatively slow growth in most western advanced economies there is a major reluctance to take decisions to protect and invest in our infrastructure for the future even while we want to work towards decarbonizing the system. Yes electricity demand growth is modest, but our lives depend more on reliable electricity supplies than ever before. Without electricity society quickly becomes paralyzed with no ability to communicate, travel, maintain our food supply, sanitation, deliver health care and so on…in fact it is very difficult for us in all of our modern comfort to imagine how severe the consequences would be. Therefore in our great complacency we continue to do nothing because we all expect that the next great technological breakthrough is just around the corner. All we need to do is wait and advanced renewables will be available so we can have clean limitless energy forever. And so goes the narrative.

Ben Heard in his excellent WNA presentation “World without Nuclear” quotes Naomi Klein as she spoke to the media against the nuclear option in South Australia – “What’s exciting about this renewables revolution spreading around the world, is that it shows us that we can power our economies without the enormous risk that we have come to accept”. She said the latest research showed renewables could power 100 per cent of the world’s economies. “We can do it without those huge risks and costs associated with nuclear so why wouldn’t we?” she said.

But of course if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ben’s presentation goes on to review 20 studies that suggest that a world powered by 100% renewables can be a reality. However, in his review he rates most of these studies as poor. Overall he concludes that there is actually scant evidence for 100 % renewable feasibility while the literature affirms large dispatchable, i.e. guaranteed 24/7 supply is indispensable. His final conclusion is that global decarbonization requires a much faster-growing nuclear sector.

Fast Decarbonization

Reproduced from Agneta Rising Presentation at the WNA Annual Symposium 2015

But how can we have more nuclear when it has this perception of huge risks? We have written extensively on the issues associated with the perception of nuclear as a dangerous technology when in reality it has the best safety record of all technologies out there so we won’t talk about that again now. In his presentation Malcolm Grimston places much of the responsibility for this public perception squarely on the nuclear industry noting that the industry “spends half of its time implying that it is the new priesthood, with superhuman powers to guarantee safety; and the other half of its time behaving as if radiation is much much more dangerous than it actually is.” While it is hard to know what comes first, the fear or the industry reaction to it, we certainly agree that Malcolm makes a good point.

Then there are those that say nuclear power is way too expensive to be part of our future electricity system even though there is no doubt that wind and solar power are clearly the more expensive options. The most recent edition of “Project Costs of Electricity”; an important report that is now in its 8th edition from the IEA and NEA looking at the costs of various forms of electricity generation has just been published. (This report is a must for anyone seriously looking at trends and costs of electricity generation around the globe.) While the report acknowledges the huge gains made by renewables in reducing their costs, it also demonstrates that nuclear power is one of the lowest cost options available depending upon the scenario. Of more importance, the report notes that the belief that nuclear costs continue to rise is false stating that, in general, baseload technologies are not increasing in costs and specifically “this is particularly notable in the case of nuclear technologies, which have costs that are roughly on a par with those reported in the prior study, thus undermining the growing narrative that nuclear costs continue to increase globally”.

We will have more to say about this report in upcoming posts. But for now, let’s all do more than dream about a future of abundant, reliable, clean and yes, economic electricity; let’s make this dream a reality by making sure that the electricity system of the future includes highly reliable 24/7 nuclear power.

As a solution for climate change – nuclear power is falling behind

Recently, the 2014 edition of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) was issued. The ETP is issued on a two year cycle; the current edition takes the World Energy Outlook 2013 forecasts and looks to the longer term out to 2050. With climate change now becoming even more pressing I thought it would be interesting to see the progress over the last two years (I wrote about the 2012 edition back in June of that year). According to the report, as an important contributor to meeting climate requirements going forward, nuclear power is falling behind.

On the positive side, the IEA sees the opportunity by which “policy and technology together become driving forces – rather than reactionary tools – in transforming the energy sector over the next 40 years.” The report looks to balance energy security, costs and energy-related environmental impacts. But in the end it concludes that “Radical action is needed to actively transform energy supply and end use. ”

Why is radical action required? Of all the technologies required to meet the 2D target (this scenario sets a target of only 2 degrees C change as compared to 6 degrees in the status quo scenario), the IEA suggests that only renewables are on track while pretty much every other clean technology is not moving fast enough. Two important technologies not meeting targets are Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Nuclear Power. To no one’s surprise, CCS has yet to be proven and become a viable commercial option to de-carbonize fossil fuel emissions. As for nuclear power; after the Fukushima accident, growth has been slower than previously predicted and is expected to be 5 to 25% below the level required by the 2D scenario in 2025.

This leaves much of the burden on renewables to meet the need for lower carbon emissions. Surprisingly, in the hi-renewables scenario, solar becomes the dominant source of electricity reaching 40% penetration by 2050. Realistic or pipe dream? I don’t know. One thing is certain, (see chart below), with almost half of future electricity generation coming from variable renewables, compared to almost nothing today, the IEA is demonstrating the need for a huge technology transformation in how the world generates electricity.

IEAETP2014ElectricityGenerationbyTechnology

The following chart is the most telling of all. Over the past 40 years carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy supplied) has barely budged. Almost no change at all. Yet now we require the carbon intensity to be cut in half in the next 35 years (meaning less than half as much carbon produced per unit of energy supplied). This requires a complete change in how energy is delivered.

IEAETP2014CarbonIntensity

The reason is simple. Fossil fuels still represent 80% of global electricity generation and most of the energy used for transport. To disrupt the curve requires going off fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives. To achieve the 2D scenario, electrification is paramount given the option of generating electricity with clean alternatives. Fossil fuel use must then be cut in half to about 40% of electricity generation and much of the remainder makes use of CCS to reduce its carbon footprint. The report notes that gas must only be a bridging technology to support renewables in the short to medium term as gas still represents a major carbon source. So what’s left? Solar and wind to replace fossil fuels and CCS to make them cleaner.

Of course nuclear power is an obvious candidate to make a larger contribution. It is a mature technology and already is an important source of low carbon energy. Given its energy intensity it is certainly feasible to implement more nuclear power on a very large scale. And even with recent set-backs, there are now clear signs of renewal as the industry puts the Fukushima accident behind it.

For example, China continues to expand nuclear power at an ever increasing pace. Japan has reconfirmed its commitment to nuclear although restarts are slower than anticipated and the ultimate level of nuclear in post-Fukushima Japan remains unknown. Russia is increasing its commitment to nuclear and, of most interest, is becoming a major exporter offering innovative risk and financing structures that have not been seen in the market to date. Other markets are also starting to move; the latest being Hungary which has just approved a new plant for the PAKS site. However some other important nuclear markets are having challenges. Korea has cut back its long term plans and France is looking to limit the contribution of nuclear power in the future.

While nuclear power has challenges with public acceptance, this report notes the commercial issues – economics and implementation risk. As can be seen in the following chart, the IEA estimates nuclear to be the most expensive option after off-shore wind. I have not had time to delve into the details and review the numbers. However, taking this at face value, we know that some projects in the west are not doing as well as they should be. On the other hand, standardized series-build in countries like China and Russia are demonstrating a strong path to lower project costs and risks.

IEAETP2014economics

There is no hi-nuclear scenario in this edition of the report. That is quite unfortunate as a strong renewed commitment to nuclear power is a very good way to help move this plan to achieve a 2D future become a reality. By stating that nuclear power is not meeting expectations, the report lays out a clear challenge. Now it’s time to show the nuclear industry is up to it. If we really want to bend the carbon intensity curve, then more than ever, the world needs more nuclear power as an important part of a low carbon future.

Meeting the energy needs of the 21st century – is it time for a real nuclear renaissance?

As I started to read this year’s World Energy Outlook (WEO 2013) from the International Energy Agency (IEA), it was the very first line in the executive summary that caught my interest.  The report starts out with “Many of the longheld tenets of the energy sector are being rewritten.

It then goes on to explain: “Major importers are becoming exporters, while countries long-defined as major energy exporters are also becoming leading centres of global demand growth. The right combination of policies and technologies is proving that the links between economic growth, energy demand and energy-related CO2 emissions can be weakened. The rise of unconventional oil and gas and of renewables is transforming our understanding of the distribution of the world’s energy resources. Awareness of the dynamics underpinning energy markets is essential for decision makers attempting to reconcile economic, energy and environmental objectives. Those that anticipate global energy developments successfully can derive an advantage, while those that fail to do so risk making poor policy and investment decisions.”

What is clear is that energy is important!  Most of all there is change in the air – ignore it at your peril.  And with change comes opportunity.  This is where I want to focus my discussion this month.  But before I go on, I think it is useful to summarize the key points from the report to further clarify the paragraph above. The WEO 2013 is concluding the following:

  • The centre of gravity of energy demand is switching decisively to the emerging economies, particularly China, India and the Middle East, which drive global energy use one-third higher.
  • As the source of two-thirds of global greenhouse-gas emissions, the energy sector will be pivotal in determining whether or not climate change goals are achieved.
  • Large differences in regional energy prices have started a debate about the role of energy in unleashing or frustrating economic growth.
  • Energy price variations are set to affect industrial competitiveness, influencing investment decisions and company strategies.
  • Countries can reduce the impact of high prices by promoting more efficient, competitive and interconnected energy markets.
  • A renewed focus on energy efficiency is taking hold and is set to deliver benefits that extend well beyond improvements in competitiveness.
  • Enhancing energy competitiveness does not mean diminishing efforts to tackle climate change. Renewables account for nearly half of the increase in global power generation to 2035, with variable sources – wind and solar photovoltaics – making up 45% of the expansion in renewables.
  • Coal remains a cheaper option than gas for generating electricity in many regions, but policy interventions to improve efficiency, curtail local air pollution and mitigate climate change will be critical in determining its longer-term prospects.
  • Market conditions vary strikingly in different regions of the world, but the flexibility and environmental benefits of natural gas compared with other fossil fuels put it in a position to prosper over the longer term.

So there you have it.  The fastest growing economies have the fastest growing demand, high energy prices are slowing growth in some markets and giving an economic advantage to others with lower prices; and climate change is having an impact on energy decisions.

The above makes it sound as if the path to a low carbon future is built on more renewables and gas.  But is it really?  Looking at the following chart we can see that in the OECD countries where demand growth is modest and electricity supply is already robust, gas is the go-to fuel both due to cost and as a cleaner alternative to coal; and renewables are the supposed clean generation of the future.  Not surprisingly in the non-OECD countries where demand is growing much more quickly (read mostly China!), they are doing everything they can to develop all kinds of supply – including more coal, more gas, more renewables and yes, more nuclear.

IEAWEONov2013a

So what does this mean for nuclear power? According to the IEA, “Nuclear power generation increases by two-thirds in the New Policies Scenario, reaching 4,300 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2035. Demand is driven heavily by expansion in just a few countries: China accounts for around half of the global increase; Korea experiences the next largest increase over the projection period (the only OECD country to see appreciable growth), followed by India and Russia. Overall, non-OECD economies see their share of global demand for nuclear power jump from less than 20% to nearly 45% in 2035. While prospects for nuclear power at the global level are now less uncertain than they were two years ago, there are still key issues that remain unclear. These include the possibility of further changes in government policy, implications of the ongoing safety upgrades for plant economics and public confidence, and the impact of increased competition from shale gas.”

It should not be a surprise that those countries with the largest demand growth see a large benefit from increasing the use of nuclear power.  They need clean reliable baseload and nuclear meets this need.  In the more advanced OECD countries, many of these already have significant nuclear fleets (80% of current nuclear capacity is in OECD countries), have lower baseload growth and can (or at least they think they can) look at other alternatives.  Gas is replacing coal as a cleaner fossil option so long as it remains competitive and the challenges of new nuclear coupled with low demand growth put it more on the back burner.

IEAWEONov2013b

But is this the right path?  As I said last year when I reported on the WEO 2012, it is important to remember the WEO is not a forecast per se; rather it is a projection of how existing and potential government policies would look once implemented.  And what we still see one year later is a world investing heavily in fossil fuels to protect the status quo while also investing in renewables as a token path to the future.  Of more importance, the WEO shows a path to meet climate change goals that is based on efficiency to lower demand, movement from coal to gas and CCS technology to clean up some of the coal and then more renewables.

What goes unsaid is how this is fantasy.  Not that the world will continue down the path of burning fossil fuels for our electricity, but rather that we can do so and meet climate goals. The 2013 WEO New Policy scenario “leaves the world on a trajectory consistent with a long term average temperature increase of 3.6C, far above the internationally agreed 2C target”.   In their 450 scenario where the target is 2 degrees, there is more renewables, more conservation, more technology to clean fossil fuels and yes, a little more nuclear.

Given the need to decarbonize the electricity sector and the limits to using wind and solar (about half the renewable additions), it should be obvious that nuclear be a stronger option.  Yes, currently in North America low gas prices are challenging its competitiveness while in Europe, green ideology has a larger impact.  There is a onetime carbon improvement as coal is replaced by gas; but then gas becomes the largest carbon producer on the system – so where do we go from there?  And renewables will remain intermittent and likely costly for some time to come.  Nuclear power is clean, reliable and in most cases, economic; but of most importance – abundant.  Yes, in a resource constrained world, the amount of electricity we can potentially generate with nuclear power is almost limitless.  So why don’t we see more of it in the developed world?

The answer is that we still don’t have the political will.  And that comes from lack of public support.  Just this week the World Bank reiterated its policy that they don’t support nuclear power – even though they support all other forms of electricity generation.  Continued negative press about the status of Fukushima keep the public on edge.  For example this past month TEPCO started to remove the used fuel from the Unit 4 spent fuel bay.  This should have been a good news story yet most stories made it seem like a horrifically dangerous undertaking (and of course it is not).

The WEO makes the case that government support is what drives nuclear.  “The rate of expansion of nuclear power continues to be mainly policy driven. It expands in markets where there is a supportive policy framework, which in some cases actively targets a larger role for nuclear in the mix in order to achieve energy security aims. But policy frameworks can also hinder or eliminate nuclear power, often as a result of public opposition: even where there is no explicit ban, long permitting processes, such as in the United States, can significantly hinder development by increasing uncertainty about project completion and increasing costs.”

I was listening to a radio interview this past week with climate change scientist Richard Peltier.  [Interview starts at about 31:40 in the link].  He makes a strong case for getting the message out about scientific consensus.  While he notes that between 95 and 98% of scientists agree on the science of climate change, the press reports make it seem there is much more disagreement than there really is with the result that the public is confused.  The answer is to get out and speak at the grass roots level. Governments will not strongly support policies that battle climate change until the public believes it is necessary.  The same is true for nuclear power.  Governments will not strongly support increasing its use until the public are in agreement that it is safe and necessary.

We are seeing some progress.  In Pandora’s Promise, five environmentalists are now convinced of the advantages of nuclear power and they are actively advocating its use.  This past month four other environmentalists have released an open letter calling on world leaders to support development of safer nuclear power systems. In their letter they state, “As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Some governments are also taking on the challenge.  In the UK there is pretty much political unanimity that new nuclear is required to meet their climate goals.  The result is strong political support for nuclear new build.  A recent quote by Hergen Haye, Head of New Nuclear & Strategy, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), UK government “To replace Hinkley alone, we have to build 6000 wind turbines. Nuclear will help us to cut costs and to face the other environmental challenges. We cannot do without nuclear because renewables will not do things alone without making electricity bills rise.” (21 November 2013 in Brussels).

In France, after pandering to the greens and committing to close Fessenheim, the French government is finally saying that there will not be more closures. We see strong political support where nuclear is needed most in China, Russia and India although Korea is wrestling with their future plan due to recent scandals.

I come back to the first line of the WEO 2013, “Many of the longheld tenets of the energy sector are being rewritten.  This is a time of great opportunity.  So let’s make sure nuclear power is playing its increasingly important role by providing clean reliable generation to support economic growth and a brighter more secure future for us all.

The changing face of global energy – Is nuclear power being left behind?

I have just done my first pass of the Word Energy Outlook 2012 issued by the IEA this November.  Many of you will have seen some of the headlines – one of the most intriguing is that the US is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017 exceeding the output of Saudi Arabia.  With headlines like that how can you not want to read this report?

The trouble with trying to read and write about this report is that, as was the case with the Energy Technology Perspectives (which I talked about earlier this year), there is just so much in it to make you think that, agree or disagree, the report is full of interesting information that is worth discussing.

I have been a bit stuck on what perspective to take in this post.  Ultimately I decided to focus on some general points this month (of course with the outlook on nuclear as the key talking point) and then I will undoubtedly use the report for future discussions on more focused topics.

Reading the Executive Summary the report starts off with “The global energy map is changing, with potentially far-reaching consequences for energy markets and trade. It is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States and could be further reshaped by a retreat from nuclear power in some countries, continued rapid growth in the use of wind and solar technologies and by the global spread of unconventional gas production.”

When it comes to global energy production, this short phrase pretty much sums it up.  Strong North American oil production, more coal, less nuclear, more renewables and much more gas.  And not surprisingly, this  translates into more difficulty meeting climate change objectives.  It continues, “Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable pathSuccessive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.”  Another testament to the continuing lack of progress on meeting the world’s climate change challenges.

And finally when it comes to the future of nuclear power it recognizes the changes in some countries to cut back while others continue to move forward.

“The anticipated role of nuclear power has been scaled back as countries have reviewed policies in the wake of the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Japan and France have recently joined the countries with intentions to reduce their use of nuclear power, while its competitiveness in the United States and Canada is being challenged by relatively cheap natural gas. Our projections for growth in installed nuclear capacity are lower than in last year’s Outlook and, while nuclear output still grows in absolute terms (driven by expanded generation in China, Korea, India and Russia), its share in the global electricity mix falls slightly over time.

I am showing all of the above quotes because in a few words from the Executive Summary, the report says so much.  The figure below shows the key changes in projected energy use from the 2011 WEO.  In summary, as I read this report we can conclude that:

  • Fossil fuel use is thriving.  Clearly North American policies to increase both oil and gas production are very effective.  Coal use is up again globally from the last WEO even with a larger increase in (mostly unconventional) gas use.  Fossil fuel subsidies continue to be the largest of any energy source estimated at $523 billion, more than 6 times that for renewables and a 30% increase from 2010.
  • Renewables use continues to grow without any real demonstration that increasing renewables to that extent is feasible.  Subsidies are at $88 billion and rise to $240 billion in 2035
  • Nuclear is being left behind as the 6% reduction in nuclear compared to 2011 is the largest single change in the new WEO New Policies Scenario.

And this path is taking us down the road to being unable to meet the 2 degree climate change scenario.  After trying everything else in past reports, this year they try to demonstrate that increased efficiency is a potential path to delaying the inevitable and make time for more policy change to support the environment.  This has the potential to extend the 2017 date for lock-in to 2022.  However we can also ask, without a real and substantive global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, what will these extra few years actually achieve?  Most likely – nothing!

So let’s look at the nuclear case in a bit more detail.  Compared to the 2011 scenario, nuclear use is decreasing in those countries with the most to lose, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and even France, while being economically challenged in North America; and rising in the more rapidly growing economies of the east led by China.  This leads to an important question.  Is nuclear power becoming a transient technology that helps countries develop and then once there, can be phased out over time by a policy shift to renewables?  This seems to be a possible theme going forward but in practice nothing can be further from the truth.  It is interesting to note that this past week was the 70th anniversary of the first sustained criticality at CP-1 by Enrico Fermi.  And here we are today with the countries named above all having substantial nuclear programs providing a large and important part of their electricity generation (Japan 30%, Germany 30%, Switzerland 40% and France 75%).  Clearly, with this much nuclear, replacing it is not trivial and will have significant impacts.   Even the WEO acknowledges that “shifting away from nuclear power can have significant implications for a country’s spending on imports of fossil fuels, for electricity prices and for the level of effort needed to meet climate targets.”

And that is what we are seeing today as Germany and Japan wrestle with these impacts as they try to reduce the use of nuclear very quickly.  Based on hysteria following the Fukushima accident, the politicians in these countries (even France) seem to have forgotten what they have achieved since that famous date 70 years ago and why they built such large nuclear fleets in the first place.  Building a successful nuclear program is a major undertaking requiring investment in regulation, infrastructure and industry.  Germany, Japan and France have all benefited from this investment as they developed significant technology, know-how and industrial capability with the result being, in all cases, a very large portion of their electricity generation being economical, clean and reliable.  Reducing its use as a result of a misguided view on nuclear safety will result in a large negative impact to industry and their economies.  In Germany, utilities are suffering financially and in Japan, there is the risk of losing capability and business to the new nuclear powers of Korea and China while having staggering increases in imported fossil fuels and a devastating impact to the local economy.

In fact, looking at the following figure from the WEO shows the bigger story.  Just compare the capacity bar with the energy bar in each case and one thing is clear.  Nuclear power is a key workhorse of the global energy system.  It is by far the most efficient investment as every GW of capacity produces more GWh of energy than every other type of electricity generation.  As I stated in my earlier post on the ETP, one of the reasons for the enormous investment in renewables is that you have to build about three times as much capacity as nuclear to get anywhere near the same energy output – and of course even then this energy is not dispatchable.  But even looking at the use of more tradition fossil fuels, because nuclear fuel costs are very small, they are dispatched before more expensive coal and gas plants and, as the figure shows, 3 times as much coal capacity and almost 4 times as much gas is projected to each only generate twice the energy as nuclear.

It is important to remember that the WEO is not a forecast per se; rather it is a projection of how government policies would look once implemented.  And what we see is a world investing heavily in fossil fuels to protect the status quo while also investing in renewables as a token path to the future.  The fall in nuclear power use in developed countries is an important testament to the ongoing impact of the Fukushima accident on government policies in the west.

While the 2012 projection is less than 2011, nuclear power does continue to grow and in 2035 it is projected to supply 12% of world electricity (13% in 2011 projection).  Yes, it is being left behind relatively but, as I see it, this report clearly demonstrates the importance of nuclear power as a clean, efficient and reliable source of non carbon electricity going forward.  Implementing policies that reduce its use is folly as it definitely will result in expanded fossil use, higher costs, trade imbalances  and higher carbon emissions; all leading us down an unsustainable path.

Therefore the policy answer is not to limit and reduce the use of nuclear energy, but to expand its use because even a small expansion in capacity results in a relatively large increase in energy generated.  And that means that we need to work harder to address the issues resulting from the Fukushima accident in the developed world and remind those governments who are reacting to short term pressures why they went nuclear in the first place; and of the consequences of reducing its use to their societies so they can rethink potential policies that may move them away from this very important part of our global energy mix.