The question I am going to address here in this paper is why we're going backwards, and what we can do about it. Obviously the signature reason is because fossil fuels reflect 87% of global energy consumption and we are still burning 2-3% more of the each of the major fossil fuels every year.3,4 If there is a global energy transition underway, the results haven’t kicked in yet.
Yet that isn’t to say that countries aren’t developing policies to try to manage this situation. About 59 countries currently have voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,5 though some countries have been backtracking on those targets (Japan, Australia) and at least half a dozen others are showing indications of not meeting them (Canada, Mexico, US, Korea).6 Finally, it has been proposed that even if all the emissions reductions commitments at present were met we would be on track for a 3.7 degree world by 2100.7 A vice chair of the IPCC said about two weeks ago that even the EU, which has among the strongest emissions reductions targets, “are setting targets by what appears to be politically achievable rather than what is necessary to transform the way we make and use energy as the century unfolds.”8
The IPCC vice-chair’s critique goes straight to the question of whether energy transition approaches are adequate to the task. The IPCC itself has mostly focused on renewable energy as a solution. I recently conducted a little investigation into the various positions the IPCC has taken on nuclear, and found that they have done quite a lot to push RE solutions over the years, most notably in a special report released in 2011, Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN). In this report the writers claimed they were bringing “clarity to this debate about … the options and decisions that will need to be taken by governments if the world is to collectively realize a low carbon, … path,” and that the premiere solution is “renewable energy.” RE “could account for almost 80% of the world's energy supply within four decades” and “will contribute more to a low carbon energy supply by 2050 than nuclear power” or other technologies like carbon capture and storage. It is perhaps not coincidental that alongside this IPCC preference, the most favored climate policy option around the world has been to introduce targets for renewable energy development, which 138 countries have done.9
And yet increasingly, even the IPCC seems to be questioning that sole focus on renewable development. Back in the 90s they indicated other options, such as "fuel switching to nuclear power"10 and writing that “[n]uclear energy could replace baseload fossil fuel electricity generation in many parts of the world.”11 While cooling on it during the noughts, they have started to revive it most recently in their 2014 report, where they formally grouped nuclear with RE as a “low-carbon electricity supply” in a “low-carbon energy system”.12 There was also a striking new discussion of the “difficulties” associated with spurring the integration of RE supplies with other low-carbon options and other policy goals (881).
We can perhaps see the birth of an official incredulity towards the claims made for renewable energy between 2011 and 2014 and a nervous revival of the sense that the big guns of nuclear power—which is of course carbon free generation and lots of it, 24/7, and which has a similar life cycle emissions as solar and wind power13—might be necessary for this task. This dawning sense has also struck a stream of defecting ecologists and environmentalists, including George Monbiot at the Guardian, a smattering of former Greenpeace executives, as well as a surge of climatologists—most notably Ken Caldeira and James Hansen and several others who wrote a letter a year ago to policy makers that was published in the New York Times. They wrote in their letter “[r]enewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” They accordingly proposed that “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power” and as such “[c]ontinued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”14
This faintness of heart among many scientists concerned with climate towards decarbonisation scenarios based wholly on renewable power is echoed by concerns emerging about Germany’s progress in its Energiewende (energy transition). Germany made nuclear power phase-out an aspect of its Energiewende policy of 2002, scheduling its 17 nuclear plants to be offline by 2036 alongside a transition to a 60% share of renewable energy by 2050. But on 29 May 2011, prompted by Fukushima and pressured by electoral politics, Merkel's government announced that it would close half of its nuclear power plants immediately and the rest by 2022.15
What happened subsequently has been rather alarming. Germany had already been building up renewable energy since 199016. In 2012 wind and solar nameplate capacity represented 84 percent of Germany’s average electric power generation of 70.4 GW17 –something close to 23,000 wind turbines (2014)18 and 1.4 million solar arrays (2013)19 which is roughly a third of those in the world (2012)20--but ultimately generated only 11.9 percent of the country’s total electricity.21 The primary reason for the low rate of power produced by solar wind is because of their capacity factor, which is how much electricity they actually produce compared with how much they could if they were doing so all of the time. These capacity factors come in fairly low in Germany—only 11% for solar and 17% for wind22 due to the obvious and inevitable variability of sun and wind, but also due to the fact that it is not especially sunny in Germany23 or, in some of the most industrialized parts of that most need the power, especially windy.24 So even though there can be certain noon-hours on certain summer days in which 50% of Germany’s energy at a certain hour on a certain day, aggregated over the course a year, solar has only been producing around 5% of its net electricity (2012)25 and wind around 10%.26 The Energiewende has been a lot of buildup of infrastructure with fairly meagre results.
But as we frequently hear, German renewables are at 25% of the power sector.27 The other 10% is made up by biomass, which as an element of Germany’s renewable energy mix is growing three times as fast as wind and solar power combined.28 But biomass and its relative, biogas, are controversial, as they are primarily made of corn and wood. Corn takes a lots of energy to harvest and both use land that could otherwise be used for sequestration to trap carbon permanently29; indeed, a study has shown if you factor in the land lost to carbon sequestration purposes, biofuels are actually as carbon intensive as fossil fuels.30 A second problem with biofuels, like with wind and solar, is they are not very concentrated supplies of power in terms of “energy density” or how much power they supply per kg. They run only about a 1/3 to a 1/4 of the energy per kg of fossil fuel, which is why we stopped burning them in the first place. As a result, lots and lots of them must be burned to replace fossil fuel energy. As it turns out, Europe does not have enough timber to feed its biomass needs and in 2010 had 10 million tons of wood pellets shipped to it from all over the world. To reach its emissions reductions quotas; Europe will need 60m tonnes of wood by 2020.29 It is believed there is not enough corn in the world to produce biofuels even to run the worlds cars, much less its power systems; “entire forests would have to be decimated” to supply them.31
So, to compensate for the deficiencies in its renewables sector, Germany has been adding the very thing climate policies are intended to wean us off from: fossil fuels, and in particular, coal. In 2014, 46% of Germany’s electricity generation has been coming from coal.32 Between 2011 and 2015, Germany is building up a coal capacity that will have double the annual output of all of its solar panels, much of it highly carbonaceous lignite.33,34 The result of these effects has been a 4% rise in carbon emissions in Germany since 2009 and a growing belief that the Energwiende might be a failing experiment.35
Yet the Energiewende people remain hopeful, primarily due to the promise of storage. If Germany could capture all the electricity produced on a blustery or a hot day in a grid-scale battery or other storage process, wind and solar resources would be much more efficient. Yet for the foreseeable future, such storage is also out of reach, because it, too, is a relatively inefficient way to provide people with power. The lithium ion battery, used in a Tesla, is the most dense way to store power. Right now the biggest battery in the world is a factory-sized lithium ion battery in China that is the size of a football field and costs $15 million.36 It can store 40 MWH of electricity, enough to power 12,000 homes, but only for one hour. Germany would need 28,000 of these, at a total cost of $420 billion dollars, to meet its storage needs.37 That expense does not even begin to factor in the cost of the energy infrastructure Germany will need to produce to achieve it's goals: the 92000 more wind turbines (cost $1,000,000 each, total $92 billion) and the 5.6 million more solar arrays to charge it up (cost $10,000 each, total $56 billion),38 (300,000 GW at ~capacity factor 15%) as well as the $25 billion of and the transmission to wire them together39 and the smart grids to coordinate all of these complicated exchanges, (estimated at $8 billion every year X 10 years, sum $1.5 trillion)40 . That sum of $1.5 trillion is a little less than what Siemens has said the Energiewende will cost.41 That would get them to seven years, and then they would have to replace the batteries, and in 20 years they would have to start replacing the turbines and the solar panels. It would take a third as much money to get the same amount of power from 17 of the most expensive new nuclear plants on the planet, though the experience of France suggests they would be far cheaper if we bought them in bulk (Hinckley Point C capacity factor 90%; cost of 17 $416 billion).42 Moreover they would last 60 years.
Of course, the costs of RE are falling, though how much remains to be seen. It is still a fairly expensive way to generate bulk power, as I have shown. And there is likely not enough lithium on earth to power all the car batteries needed in an electrified transportation system, much less everybody’s grids,43 so other equally efficient grid-scale forms of storage are required to be innovated. Finally, there is a question of whether, when we include all of the energy required to make batteries as well as solar PVs, wind turbines, and biofuels--all of which take a lot of energy to make compared with the energy they produce (EROIE)—they could deliver enough power to replace themselves as necessary. Some calculate that the demand will always throw us back upon fossil fuels or some other source with more energy intensity.44
Thus affordable, viable, sustainable, high-penetration renewable decarbonisation programs are betting on innovation, and possibly innovation against steep odds. This might feel attractive or not depending on whether one are a betting person or not, which I tend not to be. For the same reason I am not going to go into Thorium, or molten salt possibilities for nuclear in this essay, but just focus on the technologies we have that are proven to work, since I think it is wise to do so when we are trying to address a problem that is already underway. I do feel amazed when I’m in a room of very smart environmentalists talking about the devastation that will infold the next hundred years in terms of human lives and well-being if climate change goes unabated, who then hold to the idea that we should look for solutions amidst technologies that don’t yet exist or work properly rather than the ones we do have that already work. For me, that’s not a pragmatic approach to what is arguably the biggest problem humanity has ever faced.
So I’m going to come around to nuclear power now, and what it already does as a climate mitigation approach, and why I think that it should occupy more of the mainstream when we are talking about what to do about climate change as a problem.
In contrast with Germany, where nuclear has been shut down and emissions have been going starkly up which has also happened in Southern California45 and in Japan46 the obvious models for nuclear power curbing emissions in a very stark way on a national scale are France and Sweden. Jesse Jenkins describes how “Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, France directed state-owned utilities to displace oil from the electricity sector, principally by scaling up new nuclear power programs. By focusing on a single type of reactor, the government encouraged standardization, economies of scale, rapid construction and quick installation in the emerging nuclear industry. As a result of these federal policies, France built up 59 nuclear reactors within about 15 years,”47 to the point where they produce 75% of its electricity supply, carbon free.
So within about the same time frame as Germany has built up to supplying 25% carbon-free electricity with RE, much of it biofuel, for $132 billion,48 France spent a little bit less, accounting for inflation, to build up to 75% carbon-free combustion-free electricity with $126 billion.49 That doesn’t include the cost of decommissioning, which adds another 20% to the cost of constructions, as well as fuel costs and spent fuel disposal. But that being said, the French system now supplies electricity that is 1/5 as carbon intensive as the electricity in Germany at half the cost 50,51,52.
It is thus noteworthy that one of the three signature arguments raised against nuclear power by environmental groups nowadays is the expense. Greenpeace writes about Hinckley Point C, the new first reactors to be built in the EU in the 21st century, that they are “too expensive and not needed.53 Friends of the Earth has reportedly “revealed that their old ideological opposition to nuclear has crumbled, replaced by a new pragmatic opposition based on cost and build time.”54
So what has changed between the ‘70s and the present, to make environmental activists feel that an economic argument has more purchase than a safety argument, for instance? It has a certain kind of self-fulfilling validity, for one thing. As fewer plants are built, they get more expensive to build. It is is hard to instantly train inexperienced workers to achieve adequate construction standards on an appropriate time frame, leading to the kinds of mistakes, delays and cost-overruns that are haunting the new reactors at Olkiluoto.55 But this is precisely the problem France overcame by standardizing the design of its reactors, and it is one that could presumably be overcome by a more active nuclear sector.
Another reason for the high cost is that nuclear plants, being large and complex, take a relatively long time to build in comparison with other public infrastructure, making them “sensitive to interest rates and giving them longer payback periods” while exposing them to risks of changing policies and regulations.56 This degree of financial risk makes them unattractive to private investors, so they must typically involve governments to give the investors subsidies and loan guarantees. These public expenses in turn inflames citizenries, who are now much more alert taxpayers than we used to be in the ‘70s.
But these problems are not exclusive to nuclear. Due to similar types of investment logic it has become difficult to do anything large and one-off, be it tidal power or solar thermal power or offshore wind power or geothermal, all of which renewable energy types have had numerous projects cancelled as costs were seen to be rising. It’s not nuclear power that is outpriced, but everything big. What we get instead is small—a wind farm here and there, a solar array here and there, things easy to get financed by an investor or a community or even a homeowner, with a relatively short rate of return. These public choices is understandable, but I do think we should be asking whether climate change as a problem should be being approached in such an ad hoc, piecey way. These small infrastructure additions takes a very long time to add up to anything substantial, at which point fossil fuels—be they new coal in Germany or new gas elsewhere—are fallen back upon.
I am driven to ask, should these difficulties of financing ultimately prove decisive, or should governments try to change the dialogue in order to provide adequate carbon-free energy for its citizens and industries, as the UK, for instance, has managed against all odds to do in approving the contruction of Hinckley Point C? We might note that the second argument raised by anti-nuclear groups is that nuclear power is superfluous, but it is according to a contorted logic that they do so. The FOE said that Hinckley Point C was “not necessary,” even as the UK is facing a looming shortage of power as it closing of its coal powered plants to comply with EU emissions reduction requirements.”57
Finally, anti-nuclear groups say that nuclear power plants take too long to build. But I think the contrast between France and Germany shows how a longer time planning and building large-capacity, long-lived infrastructure gives more back than the same time building low-capacity, relatively short-lived infrastructure. The conventional wisdom is that it takes fifteen years to build a nuclear power plant.58 If we were to put climate mitigation resources into replacing our coal plants with nuclear, imagine what could be done by way of reducing carbon emissions even in fifteen year intervals.
A reasonable rate for replacing of power plants is 3%/yr.59 Worldwide, coal supplies 41% of the world’s energy60 and is responsible for 44 percent of global CO2 emissions.61 At that rate, over the next fifteen years the world got on track to replacing close to half of its coal plants with nuclear plants, we would ultimately cut its emissions by almost a quarter through that measure alone. If we started that again over the following 15 years we would have no more coal plants by 2060 and have eliminated almost half of global emissions by that measure alone, which all by itself could get us under the concern of global warming above 2 degrees.62 Meanwhile we could start building capacity to replace all the vehicles in the world to electric cars, which would eliminate another 25% of the greenhouse gases. We could virtually eliminate GHGs by 2100, which is what the latest IPCC report says we should be aiming to do.63
Could the same be achieved with RE? Perhaps theoretically, but the process tends to get gummed up in practice. We hear a lot about how renewable energy is up 25% globally this century, but coal generation has gone up 45% at the same time,64 not just in developing countries but in EU countries with RE targets, where it’s gone as much as 50%.65 There seems as if there might in fact be a symbiosis between renewable energy and fossil fuels, where the former entails the latter. There is this wild video where Robert F. Kennedy is standing up in front of a bunch of oil executives and says that in the United States wind plants and solar plants are gas plants, because utilities are always going to need gas in large quantities to back up intermittent, inefficient solar and wind. By the same logic, George Monbiot points out that most European countries have no working plans to get renewable energy past what’s called 45% penetration in 2030, with the other 55% being fossil fuel. He calls this immoral, claiming that because these countries are disdaining nuclear their policies are setting them on course to an infrastructural “generation gap,” in which it won’t be known “[w]here will the balance will come from?” and is likely to be filled in by the cheapest fossil fuel available.66 By contrast, France shows—as Ontario shows—that nuclear power doesn’t need much filling in, because it can give you almost all the practically all the carbon-free electricity you can need.
All in all it seems nuclear power has been been shut out of the climate policy space rather arbitrarily, considering how it could go a great ways towards solve climate change. The financing obstacles remain legitimate, but perhaps should not present such a huge mental barrier as they do, given what we’re up again.
(See Part II for my reflections on the safety of nuclear power).
6 UNEPE Emissions Gap Report
10 IPCC I 68 1990.
11 IPCC II Executive Summary 1966
12 IPCC AR5 Summary 21.
13 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study.