Renewables won’t be able to meet the vast energy needs of the world’s largest economy alone.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected congresswoman from New York City, has shot to fame with a bold new plan aimed at radically transforming the economy of the United States by phasing out fossil fuels within a decade. Her Green New Deal envisions “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” by 2030. The manifesto also seeks to reduce inequalities in the U.S. by empowering low-income households to achieve higher standards of living.
These goals are highly ambitious. Renewables currently account for 11% of U.S.’s energy production while natural gas and coal still dominate at 62% in total. Nuclear energy provides another 20% of the country’s electricity, but the Green New Deal envisions phasing out nuclear power too. Yet can renewables meet the vast energy needs of the world’s largest economy alone? After all, renewable energy is projected to account for only a third of energy generation in the U.S. by 2050.
The aversion to nuclear energy in decarbonizing schemes isn’t entirely surprising. Nuclear energy has long been viewed negatively by many environmentalists. Most recently, Germany announced plans to shut down all its coal-fired plants in two decades. Yet Germany also wants to shut down its nuclear power plants due to lingering fears about safety. Prominent energy experts have described this move as ill-conceived because it may undermine the country’s decarbonizing efforts.
However, the tide may slowly be turning globally. More and more environmental groups are coming around to the benefits of nuclear in low-carbon transitions. Not only is nuclear an abundant and reliable source of power that isn’t dependent on the weather, unlike solar and wind. It also requires far less surface area than renewables to generate equal amounts of electricity, leaving more land intact for wildlife habitats.
Nuclear plants operate at far higher capacities than renewable energy sources or even fossil fuels. In the U.S., nuclear power plants have an average capacity factor of 92%, according to the Energy Information Administration, which means they can operate at full power on 336 days a year with the rest set aside for maintenance. By contrast, hydroelectric systems deliver power only 38% of the time, translating into 138 days a year. Wind turbines do even worse at 34.5%, or 127 days a year, and solar electricity worse still at 25%, or 92 days.
“The scale of the challenge is massive, but it also creates a huge opportunity and that is why I want the nuclear industry to be successful,” stresses Kirsty Gogan, who is co-founder and executive director of Energy for Humanity, an environmental NGO advocating for large-scale deep decarbonization and improving access to low-carbon energy sources worldwide.
Upscaling nuclear energy, Gogan posits, can even serve to empower women. “This is not just an abstract idea. This is about real people’s lives being deeply affected,” she explains. “In countries without energy infrastructure to provide water services and clean electricity in homes, it is the women who collect the wood to light the fires, and it is the women and children who are affected by breathing in the resultant fumes.”
Gogan is referring to the adverse health effects many people in poorer nations suffer from burning wood indoors for cooking and heating. According to a recent study, smoke from cooking at home is a leading cause of premature deaths among children in India, Africa and elsewhere. Half a million children under five die each year from being exposed to toxic fumes from open-fire cooking.
“The reason we are called Energy for Humanity is partly because one of the frustrations I’ve had with the environmental movement is that a lot of the climate mitigation strategies rely on poor people staying poor,” Gogan noted in a speech at the Nordic Nuclear Forum 2019 in Helsinki, Finland, last month.
“When you have a climate mitigation strategy that depends on a 40% reduction in energy consumption from today’s levels by 2050, what you are really doing is assuming that we will reach our climate targets by ensuring that poor people stay poor,” she elucidates. “That is not only unacceptable but morally indefensible. So not only do we need to replace our entire fossil fuel infrastructure with clean technology, but we’ll need to double and triple it in order to meet the rising global energy demand.”
That is why Gogan has broken ranks with the conventional environmental movement to embrace nuclear power for its benefits, which she believes include helping people lift themselves out of poverty and improve their quality of life. Only with well-considered energy plans that incorporate both renewables and nuclear energy can decarbonization efforts succeed in a way that allows us to diminish our carbon footprints while continuing to guarantee increased prosperity for more and more millions.
“It’s not just about banging the drums for nuclear or banging the drums for renewables,” Gogan emphasizes. “It is about focusing on the overall performance of the system, which means bringing all available technology to the table.”
Yet Gogan’s views on nuclear aren’t shared by everyone. Critics have pointed to the high costs of new nuclear plants, especially in developing countries with limited finances.
She downplays such concerns. “If anybody tells you that nuclear is too expensive and cannot be relied upon to deliver a meaningful solution to climate change, you can tell them that, yes, nuclear can be expensive and it can be slow [to build],” she acknowledges.
“But it does not have to be either of those things,” she adds. “We’ve just completed a study examining new builds around the world, and we’ve found a very wide range of costs and outcomes. If you look at nuclear new builds in Europe and the U.S., nuclear looks expensive and slow. But if you look at new builds in Korea, Japan, China, or Russia, what we find is that nuclear is extremely competitive, not only with fossil fuels but also with renewables.”
Nor is that because safety standards are lower in those countries. “What we found was that the real drivers for low-cost outcomes were the experience and effectiveness with which these countries were erecting new builds – they just got really good at it,” Gogan says. “Repeating the same builds, excellence in project management and construction execution, having a finished design before construction begins, going through a constructibility review – these things have led to low-cost outcomes.”
To achieve deep decarbonization targets globally fast enough, we’ll need to embrace nuclear power in transformative green agendas such as the Green New Deal, according to Gogan. “If we are serious about the level of decarbonization that the IPC has indicated is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, then not only do we need to double nuclear capacity but we might also need four or five or 10 times the clean energy capacity of today by 2050,” she argues.
“[That means] 4,000 new nuclear reactors being built by 2050. That requires not just technical innovation but an entirely new mindset and an entirely different business model, moving from a project-based approach to a product-based approach,” the environmentalist cautions.
“This is important when thinking about the developing world where energy demands are highest. Right now, we do not have the business models to deliver the technology to those people who need it the most,” she adds.
For the makers of the Green New Deal and other decarbonization plans around the world, Gogan urges them to keep a multi-pronged approach in mind. “Let’s connect with innovators and technical experts, and let’s not forget that solving these problems will be a big challenge but one that also presents a big opportunity.”