Wind, solar, and natural gas are driving nuclear power out of business

Preface. I’m no fan of nuclear power because we may already be at peak uranium, there’s nowhere to store nuclear waste, and a spent nuclear pool fire could harm millions of people.

But renewable wind and solar and natural gas (which is finite) are driving renewable nuclear power plants out of business.

Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Dunai, M., et al. 2019. Nuclear energy too slow, too expensive to save climate: report. Reuters.

Nuclear power is losing ground to renewables in terms of both cost and capacity as its reactors are increasingly seen as less economical and slower to reverse carbon emissions, an industry report said.

“Stabilizing the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow,” said Mycle Schneider, lead author of the report. “It meets no technical or operational need that low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper and faster.”

The report estimates that since 2009 the average construction time for reactors worldwide was just under 10 years, well above the estimate given by industry body the World Nuclear Association (WNA) of between 5 and 8.5 years.

In May, the International Energy Agency warned reut.rs/2mqcG8j that a steep decline in nuclear capacity will threaten climate goals, as advanced economies could lose 25% of their nuclear capacity by 2025 and as much as two-thirds by 2040 (Clercq 2019 IEA rings alarm bell on phasing out nuclear energy. Reuters).

Eduardo Porter. July 19, 2016. How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course. New York Times.

Germany, Europe’s champion for renewable energy, seems to be having second thoughts about its ambitious push to ramp up its use of renewable fuels for power generation.  Hoping to slow the burst of new renewable energy on its grid, the country eliminated an open-ended subsidy for solar and wind power and put a ceiling on additional renewable capacity.

Germany may also drop a timetable to end coal-fired generation, which still accounts for over 40% of its electricity, according to a report leaked from the country’s environment ministry. Instead, the government will pay billions to keep coal generators in reserve, to provide emergency power at times when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Renewables have hit a snag beyond Germany, too. Renewable sources are producing temporary power gluts from Australia to California, driving out other energy sources that are still necessary to maintain a stable supply of power.

In Southern Australia, where wind supplies more than a quarter of the region’s power, the spiking prices of electricity when the wind wasn’t blowing full-bore pushed the state government to ask the power company Engie to switch back on a gas-fired plant that had been shut down.

But in what may be the most worrisome development in the combat against climate change, renewables are helping to push nuclear power, the main source of zero-carbon electricity in the United States, into bankruptcy.

The United States, and indeed the world, would do well to reconsider the promise and the limitations of its infatuation with renewable energy.

“The issue is, how do we decarbonize the electricity sector, while keeping the lights on, keeping costs low and avoiding unintended consequences that could make emissions increase?” said Jan Mazurek, who runs the clean power campaign at the environmental advocacy group ClimateWorks.

Addressing those challenges will require a more subtle approach than just attaching more renewables to the grid.

An analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, narrowly distributed two weeks ago, estimated that nuclear reactors that produce 56% of the country’s nuclear power would be unprofitable over the next three years. If those were to go under and be replaced with gas-fired generators, an additional 200 million tons of carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere every year.

The economics of nuclear energy are mostly to blame. It just cannot compete with cheap natural gas. Most reactors in the country are losing between $5 and $15 per megawatt-hour, according to the analysis.

Nuclear energy’s fate is not being dictated solely by markets, though. Policy makers focused on pushing renewable sources of energy above all else — heavily subsidizing solar and wind projects, and setting legal targets for power generation from renewables — are contributing actively to shut the industry down. Facing intense popular aversion, nuclear energy is being left to wither.

As Will Boisvert wrote in an analysis for Environmental Progress, an environmental organization that advocates nuclear energy, the industry’s woes “could be remedied by subsidies substantially smaller than those routinely given to renewables.” The federal production tax credit for wind farms, for instance, is worth $23 per megawatt-hour, which is more than the amount that nuclear generators would need to break even.

Nuclear generators’ troubles highlight the unintended consequences of brute force policies to push more and more renewable energy onto the grid. These policies do more than endanger the nuclear industry. They could set back the entire effort against climate change.

California, where generators are expected to get half of their electricity from renewables by 2030, offers a pretty good illustration of the problem. It’s called the “duck curve.” It shows what adding renewables to the electric grid does to the demand for other sources of power, and it does look like a duck.

As more and more solar capacity is fed onto the grid, it will displace alternatives. An extra watt from the sun costs nothing. But the sun doesn’t shine equally at all times. Around noon, when it is blazing, there will be little need for energy from nuclear reactors, or even from gas or coal. At 7 p.m., when people get home from work and turn on their appliances, the sun will no longer be so hot. Ramping up alternative sources then will be indispensable.

The problem is that nuclear reactors, and even gas- and coal-fired generators, can’t switch themselves on and off on a dime. So what happens is that around the middle of the day those generators have to pay the grid to take their power. Unsurprisingly, this erodes nukes’ profitability. It might even nudge them out of the system altogether.

How does a renewables strategy play out in the future? Getting more power from renewables at 7 p.m. will mean building excess capacity at noon. Indeed, getting all power from renewables will require building capacity equal to several times the demand during the middle of the day and keeping it turned off much of the time.

Daily fluctuations are not the end of it. Wind power and sunlight change with the seasons, too. What’s more, climate change will probably change their power and seasonality in unforeseen ways. Considering how expensive wind and sun farms can be, it might make sense to reconsider a strategy that dashes a zero-carbon energy source that could stay on all the time.

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6 Responses to Wind, solar, and natural gas are driving nuclear power out of business

  1. Jeff W. says:

    Hmm, well I wonder how the proponents of PVs and wind expect to gather the raw materials, process them and manufacture the replacement bits for PVs and wind using unstable electricity sources. Seems to me that that would mean even more natural gas usage. As far as I’m aware the smart grid is still a fantasy and will likely remain so. Ask any of the players involved with building and maintaining all those power transmission lines and you’ll learn just how expensive an endeavour it is.

    Telling “Climate Truth” seems to be the latest tack by transition proponents but they are only telling half the truth; the reality is that a post-carbon future, if it’s still even a viable option given we may have already passed a climatic tipping point or two, is that that society will look very agrarian and with far fewer humans. It’s a hard truth to sell.

  2. Bill Chaffee says:

    A proponent of wind power flatly stated that the purpose of wind power is to kill nuclear power. I read the comment on the atomic insights website a few years ago. I wish that I had taken a screen shot of it but I believe it. Wind Power wouldn’t be viable without subsides and natural gas powered combustion turbines which are less efficient than combined cycle gas power plants. However they have the advantage of being able to adjust their power output more quickly.

    • NJF says:

      I’ve read that combined cycle plants are more efficient in total gas consumption than regular gas + insert renewable.

      But the court of public opinion rules, right? The public hates us technocrats. After all, chemical engineers are all just big oil stooges right? What would we know …

  3. NJF says:

    Alice,

    The nuclear industry is so strapped by regulations in place to prevent meltdowns and proliferation that all the tech is closing in on 50 years old.

    There are reasonable prototypes already on the table that could burn the fuel way more efficiently and also torch the waste reserves, at least to a point. All plants right now use a “once through” cycle which is horribly inefficient.

    Still won’t save us, but nuclear at least can provide baseload, whereas everything else is certain to fail.

  4. David Millar says:

    Alice, does America have an integrated grid across all the states so there can be sharing between the states. In the UK we can access some of France’s nuclear power as well as several other countries. This helps stabilise the grids although we still have around 15-20% nuclear. We also burn wood pellets (carbon neutral??) which gives baseload. There is a huge development in wind so not sure what the back up will be to keep lights on.

    • energyskeptic says:

      From my book “When trucks stop running”
      Despite the need for a larger balancing area, a national grid in America is unlikely. There are downsides: the potential of a national blackout from instability, cyber-attack, terrorism, and aging equipment (NRC 2012).

      A national grid would continue to require a long-term stable economic and political environment.

      Although a national grid can increase stability, this isn’t always the case. Operators have fine-tuned data and familiarity with their own regions, but can’t see adjoining systems well enough to reliably detect impending extreme events and take countermeasures quickly (CEC 2008). Size doesn’t always increase reliability. Greater size provides more pathways for local disturbances to propagate, which can lead to complex chains of cascading failures (Morgan et al. 2011). In addition, increased loading of transmission lines and transformers without increasing investment to expand this infrastructure (Clark 2004), and poorly planned generation and transmission capacity (Blumsack 2006) has the potential to cause additional widespread blackouts. Think of what it would take for wind to provide half of America’s electricity. Think of what it would mean for the American landscape, and what it would mean for the grid. You’d need 1.1 million 2-MW wind turbines. Each would require 170 acres of wind to harvest (NREL 2009). Together, they would cover 290,860 square miles, the equivalent land mass of Illinois, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. This would require at least 50,000 miles of new transmission lines, with many up to 1500-mile-long underground, multi-gigawatt links from the Great Plains to the coasts (Smil 2010) costing millions of dollars per mile. It can take 14 years to build transmission lines to distant renewable sites, due to lawsuits and negotiations with land owners and political jurisdictions (DOE 2002; Wald 2008). Are the windmills of your mind spinning?

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      And I would add, it can take 10 years to get permissions, NIMBY rules when it comes to transmission lines. They can’t go across local, state, or national parks, monuments, and so on. States hate to run lines to other states, they want the electricity for their own residents.

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