Why? Well let’s take a look at reliability. Critics of renewables have been increasingly referring to wind and solar as the “unreliables” and if we consider that sunset comes everyday and it is not always windy it is not hard to understand this core challenge that renewable energy faces.
If we consider what resource could provide the best balance to the unreliable generation provided by wind and solar it seems that we should look at the other end of the spectrum. We have another carbon free power source that offers the same opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions but that is also the most reliable power source we have, nuclear.
The US Energy Information Administration released a brief article last week updating the latest reliability stats for 2019 and the contrast of solar at 24.5% with 93.5% for nuclear is stark. How does that 3.5x better capacity factor relate to scaling up carbon free power? Well for every 1 gigawatt of nuclear generation we would need to install 3.5 gigawatts of solar generation if a strait up substitution were even possible, but that is only half the story. Because that 3.5 gigawatts would only be available when the sun is shining we have to have equivalent redundant capacity to back up the solar generation.
If you are depending on 3.5 gigs of solar for your base load generation you need a lot of alternative resources installed and feeding into the same grid. Many are now claiming we can just add some batteries to store the solar power for use later. The challenge with that is the largest battery storage projects in the world are still pretty small scale affairs. Most of what has been installed only provides a few hours of supply for their local demand.
It does seem that the US government is starting to realize the importance of maintaining and expanding our US fleet of nuclear reactors. In a rare bipartisan effort the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 was introduced on Nov. 17 by U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), EPW chairman, and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and has now been placed on the Senate legislative calendar.
In addition to providing support for maintaining the existing installed capacity the bill also grants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) new authority to establish an “international nuclear reactor export and innovation” branch, and it allows certain foreign entities—members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan, or South Korea—to receive licenses if the commission determines the entities do not pose defense or public threats.
It is notable that the South Koreans are included in this effort, they have been quietly innovating in nuclear power and the latest reactor to come on line, the first of four, in the UAE is a South Korean design that is a derivative of the AP1000 that the Koreans have advanced further and referred to as the APR 1400. The Barakah unit 1 has reached 100% power and is now generating 1400 MW of electricity. When fully operational, the four-unit plant will provide around 25% of the UAE’s electricity and prevent the release of up to 21 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually according to Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC).
Solar and wind may be “cheap” forms of generation, but while it is great that they continue to decline in cost the truth is that they should be cheap. Would you pay a premium for something that only delivers 30% of the time? Well maybe if it is cheap enough, but it better be really really cheap because the cost of working around that intermittent performance is very expensive. The only currently scalable solution to the costly but necessary reliability that we require and that does not also emit gigatons of CO2 is nuclear.