Renewable power – can it push nuclear out of the picture?

21 May 2016

The dominant theme of my articles over the past few years is that despite the multitude of issues surrounding nuclear power, it still has a fantastic opportunity to play a substantial role in world energy supply over this century. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to achieve its potential because too many advocates are resting on their laurels, hoping concerns over climate change will suffice to prompt the long-mooted "nuclear renaissance". In consequence, they are failing to address the key weakness - namely the need to overcome the fear factor that surrounds nuclear, largely rooted in misunderstandings about radiation.

This is amply demonstrated by the recent news that Belgium is set to distribute iodine pills amongst its entire population, as an antidote to possible radiation releases from local nuclear stations. On the one hand this can be presented as a cheap and pragmatic response to a very low probability (but still conceivable) risk facing the population, but on the other a vivid confirmation to the average citizen that what they always thought was true is indeed certainly true, namely that nuclear power is extremely dangerous and should be greatly feared. This is a classic case of "confirmation bias", where amongst the mass of new information which people receive on a daily bias, the items that reinforce existing prejudices are the most powerful.

Advocates of renewable energy will, however, argue that all of this is irrelevant. Their contention is new nuclear power plants are not needed, while those already in operation will gradually be phased out. Indeed, the same also goes for all fossil fuel energy options, as renewable energy can eventually supply 100% of the world's needs. This will obviously take many years, but a start has been made and the trend of rising renewable shares is surely obvious and backed by strong government support in most areas of the world.

The argument for this shift to renewables-only rests heavily on the environment, both avoiding the dirty air in urban areas from burning fossil fuels and also in avoiding climate change. A secondary argument concerns sustainable development, in that we arguably should not be rapidly depleting the earth's stock of finite resources.

The case for nuclear power today is essentially that it too can satisfy the same goals as renewables. Nuclear advocates largely accept that renewable energy is popular with many people and has some place to play in the energy mix. They don't heavily disparage renewable technologies, only pointing out that there are issues such as cost and intermittency that have to be addressed, such that nuclear should still play an important - and rising - role in the energy mix. The emphasis is on balanced energy strategies with national mixes dependent on a fair, level-playing field evaluation of the merits of each technology in terms of pros and cons. Indeed, if climate change is to be averted all technologies that guarantee low emissions of greenhouse gases have to play a part. Ruling any out through ideology or faulty analysis will only bring failure.

Such pragmatism from the nuclear lobby is unfortunately not reciprocated in much of the environmental movement, who have come to believe and advocate that renewable energy solutions can do everything. Therefore whether nuclear is too dangerous, expensive or uses up the world's uranium resources is beside the point. The arguments that the anti-nukes have utilised for decades are no longer required as nuclear - or fossil fuels for that matter - are simply not needed.

But can renewables eventually satisfy 100% of our energy requirements? This looks very difficult, particularly within the context of a world population that is increasingly urbanising, requiring a steady supply of a large quantity of power and also huge amounts of energy for transportation, heating and cooling.

The low-hanging fruit for renewables is definitely in power generation. If more of the world's energy can be delivered as electricity - for example by moving to electric cars - rather than burning fossil fuels, the more credible is the renewables case. As pointed out regularly in these columns, producing electricity is actually rather simple and there are lots of ways of doing it. It must be "clean" electricity that is produced. But many possible technologies fall under the renewables label. Not just wind and solar but also wave, tidal and geothermal - not to mention hydro, by far the biggest renewable source of electricity today, but disliked by most environmentalists.

It is where energy cannot easily be delivered as electricity that renewables will have the most difficulty in displacing fossil fuels. Where huge quantities of energy are required quickly, such as getting aircraft off the ground or in heating steel furnaces, there are challenging issues for renewables. Biofuels may eventually meet some of these requirements but without fundamental changes in industrial structure over the world and indeed in the way much of the world population seems to want to live, totally avoiding using fossil fuels seems impossible, even with a huge amount of technological innovation.

But as a good starting point for renewable energy, can 100% of the world's electricity be supplied by wind, solar and the other technologies? This in itself is very questionable. Maybe in developing countries where access to electricity is currently minimal, solar power with further improvements, and even lower costs, will prove sufficient at least up to certain levels of economic progress. And even in some developed countries, notably Norway, abundant hydro power potential may allow close to 100% of power to be supplied by renewables. Germany is currently trying to achieve the same, although via wind and solar power. Technically, it may well be possible in many countries but runs up against a host of difficult issues, certainly unless storage of electricity becomes much more efficient (one assumes through better batteries). Economics is also an important issue and may eventually derail the German and any similar experiments. If moving to renewable power is very costly in terms of the price businesses have to pay for their supply, will industrial buyers eventually revolt, fearing the closure of their facilities, which have to compete with those in other countries with cheaper power?

Easily the best analysis demonstrating that it is highly unlikely that renewable energy can push fossil fuels and nuclear completely out of the picture is the book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air' (2009) by Professor Sir David Mackay, who tragically died recently of cancer at the age of only 48. I've previously reviewed this (April 2010, 'Sustainable energy - how does it add up?') and it's certainly well worth a re-read. It's still available free of charge as a high quality pdf and in a dozen different languages on the author's website []. I described it at the time as "probably the best book written about energy matters for many years" and the time since has amply justified this verdict. 400,000 downloads over six years suggest that many others are in agreement.

The big achievement of the book is to bring numeracy to a debate obscured by mudslinging from the various parties and also by ideologically-motivated rhetoric. As a good scientist (Professor of Physics at Cambridge) MacKay's tune is "numbers not adjectives", as he mercilessly cuts through the fog of empty propaganda that has tended to surround energy debates. His principle is that we don't have to be anti-this or pro-that: we just have to be "pro-arithmetic" and the rest will follow. So get the numbers right and then think things rationally from first principles. It's not so much "which technology should we shift to?" but "why can't otherwise sensible people add up?".

A major advance of the book is explaining the units of power and energy and trying to compare them on a consistent basis. This involves several heroic assumptions but the end definitely justifies the means. The main construct is working out a plausible budget, as if on the back of an envelope, with the red column listing how much energy we consume and the green column listing how much we produce - or could produce using various low greenhouse gas technologies. Can this budget possibly be balanced and how? Through a number of relatively brief and insightful chapters, with anything too technical or mathematical relegated to appendices, we are given a few simple intellectual tools to figure out the answer for ourselves, with simple mathematics plus a useful human-scale framework for thinking sensibly about energy.

The result is to dispel the hot air of most protagonists for sustainable solutions as well as those who deny the need to take any action on energy at all. The book is not only about how one's own personal energy usage makes a difference, but also acts as a crystal clear case study of the application of scientific methods to everyday problems. As such it educates the reader not only about the issues of sustainability that is its main target, but also about how ordinary people can apply "scientific thinking" in their lives.

One interesting aspect of MacKay's work is that he admittedly largely ignores economic factors. This may initially be seen as a weakness, but it turns out to be a sensible decision as omitting economics removes one possible additional area of confusion. If critics fail to debunk the arguments in favour of any solution, their last line of defence is always to claim that "it will cost too much". And the book is none the worse for this simplification as he can draw ready conclusions about the real, quantifiable and measurable potential of each source without getting bogged down in billions of pounds, euros or dollars.

If the book has a conclusion, it is that there are severe practical limits with all the various low-carbon options, while the more expansive visions of the renewables advocates cannot be backed up by basic arithmetic, unless we adopt very different lifestyles. Energy use today is very intensive - in the developed world at least - while urbanization everywhere is pushing this further. But the renewable sources - with the exception of big hydro dams - are essentially extensive and require large quantities of land to produce comparatively modest quantities of energy.

One weakness of the book is the inadequate treatment of the issues of intermittency and the lack of reliability of renewables. Although demand management and storage options are discussed, the treatment is not persuasive. This is an area where there have been advances in understanding since the publication date, notably in how to integrate renewables into existing electricity systems, where their rising shares impose substantial costs to everyone else - unpaid for by the wind and solar operators. A report by the OECD-NEA, 'Nuclear Energy and Renewables - System Effects in Low-carbon Electricity Systems' (2012), highlights the magnitude of these costs, which are substantial and have to be paid for by somebody. Germany will eventually provide a wonderful case study of this with the general public so far seemingly quite happy to pay - largely to get rid of nuclear power - but industry beginning to get restless.

So the nuclear advocates are certainly right in suggesting we cannot rely on renewables and that much more is needed as part of a balanced energy strategy to deal with the key issues of environment, security of supply and economics. They have the backing of the International Energy Agency's (IEA) successive 'World Energy Outlooks' (WEO) and a host of other work too. We don't yet have the policies in place to make this happen, but the optimist in me believes this isn't now so much because many people are not very good at adding up. The numbers are gradually becoming clearer but it is taking time for the limitations of renewables - at least as we understand them today - to become fully understood. There is undoubtedly much potential for technical improvements in the future, notably in solar power and in energy storage, but we can't rely on the certainty of these happening.


*Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.

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