The Battle Between Renewables And Nuclear Is Heating Up
Many proponents of an emission-free network are firm opponents of nuclear energy. It's not emission-free, they argue. It's dangerous because it uses radioactive materials. Now a team of researchers has gone one step further and has pointed out that nuclear power has no place at all in an emission-free future.
In a study published in Nature, the University of Sussex team argues that renewable energy and nuclear power are mutually exclusive and that nuclear power must be avoided in favor of sun and wind in order to advance the global emissions reduction agenda.
The study used data from the World Bank and the International Energy Agency to suggest that renewables and nuclear power plants "tend to have lock-ins and path dependencies that displace one another," according to a University of Sussex press release.
Basically, one of the authors' messages is that nuclear power is bad because it displaces renewable energies and makes them less competitive. Network structures optimized for the generation of nuclear power plants and fossil fuels make decentralized electricity more expensive. Regulatory frameworks, financial markets and employment practices also advocated conventional power generation sources at the expense of renewable energies.
However, the study's authors also made another claim: nuclear power doesn't do too much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
"The study found that in countries with high GDP per capita, nuclear power generation is associated with a small decrease in CO2 emissions," the press release said. “In comparison, however, this decline is smaller than with investments in renewable energies. And in countries with a low GDP per capita, nuclear power generation is clearly associated with a trend towards higher CO2 emissions. "
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Unsurprisingly, the study generated criticism. Some unceremoniously dismissed it as pseudoscientific, while others took the time to address the main arguments. Alex Gilbert, an energy analyst, took to Twitter to explain the issues with the study in detail. While the authors recognized that their study found a correlation rather than causality between nuclear and renewable energies and emissions, they based their conclusions on the assumption of causality, among other things.
Interpreting the correlation between events or trends as causality is a dangerous trap for researchers. And the claim that nuclear power plants produce higher emissions is indeed problematic when we look at current data. Germany, a leader in renewable energies, has much higher emissions than neighboring France, which is heavily reliant on nuclear power: 289 g CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity for Germany compared to just 44 g for France. France has no solar capacity and little wind capacity, but it has almost 40 GW of nuclear capacity. Even parts of Denmark, the flagship of renewable energies and a country much smaller than France and Germany, have higher emissions than France.
But let's leave the emissions aside for a moment, blasphemous as that may seem to those who prioritize them above all else. Even if critics of the study are dismissed as nuclear schills, there are certain immutable facts that are relevant to a discussion of renewable energy versus nuclear. Nuclear power plants produce electricity that can be called up. This means that the network can deliver it when it needs it. The same applies to the production of fossil fuels. However, this does not apply to sun and wind. The advantage of nuclear power plants over sun and wind is that they not only emit carbon dioxide during the generation process, but can also provide all the electricity the grid needs when needed.
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Perhaps storage could change this in the future: Storage can immensely increase the competitiveness of renewable energies in terms of security of supply. However, storage that is large and affordable enough to make economic sense has yet to be developed. And although there are always vested interests on both sides, even the International Energy Agency has warned that an emission-free future is not possible without nuclear power.
"Without policy changes, advanced economies could lose 25% of their nuclear capacity by 2025 and two-thirds of it by 2040," the agency warned last year. As a result, according to the IEA, the planet could experience up to 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide in additional emissions.
According to the IEA, we don't even need many new nuclear power plants to avoid this. We could simply extend the lifespan of operational nuclear power plants instead of shortening them. This is also economical since the planning, construction and commissioning of new nuclear facilities take many years. In this regard, sun and wind are definitely better choices: they can be deployed in less than half the time. But if you put them against nuclear power in an either-or scenario, that might be going a little too far. Most experts seem to agree that solar, wind and nuclear power can coexist perfectly peacefully in an emission-free world without displacing one another.
By Irina Slav for Oil Genealogie
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