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Monday, February 15, 2010

Nuclear Power and Wind Energy: Why Choose?

Lately, there have been a lot of white papers, scientific papers, and industry documents that argue (exclusively) in favor of either nuclear power or some renewable energy source (wind, solar, biomass). Typically, these articles paint the preferred energy resource as a panacea to all the world’s energy problems while decrying the imminent devastation that will result if another resource is selected.

The pro-nuclear power articles assert that nuclear is the only possible solution because nuclear is the only option for reliable, non-carbon emitting base load power generation. The pro-nuclear folks then denounce renewable generation from wind and solar as too “intermittent” to provide a viable alternative. Likewise, renewable resource advocates disparage nuclear power plants for environmental, political, economic and social reasons including allegations that nuclear power still causes substantial environmental harm as a result of uranium mining, transport and storage. The renewable advocates then gloss over intermittency issues with vague references to (as yet un-built) smart grids and (as of yet undeveloped) energy storage solutions.

See, e.g. Travis Madsen and Tony Dutzik, et al., Generating Failure: How Building Nuclear Power Plants Would Set America Back in the Race Against Global Warming (Env’t New Jersey Research and Policy Center, Nov. 2009) (available here: http://bit.ly/cirRIR); see also, The Future of Nuclear Energy to 2030 and It’s Implications for Safety, Security and Nonproliferation (Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2010) (available here: http://bit.ly/aPAmcb).

The truth is that both the nuclear folks and the renewable energy people are correct. Nuclear power does not emit carbon or other greenhouse gases or dangerous particulates into the atmosphere at the plant. But there is no question that uranium mining presents problems—including (but not limited to) the standard environmental consequences of most mining operations as well as the fact that most uranium reserves are not located on domestic lands. And, it is also true that wind and solar generation is intermittent—the sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow (although offshore wind farms suffer less intermittency issues than onshore wind farms)—and we don`t yet have a smart grid or the technological ability to store vast quantities of electricity for use during non-sunny, non-windy times.

Nuclear power is ideal for providing base load energy needs. Remember, base load represents the floor of our energy requirements—basically, what the demand centers require in the middle of the night when the weather does not require lots of people to run air conditioners or heating units at full tilt. Nuclear power plants provide constant, uniform wattage. They cannot easily be powered down or powered up, which means nuclear power plants need to be run more or less constantly—perfect for base load. Alternatively, renewable energy generation is often at its best during the types of weather events that place higher-than-base-load demands on electricity producers. People use more energy during daylight hours (solar!) and during stormy weather (wind!).

So what about having a mixture of both types of energy generation? Both nuclear power and renewable energy generation projects are capital intensive, so the project advocates must compete for funding. Could it be that the advocates, in decrying their alternatives, have simply created a Mexican showdown preventing either type of project from going forward? As I have complained in this blog before, no offshore wind farms have yet been built. Moreover, the ambitious 2002 U.S. Nuclear Power 2010 program has resulted in the start of not a single construction project.

So maybe the renewable energy people and the nuclear people should stop fighting and start talking about how these resources can compliment each other. Or am I totally off the grid here?

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