Which one is a better and economic option for Energy Transition to address climate change

The Question: Why Renewables?

A couple of weeks back, I had published an article titled, Replacing Dirty Coal With Renewable in 30 years. I tried to analyse the possibility of a complete shift from coal to renewable in the next 30 years or so.

When I wrote favouring renewables in that article, Mr Bob Mainetz one of my serious readers asked for a justification that why we should prefer renewables over nuclear energy source for massive decarbonisation drive.

solar park
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Position of Renewables & Nuclear in Energy Mix

Today, the overall picture of our energy mix is alarming from the point of view of decarbonization. According to BP’s 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy  84.3% of global energy consumption is still produced by burning fossil fuels emitting huge carbon into the atmosphere.

Either renewables or nuclear none of these comparatively clean energy sources is contributing much (till now) despite their fast growth. The contribution of Nuclear energy is about 4.3% and renewables are about 11.4%.

So, on one hand, there is an urgent need to exercise more effort to produce clean energy as fast as possible to reduce the use of fossil fuel, and on the other hand, the big question is which way to go? 

Being a veteran in the renewable energy sector, I am definitely in favour of expanding the contribution of renewables over any other source provided it stands on merit, but there is a big group of knowledgeable people who feels differently and advocate in favour of nuclear energy. 

I have no clear cut answer for Mr Bob. I said, am personally inclined towards renewables but at the same time open to the best possible solution. Maybe it is too early to conclude just yet.

Nevertheless, we can have a look at the opinions of many scientists and researchers across the world.

Nuclear Energy Over Renewables: Argument

A group of influential climate scientists and some international organisations think that nuclear power is the best resource for effective decarbonisation as well as to meet the continuously increasing global energy demand.

Bill Gates published a letter in 2019, urging the US leaders to embrace nuclear energy over renewable energy. He said it is the only option available at this point to replace fossil fuel and renewables are still not in a position to match.

MIT scientists also argue in favour of nuclear energy to fight climate change. They also feel that wind and solar will take some more time to scale up to the expected level.

nuclear power plant
Photo by Patrick Federi on Unsplash

Therefore, a strong opinion in favour is that, in the present situation, nuclear energy is the only option. It is safe, clean and effective. It doesn’t emit any harmful substances in the atmosphere like fossil fuels. 

It consumes uranium as fuel, which is a natural material and available in abundance throughout the world. 

Renewables Over Nuclear Energy: The Counter Arguments

Radiation is a major concern. Even a small amount of exposer can cause cancer and other adverse health effects on adults. Exposer to radiation can cause genetic defects, mental retardation, body deformation to the new-borns.

Nuclear waste is also a serious threat to the environment. It needs to be disposed of in a highly protected and confined manner as the radiation lasts for a very long period. 

Nuclear energy is neither secure nor resilient. In case of any disaster like Chernobyl (1986) or  Three Mile Island (1979 and Fukushima (2011), despite the significant tightening of regulations the situation can go highly fatal. 

Nuclear plants are centralised systems, making them vulnerable. They are expensive to build, operate and maintain, and depend on raw material inputs that are energy-intensive to mine and process. 

The stability of its power system depends on its cooling system, which requires the availability of a huge source of water. With changing climatic conditions, droughts, drying up of revers and sudden floods, increased dependence on water to run the plant shouldn’t be a favoured idea.

The nuclear energy source is expensive, insecure. In case of any disaster, it is downright dangerous and runs against everything known as important for energy security and runs against everything known as important for energy security and resilience. 

renewables: wind farm
Photo by Luo Lei on Unsplash

So, this group argue that renewables are the best pathway towards decarbonisation that is cleaner, safer and more economically sustainable.  

Mathematics of Nuclear & Renewables

Nuclear power plants need more money to construct and usually take 5 to 17 years to build. This period is more than any solar or onshore wind plant of the same capacity to construct.

Worlds Nuclear Energy Status Report emphasis that even the maintenance and upkeeping of existing nuclear plants are also expensive than renewables.

This report also mentions that renewables are cheaper and can decarbonise faster than nuclear energy at a much lesser investment. 

It is the least cost option for energy capacity addition in terms of infrastructure development and procurement of machines. Renewable can be readily connected to the grid. 

Research findings show that non-nuclear (renewables) options save more CO per dollar.

Energy Death print: Nuclear Vs. Renewables

Another point of argument is Energy Death print. It is the number of the person killed per KWh produced by a particular type of energy.

According to the World Health Organisation Fossil fuel is the worst killer followed by biofuel/biomass. Air pollution produced by coal and other fossil fuel kills 7 million people every year.

Nuclear energy is comparatively a safer option. It kills 330 times lesser then coal,250 times lesser than oil and 38 times less than gas. 

In developing countries, biomass is a common source of power generation. Though it is relatively small-scale in nature still it kills 10,000 people per trillion KWh.

Non renewables: biomass
Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

Renewable energy like wind and solar are the safest of all. Though people say that wind turbines can also cause harm to human life:

  • Rotating blades generates noise and vibrations in the surroundings might cause a health problem called “wind-turbine syndrome” for the people who reside close to wind farms. 
  • Wind turbine blades can break and sprint nearby causing serious injury and even death to a human.
  • A worker can fall off while working on the top of the tower.

In my 22 years long carrier in wind, I had stayed inside wind firms for months together surrounded by the hissing sound of moving blades. 

I have experienced blade breaking and also the death of workers at the tower top and during the erection of the turbine.

Statistically, the rate of these incidences is so low that it is difficult to count them in percentage for any comparison.

Nuclear OR Renewables: My Final Impression

To reduce carbon emission, nuclear power is often promoted as one of the practical and reliable sources of clean energy. But considering the high amount of investment needed for building up new nuclear plants and its construction period, it doesn’t appear to be an attractive option.

Many old nuclear plants across the world have almost completed their life span and lost their efficiency. These plants are now consuming extra money for maintenance to keep fit and run. 

Moreover, the studies published revealing that, for operational reasons, nuclear energy and renewables programmes possibly cannot co-exist together

Research evidence also reveals that nuclear is less effective than renewables in terms of carbon emission abatement strategies Therefore, coupled with the findings of a lesser tendency to coexist with renewables, many experts like Benjamin K Sovacool (University of Sussex) thinks that it would not be wise to prioritise nuclear energy over renewable energy.

World wide sentiment of the countries ( some countries like China & Russia are the exception) is also moving away from nuclear for all these reasons.

The final impression I develop is this, that as a climate-friendly energy source to reduce carbon emission; it would be better to embrace renewables over nuclear; as a faster and cheaper option.