We have chosen rising cost of energy with rising CO₂ emissions while telling ourselves that we were making a different choice.
Germany and California have prioritized closing nuclear plants over decommissioning coal and gas plants. But with so much power still generated from fossil fuels, rapid declines in the cost of wind and solar have not translated into cheap electricity. Electricity prices, in fact, have tended to be highest in places with the greatest share of renewable energy. Public resistance to the growing land use impacts of renewable energy has further hobbled efforts to build out renewables and the infrastructure necessary to support them.
One might dismiss these inconvenient developments as hiccups in the early phases of a global energy transition. But in many ways, the early phases are the easiest: Wind and solar developers can cherry-pick the best locations with good access to existing transmission lines. There is a huge reservoir of existing, on-demand, fossil fuel power generation that can supply the lion’s share of electricity demand while also filling in for renewable energy sources when the sun doesn’t shine and wind doesn’t blow. Subsidies for renewable energy are manageable for taxpayers and electricity consumers as long as the share of wind and solar supplying the grid isn’t very high.
But as the share of renewable energy grows in places like California and Germany, the technical challenges associated with scaling up renewables become more difficult. Once the share of variable renewable energy (i.e., solar and wind) begins to approach 20 percent or so, it swamps the electrical grid whenever the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Surges of wind and solar power at particular times of the day not only undermine the economics of other power sources on the grid but also undermine the economics of adding additional wind and solar. This phenomenon, called value deflation, is already eroding the economics of wind and solar in California and elsewhere—even at relatively low shares of grid penetration.
— Ted Nordhaus, “In Global Energy Crisis, Anti-Nuclear Chickens Come Home to Roost“
The inherent problem here is that we have told ourselves that variable renewable energy – solar, wind and hydro – are a viable alternative for energy production, but in reality they are not. The energy density is too low, the costs are too high, and as we are beginning to find out, the production of the equipment is anything but environmentally safe.
A combined alternative of nuclear power and variable renewable energy sounds good till you start to think about it: Nuclear power is very good at producing a fixed power output but not at covering for the variability of solar and wind energy. So, by prioritising variable renewable energy we get this:
The need to fill the hole left by the nation’s shuttered nuclear plants and back up growing wind and solar generation has forced Germany to become even more dependent on domestically produced (and extremely carbon-intensive) lignite coal and Russian natural gas, resulting in largely stagnant—and lately rising—emissions. The former has forced the nation to delay its climate ambitions. The latter has left Germany’s economy and citizenry vulnerable to price gouging and blackmail.
Belgium, bowing to pressure from the country’s Green parties, is moving forward with plans to retire its nuclear power plants by 2025 without so much as a pretense of replacing them with clean generation. Instead, it will subsidize construction of new natural gas plants.
Did anyone notice, years ago when people were still traveling by air how airports, these hubs of travel for the most influential people in the world, were covered in ads touting solar and wind energy by the same companies advertising their natural gas? There is a reason they did so:
But as experts and modelers have worked the problem over recent years, they have discovered that it is extremely difficult to cost-effectively run a grid with variable renewable energy without complementing it with technologies they’ve dubbed “clean firm generation.” To the untrained eye, many of the leading candidates for clean firm generation look a lot like the things that provide baseload power today: coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. The difference is that in the models, these baseload plants would not run constantly as in the past but mostly sit idle, ramping up and down in response to the vagaries of the wind and the sun. In the case of coal and gas plants, they would also capture all their carbon.
In theory, nuclear, coal, and gas are all capable of playing this role. In practice, nuclear and coal are not terribly well suited to doing so. Both have huge upfront capital costs and significant operating costs that must be maintained whether they are burning fuel or not. In their present iterations at least, they are only economically viable when they operate most of the time.
Gas, though, is a different animal. Gas plants are cheap to build and easy to operate highly variably. Indeed, natural gas first gained a foothold in electrical systems for precisely this characteristic, as a generation source that was intended primarily to operate intermittently, in addition to baseload power generation during periods of peak demand. Little wonder, then, that the great expansion of wind and solar in the electrical systems of advanced developed economies has been accompanied by the expansion of gas, even in places where it has remained relatively expensive. Gas turns out to be the killer app for scaling renewable energy. The problem is that it isn’t clean and, in most of the world, it’s also not cheap.
I am not saying we shouldn’t have variable renewable energy sources. But I am saying that we should be honest about what it means and how to solve the issues that it presents.
In virtually every country that has closed nuclear plants, clean electricity has been replaced with dirty power.