Can Renewables and Nuclear Co-Exist in Our Clean Energy Future?

Can Renewables and Nuclear Co-Exist in Our Clean Energy Future?
AP Photo/Keith Ridler, File

These are heady days for renewable energy advocates.

In a mid-May Financial Times article headlined, “The Big Green Bang: how renewable energy became unstoppable," the chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power in Ireland asserted, "Fossil fuels have lost. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.”

A Bloomberg New Energy Finance report released in mid-June concludes, per a Bloomberg article, “Solar power, once so costly it only made economic sense in spaceships, is becoming cheap enough that it will push coal and even natural-gas plants out of business faster than previously forecast.”

Even President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement apparently won’t slow renewables’ momentum. Cases in point: the June 1st article in The Wall Street Journal headlined, “Despite Paris Accord Exit, Companies Expect Little Change,” and an Associated Press article, same date, stating, “Even in red states where resistance is strong to the idea that humans are causing the planet to heat up, flood prevention and renewable energy are considered smart business.”

Nuclear energy, as the nation’s largest source of carbon-free electricity, could be expected to have at least as bullish an outlook as renewable energy. Yet despite the fact that U.S. nuclear power plants generated more than twice as much electricity in 2016 as did renewable sources, nuclear energy’s trajectory seems far less certain.

“After almost 40 years and billions of dollars, the American nuclear industry’s bid to revive itself is falling flat,” wrote Axios.com’s Amy Harder in April, prior to Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris accord. More recently, The New York Times headlined its look at nuclear energy’s challenges, “How retiring nuclear power plants may undercut U.S. climate goals.”

Electric utility executives and other experts long have insisted that a diverse electricity portfolio is vital for long-term energy security and prudent to protect customers from rate volatility. In that vein, analyses conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute continue to project something akin to an “all of the above” approach. EPRI’s February 2017 report entitled, “A Perspective on the Future of Energy: Scenarios, Trends, and Global Points of View” identifies a “very likely” scenario in which “central (electricity) generation – fossil, renewable, and nuclear – continue to play a strong role through 2030 and beyond.”

All of which beg several clean energy questions, including: Where does the hype end and the reality begin? Are we really entering a world where nuclear energy fades and renewables not only affect the future but, undergirded by natural gas, essentially are the future?

Time and technology breakthroughs will tell, but here’s one big reason that renewables have the upper hand going forward: They have a gigantic lead in the policy world. Consider: 29 states have renewable portfolio standards mandating minimum levels of electricity generation from wind, solar and other non-emitting sources. These states are home to 65 of the nation’s 99 commercial nuclear reactors, which are excluded from the RPS requirements. Seven of these states in 2015 and 2016 “raised and extended their final RPS targets, while another state enacted a new RPS policy,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Five states now have an RPS mandating that at least 50 percent of their electricity generation comes from an emission-free source by 2030.

In one of those five states, California, the upward ratcheting of the RPS was identified as a key driver behind the decision to retire the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s two reactors when their operating licenses expire in 2024 and 2025. “California's new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon's electricity output,” Pacific Gas & Electric explained last June. Including Diablo Canyon, six reactor closings have been announced over the next eight years; all six operate in states with a renewable portfolio standard.

Given the fervor for renewable energy and the near-religious overtones to the climate change issue, one has to wonder how much time will pass before renewable standards come to the 21 states without one. And, if and when they do, whether they will be broad “clean energy” standards that make room for nuclear. For example, while Virginia has only a voluntary standard, it was among the 12 states that, on the heels of Trump’s Paris decision, formed the U.S. Climate Alliance to move forward on the principles of the Paris accord. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe subsequently stated in a Washington Post commentary, “I am proud that, despite our reputation as a Southern state hostile to renewable energy, Virginia is the first state in the Trump era to take action to cut carbon and create clean-energy jobs.” 

Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis, told National Public Radio after Trump’s election win last November that corporate commitments to go 100 percent renewable “are here to stay. They’re huge commitments made by companies like Walmart and Google and Apple. So if you’re a state, you basically have to offer renewable energy to those corporations. And I don’t see that changing, regardless of whether the Trump administration focuses on the fossil fuel sector or not.”

Thirty-four commercial reactors operate in the 21 states without an RPS. Barring a second round of operating license extensions -- a nascent effort by the nuclear energy industry to achieve second license renewals is under way -- all the nation’s commercial reactors will retire by mid-century.

The recent New York Times look at nuclear energy references experts who say the technology’s “best solution” would be a nationwide price on carbon to level the playing field. “But until that happens, state efforts to prevent existing nuclear power from dying will be one of the biggest things policy makers can do to keep emissions down in the next decade,” the article states. Only weeks ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures published an update to its January report “State Options to Keep Nuclear in the Energy Mix” to detail the “significant increase in the number of policy proposals that state legislatures are considering which aim to support nuclear power.” The NCSL addendum notes that two states—Illinois and New York—last year established policy mechanisms to compensate nuclear power plants for their carbon-free attributes.

While many clean energy advocates see Illinois and New York as a model for other states to follow, the mechanisms also have detractors. Similar proposals to support nuclear energy facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania are encountering resistance, including opposition at the national level from the American Petroleum Institute and The Heritage Foundation.

The ability of nuclear energy proponents to overcome such opposition ultimately may determine whether renewables and nuclear will co-exist in our clean energy future.

In its 2015 report “The Climate Challenge: Can Renewables Really Do It Alone?”, the think tank Third Way writes, “Renewables are improving, and their share of the grid can and must go up—hopefully reaching a substantial share of capacity. But we also must aggressively pursue other low carbon sources that can bring large quantities of baseload power to the grid in the right places and in cost-effective ways. That means adding carbon capture and sequestration to fossil plants and building new and advanced nuclear plants. To get there, we will have to invest in them and not place all of our money, innovation, and political efforts on the hope of U.S. and global grids powered only by the wind and sun.”

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