Top 4 Reasons Why Renewables are More Useful than Nuclear Energy
Back in the 1930s nuclear fission as a source of energy generation was considered a revolutionary idea. Minute quantities of fuel (mostly uranium) could produce immense amounts of energy and fuel stocks around the world were expected to last several hundred years. People dreamt of an age of plentiful, almost free energy.
In the 1950s, several countries – especially Germany, France and Japan – invested heavily into nuclear power plants, and nuclear energy formed a significant part of their energy mix. All three leaders have since changed track. Germany and Japan moved away from nuclear fuels after the Fukushima power plant meltdown in 2011. France has decided to reduce its dependence on nuclear power in 2015. Their motivations are many: costs, risks and environmental concerns. And: the advent of great alternatives.
Given the competitiveness of renewable energy – and in particular, solar energy – does it still make sense to pursue nuclear power for the world’s energy requirements?
I think not. And here’s why:
1) Cost of the Technology: Nuclear power plants are expensive, calling for (on an average) billions of dollars’ worth of investment into each power plant. Therefore they’re not something that can be built without emphatic government backing and gigantic loans from the banking sector. Also, since nuclear power is a mature technology, its costs are not likely to drop by much going forward.
Contrast this with solar energy generation. It’s a young technology whose costs are plummeting year-on-year. It has already reached grid parity in several regions and countries, and is projected to become the cheapest source of energy within the next decade or so.
2) Modularity: Nuclear power plants are gigantic undertakings, with one power plant typically capable of serving several thousand households. And yet herein lies its weakness, and solar energy’s strength. Solar is an immensely modular and scalable technology, with system sizes ranging from a few watts to several hundred MW. Such attributes enable solar to provide highly distributed (off-grid and decentralized) energy access, something that is virtually impossible with nuclear energy.
3) Rapidly Maturing Energy Storage Technology: Proponents of nuclear (and conventional energy) continually voice the argument that renewables generated electricity is intermittent in nature, and it therefore cannot be used for baseload energy requirements. While that is true at the moment, advancements in energy storage technology will soon address this shortcoming of renewables as well. In addition, cost savings from conventional power plants that are shut down can be passed on to energy storage from solar and other renewable energy sources.
4) Environmental impacts: The disasters in Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) are dire reminders that nuclear energy, when it goes wrong, does so with catastrophic results. Even in a normally functioning plant, the storage of spent fuel has always posed a challenge, a satisfactory answer to which is yet to be found.
In comparison, solar is as clean and safe as it gets. There are no emissions during the operational lifetime of a solar system and there are no issues with the “fuel” contaminating the surroundings.
Solar Energy Replaces Nuclear Energy
As a result, globally investment into the nuclear energy sector has been falling.
Worldwide, very few new facilities are actually being built, and many of those that are, are branded as “doomed” projects. The fleet of existing nuclear plants is ageing fast (with an average age of 29 years, designed for a 40 year lifespan), and it would be extremely expensive to prolong their lifespans.
A last point may prove to be most relevant: the world of energy is changing more dynamically than ever before. It is an age of disruption, innovation and uncertainty. New players are entering the market with new business models and solutions. Nuclear plants, that take around 10 years from planning to operation and then have lifetimes of 40 years or more, were more suitable to the 20th century electricity infrastructure then to today’s.
To read more about the status of the nuclear energy sector, click here.