Monday, May 08, 2006

Renewables vs Nuclear

There is a great discussion over at EnergyPulse. The article suggests renewables can replace nuclear. A number of good comments that follow show the claim to be wrongheaded, but perhaps not entirely wrong.

The claim that renewables (primarily windpower) can replace nuclear is not entirely off base. We are building windpower right now faster than we are building nuclear, and the EIA predicts this will continue to be true for 30 years, even with the new subsidies. The existing U.S. nuclear plant fleet is huge, however, and renewables are not forecast to challenge the capacity of the existing nuclear base.

I think the debate between renewables and nuclear is pointless. Both are domestic supplies. I think the more interesting comparison is between domestic and foreign energy supplies, and what we can do to move to more domestic energy. Secondarily, I think there is an interesting comparison between the amounts of CO2 produced by various energy supplies.

We use oil and gas-fired turbines and hydro to follow variations in electricity demand. Our dependence on foreign oil and gas supplies is a major threat to our national security. In the U.S., hydro is all built out. I see two strategies that will help move the U.S. from foreign energy sources to domestic sources. Both could use some legislation.

  • Dynamic pricing. If the price of electricity varies minute-by- minute, many customers can time-shift their loads. This reduces variations in electrical demand and allows domestic sources (coal, nuclear, renewables) to replace foreign sources (oil, gas). Examples are ice-storing commercial cooling plants and aluminum smelters.

  • Plug-in hybrids. These gasoline and battery powered cars can charge up at night. They actually help twice: they directly shift their energy source from a foreign one (crude oil) to a domestic one (coal, nuclear, renewables). But also, the extra demand at night makes it economic to build more domestic-source generation instead of foreign-source generation.

  • As for the CO2 problem, natural gas was once sold as a cleaner, greener substitute for coal. The cost in blood and money is now clear. We should use all the windpower we can get, and conservation can help too. But I think the big answer here is hundreds of gigawatts of new nuclear generation over the next 30 years.

    I foresee the costs of coal going up in the future, from the additional costs of CO2 sequestration. I foresee the costs of nuclear coming down in the future, if many similar plants are built and regulation and operation become more standardized. So I see a second benefit to a massive nuclear buildout: a drop in the price of energy here in the U.S. I think that drop, along with a change to domestic energy supplies, could make a big difference to our balance of trade and national security.