There’s an enduring myth related to wind energy and nuclear energy that needs to be put to bed. That myth is that only nuclear can be scaled to sufficient capacity to reduce the impacts of global warming, and that wind energy is much less scalable so it should be ignored.
Most recently, this appeared as a broad generalization without any supporting evidence in a pro-carbon capture series by a CCS researcher on the Siemens-sponsored Energy Collective, which features this particular myth regularly, being a bit of an echo chamber for it. Of course the nuclear industry’s PR professionals love this line as well.
And there’s another myth related to carbon capture and sequestration being more significant than renewables that has to be assessed as well.
China is the true test bed for maximum scalability of nuclear vs wind. It has a tremendous gap between demand and generation. It can mostly ignore lack of social license for nuclear. It is building both wind and nuclear as rapidly as possible. It has been on a crash course for both for about the same period of time. It has bypassed most of the regulatory red tape for nuclear which sensibly exists elsewhere given concerns about economic fallout of Fukushima-scale disasters, nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And in four years it has built significantly less nuclear generation capacity than it built of wind generation capacity in 2013 alone.
What is the reality of nuclear vs wind built out?
- China turned on just over 16 GW of nameplate capacity of wind generation in 2013 according to the Global Wind Energy Council.
- Over the four years of 2010 to 2014 China managed to put 4.7 GW of nuclear into operation. This is not their stated plan for nuclear which is much higher, but the actual generation capacity put into production.
- Modern wind turbines have a median 40.35% capacity factor and exceed 50% in the best wind resources according to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) who track the actuals on this sort of thing.
- Taking similarly sourced numbers for nuclear capacity factor from the Nuclear Energy Institute, we see 90.9% capacity factors for nuclear reactors. These are apples-to-apples statistics from the same country.
Running the math, that’s about 6.5 GW of real capacity of wind energy in one year vs 4.3 GW of real capacity for nuclear over four years. That’s roughly six times more real wind energy capacity than nuclear per year. 2014 might be better than average as perhaps 2 GW have been made operational this year. We’ll see what reality brings as wind energy is being expanded rapidly as well.
Comparing 2013 only we see over six times as much real capacity from wind energy as from nuclear. There’s no reason to believe that this will change significantly as years slide by, as China is well below projections for new nuclear generation in operation, much like most jurisdictions’ experiences with the realities of getting nuclear to work.
No other geography is capable of building as much nuclear per capita as China is. India’s track record as the next biggest source of nuclear growth is poor as well, as they’ve only managed to build 4.2 GW in several decades.
Globally nuclear capacity has diminished and is expected to continue to diminish over the next few years as France shuts off 33% of its fleet in favour of mostly wind energy, Germany shuts off its fleet, Ontario intends to move from 55% to 42% supply from nuclear according to its draft long term energy plan and aging reactors globally reach end-of-life with no economic refurbishment possible. In empirical terms it doesn’t matter what anybody claims is possible: wind energy is growing rapidly while nuclear is going backwards. That’s reality.
Meanwhile, most geographies are perfectly capable of building wind farms and are, with utility-scale wind generation in 100 countries so far. For the past five years wind energy has averaged 40 GW of new operational nameplate capacity according to GWEC or 16 GW of median capacity and that is expected to grow.
To be clear, nuclear is a good choice where it can actually be built and where it makes economic sense. It is much better than fossil fuel generation; its problems are economic and pragmatic, not environmental or health impacts. But reality limits nuclear growth mostly to China and India because they both are existing nuclear powers and both have vast disparity between demand and supply. Similarly, refurbishing reactors in the developed world makes economic sense only some of the time where economics make it viable. There are many factors hindering nuclear growth that don’t apply to renewables.
What about the carbon capture and sequestration myth?
But this most recent reference to the nuclear scalability myth was also all in a series of articles by a person who researches and advocates carbon capture and sequestration. How does that stack up?
It’s a smaller myth than nuclear but it’s worth looking at. The author claims that CCS will be more of a factor in terms of reducing global warming than renewables, which he claims are immaterial compared to nuclear. He’s been proven wrong about nuclear vs renewables, but how does he do with CCS vs renewables? He makes the point in discussion that CCS has stored about 55 Mton of CO2, which is about a third of the total CO2 avoided by total solar photovoltaic generation of 370 TWH by the end of 2013. He makes reasonable assumptions related to avoidance instead of underplaying renewable’s displacement of fossil fuel generation.
He then claims that because CCS demonstration activities have only cost $20 billion to date and Germany’s solar subsidies are in the range of $100 billion, this is a pretty good indication that CCS is the better answer.
Of course, his source for the solar costs is the media outlet in Germany most opposed to renewables, but even accepting that, Germany has spent a higher price on solar than any jurisdiction will have to moving forward. And the solar that it has implemented is production capacity which continues to eliminate carbon, while demonstration projects are just that.
The obvious white elephant in the room, of course, is that he’s paying attention to just one form of renewables in his calculations. Wind generation by end of 2012 had 534.3 TWh of generation, with likely close to that much again since given the massive growth of wind capacity and capacity factors worldwide. So wind energy has likely avoided in the range of ten times as much CO2e as all of CCS and it’s being built much more quickly at a much lower cost, with resultant elimination of fossil fuel generation.
So just solar and wind so far have eliminated perhaps thirteen times the CO2e of all the CCS projects to date. And every day the production wind and solar avoid more CO2e from being created while creating electricity at economically viable prices. Meanwhile, CCS experiments to-date have been run sitting on top of places to sequester CO2, not realistic distances away.
That’s moderately damning as it is but let’s take a pragmatic perspective on CCS. Here’s a little data and a thought experiment to add to the empirical realities of CCS.
When coal burns the carbon combines with oxygen, and the resulting CO2 weighs 2.86 times the weight of the coal. Close to three times the weight of coal in CO2 must be be shipped to somewhere else for sequestration. An example coal plant requires 56 million tons of coal annually, which must be shipped in on boats and trains. That means that 167 million tons of CO2 must be shipped away from that coal plant annually if the carbon is captured. And coal and CO2 require completely different shipping containers. Coal can be shipped in open-topped cars, but CO2 requires pressurized or refrigerated railway tank cars, or pipelines. That means that full coal cars roll up and empty coal cars roll away, then empty CO2 cars roll up and full cars roll away or that pipelines get built. That’s very expensive logistically.
Here are all of the CO2 pipelines that existed in 2008 in the USA to feed enhanced oil recovery which is the dominant targeted expectation for use of captured CO2. It’s a mixed blessing at best in terms of atmospheric CO2 reduction as it just pushes more fossil fuels out the other end.
The last time I checked — and I spent a couple of months working on air carbon capture leveraging Graciela Chichilnisky’s GlobalThermostat technology — CO2 varied between $30 and $50 USD per ton value to end consumers. That’s an entire new infrastructure and set of expensive logistics for a commodity which is cheap, already plentiful and only more plentiful with carbon capture. How much is this going to cost, and who exactly is going to pay for this extensive logistics network?
Per this CCS and fossil fuel industry lobbying group, CCS will cost roughly $120-$140 per ton of CO2 or three to five times the commodity value. It’s safe to assume that those numbers are conservative given the source, but not wildly off as it’s a Canadian organization. There are hopes that it will turn out to be more like shifting to lower sulphur coal and scrubbing, but that’s unrealistic. Burning coal gives off 70 to 286 times the weight of CO2 than of sulphur. It’s nowhere near the same scale, and there is no low-carbon coal to shift to which solved much of the problem for sulphur.
What does that mean for a MWH of electricity generated by coal? Well, coal plants have just been getting worse in terms of emitting CO2 over the past decades.
Doing a little math, it’s apparent that CCS will add from $168 to $196 to the cost of a MWh of coal generation. That’s 16.8 to 19.6 cents per KWh which puts existing coal plants impossibly deep into unprofitable territory. For comparison, in the mid-West US states the total price of newly built wind generation including PPA, PTC, grid interconnections and additional ancillary services is 5.4 cents per KWh and dropping. The lowest cost of CCS for coal is three times higher than the total price for wind generation in those states. And it’s not like coal is free or plants run at zero cost. Retrofitting existing plants will cost more and take longer than building new wind generation in most of the USA and the rest of the world as well.
The organization suggests that enhanced oil recovery (EOR) revenues will cover some of the shortfall, but there just isn’t that big a market for EOR compared to generation. If every coal plant and steel plant using coal in the USA had CCS and a pipeline to EOR sites, the commodity price of CO2 would likely drop. They also suggest compliance has a value, but that’s really just a way of sugar coating the cost. Finally, they talk about corporate tax savings which might have some value.
The economics of CCS don’t withstand much scrutiny. There’s a lot of wishful thinking and a lack of reality of the sheer weight of CO2 that has to be moved long distances at significant cost.
Where does this leave the claims about nuclear and CCS?
Nuclear isn’t more scalable than wind or other renewables, in fact it’s going in reverse while renewables are being expanded rapidly. And CCS won’t dodge more climate change than renewables because wind and solar are being built in production rapidly and CCS isn’t and won’t be in comparable scales because the economics don’t support it. Both are busted myths.
Wind energy isn’t the only answer. It is likely to reach a maximum of 30% to 40% of supply in a century worldwide. That’s impressive and amazing, but far from the only tool necessary to deal with climate change. Solar will be in the same range. Storage will likely be necessary somewhere from 15% to 20% and grid interconnections will improve substantially. Biomass and geothermal will add their bits, as will tidal possibly. And demand for electricity will go up a lot as countries become richer and transportation and other forms of energy usage become electrified. It’s a complex space, and CCS has an important if smaller and only bridging role to play in it. Nuclear is useful as well, although diminishing as a percentage of total worldwide generation.
But the heavy lifting will be done by displacing fossil fuel generation with renewables, not trying to mitigate the extraordinary problems with burning fossil fuels or building nuclear generation. That’s what the empirical data tells us.