This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. For some reason, there are certain anti-cleantech talking points that get thrown around over and over again that are absolute bunk. We got tired of dealing with the same myths repeatedly and also saw that many other people could use some support responding to these untruths — in discussions on CleanTechnica and elsewhere. So, at the suggestion of a reader, we created this resource in the same vein as Skeptical Science’s responses to global warming & climate change myths.
Myth: We need to build more nuclear power if we want to cut electricity emissions quickly and turn off coal and natural gas power plants.
Short answer: Renewables can grow fast because they can be installed practically everywhere rapidly and simultaneously. Renewable capacity in the magnitude of 1 TW can in principle be added every year. Germany installed 3 GW of PV in one single month in December 2011. Germany has roughly 1% of the world’s population. So, if the entire world installs only 20% the amount of PV that Germany did 5 years ago, it would be at 720 GW per year. At a single utility-scale-PV plant, 120 MWp per month was installed. If only 10% of all cities worldwide installed utility-scale-solar at this scale at the same time, it would lead to approximately the same number just for utility-scale-solar (the world has 4,412 cities with a population of at least 150,000). In fact, if the world only installs one PV module per person per year, this already leads to 1,850 GW per year. Nuclear power plants, meanwhile, take several years to build — and are much more expensive.
One major advantage renewable energy has over nuclear power (and fossil fuels) is that it can typically be installed much faster. Nuclear power plants can require 5–15 years to complete and some have taken 20 or more. (Constructing a new coal power plant can take 4 years or more. Building a new gas-powered plant generally takes several years as well.)
Installing a solar power farm can be completed in a number of months, depending upon the size and complexity of the project. Obviously, the much larger ones will require more time, but even they often can be finished in a year or less.
The same is true of wind farms. A 10 MW wind farm can be built in about 2 months and a 50 MW in approximately 6 months.
The speed at which renewables can be built and made operational is impressive. In the year 2017 alone, China installed about 52 GW of solar power. When it comes to wind power, China may install about 403 GW over the next 10 years. As with a large number of any type of construction project, the limiting factor in speed is generally one of financing, will, and labor, and that is certainly no less true with highly distributed wind and solar power projects.
The cost of renewables will likely continue to decrease with greater adoption and acceptance, especially as fossil fuel usage declines. Greater demand and adoption can spur further innovation to make renewables even more efficient, which enhances their effectiveness and the speed at which you can get large amounts of power onto the grid. With renewables, it is possible to have a virtuous cycle which drives increasing affordability and performance, whereas with fossil fuels we have a vicious cycle of climate change emissions, air pollution that harms and kills humans, rising seas, more severe weather, massive coral die-offs, and the contamination of air, soil, water, and food. Nuclear power costs, meanwhile, have risen in recent decades and are priced out of any free market or semi-free market.
Another advantage is that installing solar and wind power is not nearly as dangerous as building a nuclear or coal power plant. In India, an accident at a construction site for a new coal plant killed 32 people and injured many others. A similar accident in China killed 74. Installing solar power and wind power farms almost never results in fatalities.
Renewable energy is more scalable and a better fit to address global warming than nuclear because it costs much less, takes less time to install, and doesn’t carry the burden of potentially causing catastrophic damage — which also comes with sophisticated safety guards that take much time to implement, monitor, and keep up to date.
Electricity produced from sunlight and wind are scalable because these sources are abundantly available and will never run out. In order to combat climate change, we all need clean, renewable energy that can be quickly built and put into operation, but that will also never run out of the primary fuel source.
Another reason why renewables are scalable is their portability and ability to fit the scale needed, no matter how small or how large. Renewable energy systems can be sized precisely to the needs, whether at the small scale where people might use diesel generators or at the gigawatt scale. Community solar projects only require a capital investment and some land near the place where the electricity will be used. Renewables can easily power one community, one home, or even one device (like a light). Consumers can get solar power systems for their RVs, vans, or boats as well.
Because solar power costs have declined dramatically, more and more homeowners are going solar, and they will save money over the long term. (Home energy storage is making this scenario feasible for even more homeowners year by year.) While individual projects are not notable amongst a large grid and generation fleet, the aggregation of small projects that can go up in a matter of weeks or months is considerable.
On a bit of a larger scale, many companies are choosing to install solar power for cost-saving as well as environmental reasons and have shown that sensible, fast renewable energy installations can save huge amounts of money. Again, these projects can go up in a matter of weeks or months — unlike nuclear — and the aggregate of them means a large and quick increase in the amount of clean power on the grid. There’s a reason or two why large corporations don’t install nuclear power plants instead.
Mainstream American companies like PepsiCo, General Motors, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Walmart have been using more renewable energy and saving billions of dollars in the process while cleaning up the air and atmosphere.
Renewable energy can be employed by just about anyone at any time if they have the means to do so. Sunlight and wind are free. Installations can be on a watt scale or a gigawatt scale. If we want clean power added to the grid quickly, nothing can come online faster than renewables. In certain places, depending on market penetration and infrastructure, transmission lines or energy storage may be an important complement, but that still doesn’t change that renewables are the quickest option for new and cheap clean power capacity.