Close to five years ago I published an assessment of nuclear scaling vs wind and solar scaling using China as the proving ground in the CleanTechnica article “Wind Energy Beats Nuclear & Carbon Capture For Global Warming Mitigation.” Today, the China example is more clear proof that wind and solar are the better choice for global warming mitigation than nuclear generation.
China’s example is meaningful because it disproves several arguments of those in favor of increased nuclear generation. It’s not suffering under regulatory burden. It’s mostly been using the same nuclear technologies over and over again, not innovating with every new plant. It doesn’t have the same issues with social license due to the nature of the governmental system. The government has a lot of money. The inhibitors to widespread deployment are much lower.
Yet China has significantly slowed its nuclear generation rollout while accelerating its wind and solar rollout. Even strong industry insiders accept this, ones such as former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd, writing in Nuclear Engineering International in 2017.
Kidd estimates that China’s nuclear capacity will be around 100 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, well below previous expectations. Forecasts of 200 GW by 2030 were “not unusual only a few years ago,” he writes, but now seem “very wide of the mark.” And even the 100 GW estimate is stretching credulity ‒ nuclear capacity will be around 50 GW in 2020 and a doubling of that capacity by 2030 won’t happen if the current slow-down sets in.
Why is China slowing its nuclear rollout so drastically? Because nuclear is turning out to be more expensive than expected, new nuclear designs are proving to be uneconomical, and new wind and solar are dirt cheap and much easier to build.
Recently I published an assessment of the potential for wind and solar to massively exceed US CO2 reductions from nuclear in the CleanTechnica article US Could Achieve 3× As Much CO2 Savings With Renewables Instead Of Nuclear For Less Money. As usual, many of the comments from nuclear advocates related to the relative success of China, its speed of deployment compared to other jurisdictions and similar things.
In the discussion threads, I attempted to find apples-to-apples comparisons of China’s nuclear, solar, and wind generation compared, but none seemed to exist. As a result, I developed a model spanning 2010 to 2030, core years for all three programs. The charts are generated from the model.
As I noted in 2014, the wind generation program had started much later than the nuclear program yet had been able to build much more capacity much more quickly, roughly six times more real wind energy capacity than nuclear per year over the years of 2010 through 2014. At the time, I used best of breed capacity factors for both wind and nuclear. One of the arguments against this at the time and on an ongoing basis is that China is curtailing wind and solar generation and achieving lower capacity factors. However, China is also experiencing less than best of breed capacity factors with its nuclear fleet, averaging 80% instead of 90%. This would have put the real world generation in the range of 3–4 times better for wind than for nuclear.
It doesn’t really matter as even with the diminished capacity factors for wind and solar currently experienced, they generated more than double the electricity generated by nuclear in 2018. Wind and solar each generated more electricity last year than nuclear did. By 2030, the ratio is very likely to be 4:1 in favor of wind and solar. And as Lazard has shown, wind and solar are much, much cheaper than nuclear, so China will be getting a lot more electricity at a lower cost point.
The chart above uses the capacity factors being experienced for wind, solar and nuclear to date in China and projects that all three will improve over the coming decade as operational efficiencies and grid connections improve.
Historical data for installed capacity through 2018 is from public sources referenced at the end of the article. Projections for nuclear are based on the nuclear reactors currently being constructed and those planned but not in construction.
One key element of this is China’s 2020 plan for generation. It set targets for generation capacity of 58 GW for nuclear, 210 GW for wind, and 105 GW for solar. At present, they are on track with plants in construction and expected to be in commercial operation by 2020 to achieve 54 GW of capacity, 7% under target. Wind was targeted to achieve 210 GW of capacity and is expected to reach 214 GW, a small overachievement.
Nuclear has a history dating back to 1994 for the first commercial plant and the country had a long term nuclear program in place. As I said in 2014, the large scale program for wind generation was much younger than for nuclear, yet it was achieving more.
But the big story is solar. As can be seen, solar barely existed in China in 2010, with a total capacity of less than a GW. But it’s on track to achieve 255 GW of capacity by the end of 2020, an astonishing 133% overachievement.
The years from 2014 through 2018 were very good for nuclear energy in China and an exciting time for proponents of nuclear energy. 5.5 GW of new capacity was installed on average per year, with resulting increases in nuclear electrical generation. But 2017 and 2018 saw no new approved projects. Nuclear reactors in construction and likely to be completed by 2026 only represent about 3.2 GW capacity a year on average assuming no delays. Nuclear reactors that are planned with start dates but not in construction are few in number and those that are ‘planned’ but without start dates are the large majority.
The quote from Kidd above suggests China might achieve only 100 GW of nuclear capacity by 2030. That’s an overestimation according to the actual data. Nuclear reactors in construction today only bring Chinese nuclear capacity to 55 GW by 2023. Reactors scheduled to start construction in the next three years only bring that number to 66 GW. Reactors planned but not scheduled at all are only likely to see 88 GW by 2030. There is no planned capacity that achieves even 100 GW, never mind the heady days when 200 GW was thought to be possible.
And to be clear, even if 200 GW of nuclear had been realized, it still would have been less actual generation than wind and solar.
As I indicated in the recent article on US ability to decrease carbon load, nuclear is much lower carbon per MWh than either coal or gas generation, as well as being free of chemical and particulate pollution. However, wind is still quite a bit lower than nuclear in CO2e per MWh and solar is around the same. Given the speed of deployment per GW of capacity and the much lower price per MWh of wind and solar, nuclear as part of the mix doesn’t make a lot of sense in most places.
As always, I’m pleased with every nuclear reactor that is commissioned, refurbished, or allowed to keep running despite being uneconomic, as at this point in time the alternative would include fossil fuel generation. But in planning for our electric future, we have a budget that’s not terribly elastic and a timeframe that’s tight due to our previous slowness to respond. It’s irrational to build new nuclear when wind and solar are cheaper, quicker to build, and equal or lower carbon per MWh.
- NREL Annual Technology Baseline – Utility-Scale PV Power Plants
- Solar Power in China – Wikipedia
- Wind Power in China – Wikipedia
- Nuclear Power in China – World Nuclear Association
- Nuclear Power in China – Wikipedia
- Nuclear in China – why the slowdown?
- China May Increase Its 2020 Solar Target To 200 Gigawatts Or Higher
- China Set To Exceed 210 Gigawatt Wind Power Target By 2020
- Nuclear Capacity Factor – China – World Nuclear Association
- Wind Energy Beats Nuclear & Carbon Capture For Global Warming Mitigation
- China already surpassing some of its 2020 clean-energy targets
- US Could Achieve 3X As Much CO2 Savings With Renewables Instead Of Nuclear For Less Money
- Chinese slowdown may end nuclear’s last hope for growth
- China’s nuclear hiatus may be coming to an end
- Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage 2018
- Underpinning model with historical and projections
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