Recently someone asked me to do a thought exercise: what if we’d built renewables instead of nuclear generation? They were curious about the implications. I thought it was an interesting question, and didn’t have a great answer at hand, so I thought I’d work out what might have been.
Remember, of course, that this is a thought exercise, and hence like asking how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Well, actually, it’s a lot more sensible a discussion with a much greater likelihood of being correct than that, but undoubtedly theological-quality arguments will be made by pro-nuclear types who assert that I’m wrong.
The history of electrical generation has had several phases: renewables and coal early (85,000 dams in USA alone), then nuclear and coal, then renewables and gas, and now renewables. To be clear, lots more renewables earlier with the nuclear would have been a lot better than all of that coal and gas.
However, the question was whether we could have skipped nuclear entirely and gone straight to renewables. The answer is, very probably and most likely with major advantages. The first nuclear reactor went on line in 1951, and Eisenhower’s ironic Atoms for Peace speech occurred in 1953. Why ironic? Because major industrialized and militarized nations with nuclear armament programs wanted nuclear generation as a strategic support for weapons manufacturing. Renewables could have been the focus instead, and really would have been ‘for peace’.
Let’s look at the major components.
First off, storage. Closed-loop pumped hydro storage is 1890s technology. We have vastly more storage potential than we need. And we’ve built an awful lot of pumped hydro, mostly to give inflexible nuclear generation something to do at night, but still. We have a lot more options today with mature lithium-ion and strongly emerging redox flow solutions which will dominate different segments of the storage market, but closed-loop pumped hydro storage could have been built globally in large enough quantities at reasonable prices decades ago. There is no storage problem.
Second off, hydroelectric. The first generation of electricity from hydro power was in the 1880s. Most of the continental USA dams were built from 1930 to 1950. Globally, we have lots of rivers that could be dammed up, they are just in inconvenient places, especially the far north. The James Bay project in northern Quebec supplies electricity to New York City. Phase 1 was built in 1971, so it’s not like we didn’t have the ability to do northern major construction projects or build long-distance transmission. Three Gorges Dam is the biggest capacity (not most TWh generating) dam in the world at 22.5 GW, and it was completed in 2012. It could have been built in the 1970s as well. We’ve just finished off the Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador, one that will be sending electricity around northeastern North America via HVDC cables. There’s tons of capacity left in almost empty lands in Canada and other northern countries that could have been exploited long ago.
Third off, the solar power cell was invented in 1839. It was made into an effective, manufacturable product about 50 years later. Silicon-based cells were first created in 1954, around the same time as Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace push. If the world had turned hard into the manufacturing and distribution of solar energy in the 1950s when the first cheapish ones were possible, the cost of solar energy would have plummeted decades earlier, probably by the 1980s. They would have been the lowest cost form of electrical generation by 1990 instead of by 2030 as we have now. 80% of the cost reductions of solar aren’t technological, after all, but policy and the global supply chain. If we’d pivoted to solar, we’d probably have a lot more solar power being delivered globally today than nuclear.
Fourth off, wind power. The first electrical generation with wind turbines was done by three different inventors in three different countries within a couple of years of each other around 1890. In 1941, the first 1.25 MW capacity wind turbine was put on an electrical grid in Vermont. There’s nothing magical about wind energy. The physics was obvious 130 years or more ago, and a utility-scale turbine was in place 80 years ago.
If Eisenhower’s speech had been “Renewables for Peace,” it would have been much more accurate, and if all the global resources that went into nuclear had gone into renewables instead, including the geopolitical strategic pushes, the federal government’s heavy hand on the scales of regional decision making, federal purchasing power and the like, we could have been ahead of where we are today by 1990 at the latest. All of the economies of scale and incremental improvements would have been already baked in.
This was all very achievable, if the will had been there. There’s nothing magical or special about harvesting water, wind, and solar. There’s nothing magical about making it cheap that Henry Ford didn’t understand with his factories for the Model T in 1908. There’s nothing magical about transmitting it that Edison and Tesla didn’t understand in 1880.
There would have been many positives. Given the very reasonable fears of nuclear proliferation, nuclear generation was restricted to roughly 30 countries globally, and its tight strategic linkages to nuclear weapons meant that it faced headwinds that renewables didn’t. Wind and solar already being dirt cheap around the time China was massively building out its economy would have averted a tremendous amount of the coal build out there. China’s nuclear generation program, which is underperforming massively compared to its wind and solar programs, was established around 1995, and while it might have continued, the reality is that if China had been building as much wind and solar in 1990 as it is in 2020, absurd amounts of greenhouse gases would have been avoided. Ditto if it had done the Three Gorges Dam in 1970 instead of 2012.
We would have had utility-scale wind and solar generation in every country in the world by 2000 at the latest, providing clean, safe electricity to a much larger percentage of the population.
It’s probable that natural gas generation would never have achieved a major foothold because instead of displacing coal, it would be competing with cheap, low-carbon, zero-pollution wind and solar instead. The wasted couple of decades from 1990 to 2010, when absurd amounts of natural gas generation came on line, would have seen a lot more wind and solar instead. Natural gas as a bridge fuel is already seeing the end of its lifetime approaching fast. It’s flat now, and likely to be exceeded by renewables by 2028 at the latest, and then it will see the diminished capacity factors and bankruptcies endemic to coal generation for a couple of decades before it disappears. But in the meantime, a whole lot of CO2, methane, and NOx air pollution will have been emitted which could have been avoided.
All in all, we would have been a lot less concerned about global warming than we are, but it would still be present. Lots less electrical generation created warming, lots less natural gas used for heating and cooking in homes and buildings, lots more electrification most likely.
That would have had massive health benefits. The World Health Organization asserts that roughly 7 million people die prematurely globally from air pollution, and hundreds of millions more lead lives with cardiopulmonary diseases. A tremendous amount of that air pollution would have been avoided and those lives would have been both saved and been better quality.
The coal industry in North America would have disappeared a lot faster, and those workers would have been building pumped hydro storage instead, becoming part of the new economy, not lamenting the dead economy that the remain tied to.
The fossil fuel industry would have had a lot less power and money. Without conservative parties being co-opted by the fossil fuel industry in the 1990s, a tremendous amount of the deny and delay program success would have been avoided. We probably would have seen industrial and land use improvements earlier. It’s probable that electrification of transportation would be radically advanced.
But we still would have had transportation to continue to electrify, we still would need to shift agriculture to low-tillage models, we still would have to re-plant a trillion trees of the three trillion we’ve wiped out and we still would have needed to find a lot of solutions for industrial emissions like those from cement, steel, and the Solvay process for bicarbonates. We’d be better off, not out of the woods.
And there would have been some downsides.
The anti-renewables sentiment on the part of a bitter subset of rural people would have probably peaked earlier instead of in the 2000s. It’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t have been battened onto by conservative parties who were in bed with the fossil fuel industry as part of the weird, left-behind rural resentment fueling so much of politics in North America today. Also, it would have predated the internet, so their ability to spread their conspiracy ideation nonsense would have been substantially limited. This might actually have been a positive outcome. No Sarah Lauries or Nina Pierponts gaining international attention for their horrifically nonempirical attacks. They would have remained local cranks, simply making the lives of those nearby worse instead of spreading their bile globally.
The flooding of vast areas of land that comes with major hydroelectric projects would have caused the same problems it always does. There would have been GHG emissions from anaerobic decomposition of submerged biomass, although that’s more avoidable by picking low biomass sites and denuding them of biomass before filling. Also, they are a lot lower than coal generation regardless, and improve over time. James Bay’s mercury bioaccumulation problem would have existed, but it might not have been nearly as big a problem as a bunch of the mercury came from coal generation and steam train emissions of mercury. Fish runs would have been blocked, so fish spawning would be as challenged. Downstream ecosystem loss of rich silt from upriver would have had the same effects. There would have been some loss of remote recreational facilities due to dams on rivers like the Nahanni. A bunch of First Nations and indigenous people would be relocated again, with the ongoing damage to them and their ways of life. The 1–2 million displaced by the Three Gorges Dam would have been a lot fewer, but still in the hundreds of thousands. There would definitely have been ugliness associated with this, but given the massive disruption to indigenous and other northern peoples due to climate change, there would have been equitable ways to work this out. History suggests we wouldn’t have been equitable, but it is actually possible.
However, I can’t see a path that would have led to this alternative history in the aftermath of World War II, the use of the first nuclear weapons in Japan, the Cold War and its resultant arms race and mutually assured destruction. Sadly, the worse angels of our nature meant that the major, industrialized and militarized countries had to double down on nuclear weapons, which meant a similar doubling down on its nuclear generation twin sister.
Nuclear has been a solid, low-carbon, low-pollution workhorse for decades. The geopolitics that led to its ascendance are in our rearview mirror now, renewables are delayed but ready to go, and it’s time to let nuclear technologies retire to a well earned place in our history books. It’s deeply unfortunate that nuclear geopolitics massively extended our use of fossil fuels and hence the power of the fossil fuel industry to pivot to gas generation and delay renewables, but their time has come as well.