Monday, April 15, 2013

A Little Nuclear Diversity in the Energy Mix

France enjoyed a little controversy a few weeks ago when automaker Renault questioned whether nuclear energy alone could recharge all the electric cars that will soon be on the road. I wrote about it as an issue of energy diversity or rather, France’s lack of it due to its use of nuclear energy. If there can be a place where nuclear energy can be said to hamper energy diversity, France is it, even if it has had a largely salutary effect on the country.

The principle of diversity is a good one, regardless of energy type and where it can become an issue usually doesn’t involve nuclear energy. Too much of one energy type can lead to shortages that can lead in turn to price instability; a single source for fuel can play some pretty repulsive games, as Russia did to some of its neighbors with natural gas a few years ago.

Former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman weighs in on the topic as regards the rush to natural gas in this country:

The shale gas revolution has spawned another American “dash to gas” in the electric sector. This is a mixed issue, based on whether you take the short- or long-term view. In the short term, consumers benefit from lower natural gas prices and our air quality benefits from energy-sector fuel switching from coal to gas for electricity production.

All true.

The decision to focus solely on cheap natural gas instead of investing for the long term in a diverse portfolio of affordable electricity options will prove problematic in the coming years.

Whitman points to a white paper issued by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) of which she is chairman. It’s done in the form of an attractive brochure, but it does contain a cogent case for energy diversity. Since CASEnergy is nuclear-centered, the case here is definitely for nuclear energy and its benefits, though it does give natural gas its due:

Growing consumer demand for cleaner electricity, the need for increased use of domestic energy resources and pressure to minimize and stabilize energy costs should drive America to develop a more diverse electricity portfolio. Energy sources like natural gas and nuclear energy provide baseload electricity for our economy and standard of living. Moreover, natural gas is necessary to back up renewable energy sources when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

All true as well. Sometimes, it does seem as though renewable energy gets too much of a pass. Natural gas ramps down to accommodate it on the grid – that doesn’t buy you more electricity necessarily, just considerably more expensive electricity while solar and wind run in lieu of natural gas. That’s a side rant, I know, and I reckon renewable energy will continue to become cost competitive as the technologies mature (breakthroughs in battery technology wouldn’t hurt their profile, either.) Still, it can make renewable energy seem a crippled alternative.

But they do add to a diversified energy portfolio. And so does nuclear energy.

Significant investment in the grid must be made over the next two decades—in fact, more investment than has been made in the existing grid. These investments must include baseload power facilities.Nuclear energy facilities cost between $6 billion and $10 billion and take about five years to build, but this “always-on” power production is vital for industry and consumers alike.

Especially with the natural gas-renewable energy tandem, nuclear energy’s role changes a bit by consistently supplying baseload power while producing about as much greenhouse gas as renewable energy – which is to say, none. It’s a key point and it staves off the worry that depending heavily on renewable energy could have a measureable impact on electricity availability. It allows energy efficiency to mean “efficiency,” as it should, not “doing without.”

Now, there’s really very little here that readers of this site do not know, especially about nuclear energy. It is written to explain energy diversity to a lay audience and it does that very well. It’s worth sharing with your non-technical friends and groups.


Martin Burkle said...

"France enjoyed a little controversy a few weeks ago when automaker Renault questioned whether nuclear energy alone could recharge all the electric cars that will soon be on the road."

The nuclear capacity factor in France is around 70% which is understandably lower than the US factor of 90%. The night time dip in demand is the reason for the lower factor. Now if the Renault electric cars charged at night, the extra capacity could charge a lot of cars for a very low price because no extra capital investment is needed. In fact, nuclear would be the cheapest way to charge all of those cars that Renault might someday make.

I wonder whether Renault can make enough electric cars to use the spare nuclear capacity that already exists. Go Renault!

Mike Pugh said...

It wasn't nuclear power that hampered diversity of supply. France chose nuclear because they did not have any significant quantities of natural gas, oil and coal.

Engineer-Poet said...

"No coal, no oil, no gas, no choice."

France has a chance to lead in the coming transition.  France has already pushed coal off the electric grid.  What France needs to do now is push petroleum out of transport and industry, and take a bite out of coal's share in industry as well (if it still has any).  Natural gas, even imported, is much cheaper than petroleum and requires no refining.  Overbuilding nuclear allows its excess generation to be used to displace fossil fuels in uses where electricity is not typically used, such as bulk industrial heating and solid-waste processing.  Using NG as the backup for nuclear (heat and vehicle fuel) completes the displacement of coal and petroleum.