Nuclear power: a crucial component of a carbon-free mix

Nuclear power: a crucial component of a carbon-free mix

15 October 2018
EnergyTransition Nuclear NuclearEnergy
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Scenarios drawn up by Negawatt and the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) estimate that by 2050 all of France’s electricity needs can be covered by renewables. However, these estimates are not based on realistic data or behavioural patterns. Although electricity generation from renewable sources is clearly set to rise considerably, the major benefits of nuclear power cannot be overlooked if we want to meet the challenges of global warming and the all-digital era. After weighing up the risks of each different energy source, and given France’s objective of being energy self-sufficient while significantly reducing its carbon footprint, then nuclear power is plainly a crucial component of the country’s future energy mix.

France is well and truly on the path to energy transition and, more generally, to a transition in its production and consumption methods. Global warming has made this a necessity but at the same time is driving innovation and bringing opportunities.

It is important for the transition to be “eco-logical”. The imperative for our planet is to reduce greenhouse gases – CO2 and methane in particular – in order to keep the rise in the world’s average temperature to below 2° Celsius between now and 2100.

It’s true that France managed to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 10% between 1990 and 2013. However, its carbon footprint grew by 10% over that same period due to a two-fold increase in its import-related emissions. This dichotomy highlights one of the main failings of the standards established for the Kyoto Protocol and subsequently the Paris Agreement for countries to follow when setting their emission-reduction targets. In sum, these standards are based only on national GHG emissions, whereas a country’s contribution to global emissions does not just entail the emissions it generates within its own borders. It’s all about calculating import-related emissions and then subtracting those related to exports. That is the underlying concept of the carbon footprint.

By choosing to import products manufactured by energy-hungry industries and countries that don’t have the same carbon-free energy infrastructure as its own, France increases its carbon footprint and in a sense makes others pay the environmental cost of its development model.

This means that in order to truly reduce its carbon footprint, France needs to repatriate as many energy-hungry industries as possible, which in turn requires more carbon-free energy production methods.

Under-estimated energy requirements

Our at-first gradual, and now widespread, awareness of the need for urgent action is tending to make renewables the main driver of the energy transition process. However, while they are undeniably one of the drivers, the scenarios mapped out for their development in France do not factor in aspects that are vital for effectively and realistically carrying out a sustainable transition.

These scenarios – and particularly that of Negawatt – assume that our lifestyles will change radically in many areas, such as housing, transport, agriculture and industry. They are based on us drastically reducing our consumption within just 30 years.

Aside from the fact that huge investments would be required to adapt housing, offices, production chains and infrastructure, these radical-change scenarios are, quite simply, not realistic. They call for restraint at a time when people are seeking comfort and well-being and their time-scale for change is very tight.

Furthermore, we mustn’t lose sight of France’s demographic and economic developments. The forecasts are clear: the country’s population is expected to rise from 67 million today to 74 million by 2050, and GDP is estimated to increase by between 1% and 1.8% per year. In tandem, over the same period, the target is to reduce the nation’s GHG emissions by 80% compared with those for 1990.

Lastly, the above scenarios don’t factor in, or they under-estimate, the entry into the digital economy of both France and numerous other countries. Digital tools will, of course, help optimise the running – and therefore the energy consumption – of cities, buildings, factories and transport systems, but those tools extend to the whole economic sphere and involve storing, analysing, securing and transferring an ever-increasing volume of data. In addition to energy-hungry data centres, blockchain technology – which is only in its infancy – will also require a substantial amount of energy. Currently it takes the equivalent of Singapore’s annual energy consumption, i.e. more than 40 TWh, for this technology to function, so what will it be like in the future?

France’s annual energy needs will therefore be more in the region of 600 TWh by 2050, whereas the Negawatt scenario is based on an estimate of 300 TWh.

Intermittency: the thorn in the side of renewables

Can this future consumption be covered just by energy produced from renewable sources? Several factors would suggest not.

Hydraulic power – France’s most developed renewable energy – has many attributes, notably the fact that water can be stored. Today, this source supplies around 15% of the country’s electricity consumption. But although there is still room for small-scale hydro-electric development, maximum capacity will soon be reached.

So that leaves wind and solar power. It’s true that the wind and the sun are inexhaustible natural resources, but they have one major drawback – they are intermittent. They are also particularly sensitive to changes in seasons. On top of that, most discussions about renewables in France don’t address the capacity factor, despite this being such a central issue. There are 8,700 hours in a year. Wind power has a capacity factor of 2,400 hours a year, which increases to 3,000 for offshore wind farms because offshore winds are stronger and more continuous. The capacity factor for solar power is only about 1,500 hours. In comparison, nuclear power’s capacity factor is more like 7,500 or even 8,000 hours. In addition, the installed capacity of wind farms and solar power plants is low. In order to produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear power plant with a capacity factor of 1,500 hours we would need to increase the number of wind and solar power installations four-fold. And that’s without being sure of it being sunny or windy enough. And, in parallel, we would have to scale the network so it could accommodate the maximum power level, even if only needed for a few days a year. These are the hidden costs of renewables.

What’s more, the facilities required to generate electricity from wind or the sun are not carbon neutral. The manufacture of solar panels and the importation of most of these panels into France represent a high level of GHG emissions. For a panel made in China and installed in Europe, it takes two to three years to offset the CO2 emissions related to its manufacture.

Above all, there still remains a major problem – namely that it is currently impossible to store on a massive scale the energy produced by renewable energy facilities. France does have thirty or so pumped hydroelectric storage facilities – which store water and then release it to generate power during periods of high demand – but the only equivalent for wind or solar power is batteries. Storing 100 KWh requires 600 kilos of batteries, so to store two days’ worth of France’s electricity production it would take 12 million tonnes of batteries! Research and development will undoubtedly improve batteries’ storage capacity and reduce their size but there is no break-through technology on the horizon that would multiply that capacity by 1,000 in the next 30 to 50 years.

Nuclear energy: a carbon-free solution to intermittency

An energy mix solely made up of renewables is therefore not just around the corner if we want to meet energy demand while combatting climate change and providing a secure power supply for the whole of France. In order to overcome intermittency risks, as we have no effective or financially viable storage resources we must turn to a basic energy source such as nuclear.

The use of gas is not a valid option when the most urgent issue is to quickly and drastically reduce GHG emissions.

That is why I am firmly convinced that an electricity mix of 50% renewables and 50% nuclear is the best and most realistic way forward. France’s experience in the nuclear field plays in its favour and it’s important to remember that nuclear power is indeed carbon free.

However, in the same way as renewables, nuclear energy raises several problematics that we can’t deny. For instance, based on today’s technology, not all of the waste produced during nuclear fission can be eliminated. Although with reactors such as the EPR, we’re talking about minute quantities of long-lived high-level radioactive waste.

It is, of course, the safety aspect of nuclear power plants that triggers the most heated debates. Yes, the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima were obviously terrible, but today’s plants have to meet particularly stringent safety criteria and are subject to colossal redundancy systems. What needs to be addressed more is governance. At Fukushima, for example, it was human error that resulted in the meltdown. The Japanese had sea water right nearby and could have doused the reactor from the outset but nobody took the decision – or gave the order – to do so. They tried to save the plant whereas they should have drowned it immediately.

Nuclear energy therefore definitely has an important part to play in France’s carbon-free mix until at least 2100 because there are no signs of any break-throughs before that date in terms of new storage technology or energy sources available at an acceptable cost. After that, hydrogen will most likely be the new energy of choice once the ITER programme has enabled us to reproduce nuclear fusion.

For all of these reasons we clearly need to invest in nuclear as well as in renewables. Since the French fleet of nuclear power plants is ageing, we can’t confine ourselves to building just one EPR. Now is the time for taking brave political decisions if we want France to have a successful energy transition process and effectively combat global warming.

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