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Is This The Most Important And Overlooked Energy Source?

Last year, global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record despite the fast growth in renewable energy adoption. While this fact may have made many wonder what went wrong, for others, the reason is simple: the world’s thirst for energy is growing and it will get it from one source or another. Bogged down in the fossil fuels vs renewables debate, we often seen to overlook one key component of the world’s energy mix: nuclear power.

For all of the controversy around nuclear, the unpleasant truth seems to be that the world can’t make it without nuclear--at least not until renewables advance far beyond the reliability and efficiency levels they sport today. As energy expert Robert Rapier wrote in a recent article for Forbes, the world needs more nuclear.

“Renewables like wind and solar,” Rapier wrote, “are poised to generate more electricity globally than nuclear power either this year or next year. While we can celebrate the fact that renewables are growing, it's important to keep in mind that they aren't growing rapidly enough to stop the growth of power produced from fossil fuels. Further, these sources don't represent firm power that can be called upon on demand.”

Indeed, the intermittency problem of renewables is by far the most serious one. While the industry solves it by coming up with scalable and affordable storage, nuclear can help keep the world going. It could even have a long-term future if the industry finds a way to make fail-safe reactors and convince the public they are indeed fail-safe, says Rapier, noting the difference between fail-proof and fail-safe lies in the fact that “if an accident takes place, the system fails to a safe state.”

While this would certainly take some time to sink in after Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear continues to satisfy a sizeable portion of the world’s energy needs, at a little over a tenth as of 2017. That’s down from 17.5 percent in 1996 and its share will continue to fall as reactors are retired when they reach the end of their productive lives. At the same time, fewer nuclear plants will be constructed because of the higher upfront costs and the negative public attitude. Natural gas and subsidized renewables are the main challengers, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a 2018 report.

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However, while natural gas is likely to remain cheap in the observable future, subsidies for renewables are being rolled back, notably in China. This has already resulted in a decline in new solar and wind investments during the first half of this year. The slowdown could extend into the second half and beyond. In the meantime, energy demand will continue rising.

Among the factors driving this demand increase are urbanization and poverty-fighting programs that have access to energy as part of their foundation. There is a genuine drive among energy companies to help the hundreds of millions of people living without electricity today to gain access to it soon. It’s not just reputation management, either. Electricity supply is a profitable business. In addition to this, climate change will also contribute to greater energy demand: extreme weather tends cause spikes in energy consumption.

Last year, according to the 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, non-fossil fuels represented 36 percent of the global energy mix. Coal represented 38 percent. That’s the same proportion of energy sources as two decades ago. What it suggests is that, as Rapier notes, renewables are simply not growing fast enough to completely replace fossil fuels and nuclear.

As Rapier put it, there are those who will still reject the idea of nuclear power under any circumstances. But there are consequences from such a stance. Some will idealistically believe that renewables will fill the world's growing power demands, but in reality that's just not happening. Whether you like it or not, absolute rejection of nuclear power almost certainly means higher global carbon dioxide emissions.”

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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