Sun.
Jul 25
2021
nuclear power plant generating green energy
Image by Frédéric Paulussen via Unsplash

Pairing electric vehicles and renewable energy to stop carbon emission and beat global warming sounds great, theoretically. However, there just aren’t that many wind farms and solar arrays. Nuclear power may have to play a larger role in any electric plan.

Electricity is far from carbon-free

Practically speaking, in the current energy mix, swapping the combustion engine for electric power does little to change emissions. Electricity itself is far from carbon-free.

Coal and natural gas dominate energy for electric generation. Although it certainly involves renewable, hydro and nuclear energy. While renewables are billed as the environmental hero of the future, and are growing rapidly, nuclear may be a very necessary companion in carbon aims.

The chart below shows coal and natural gas (electricity) occupying a larger share of global energy consumption in 2019 to underline the point. Renewables are growing but remain niche. At the same time nuclear power use remains steady. Oil is rising physically yet diminishing as an overall part of the pie.

Chart: Global energy consumption by source

world consumption and share of global primary energy including nuclear oil coal and renewable energy
Source: BP

So, for the moment, the “Tesla” model basically runs on coal. The point is not to troll Tesla and its sometimes over-pious owners. With Tesla, consumers can chose to be non-emitters. That is a very important step. Other automakers are following suit in giving customers that option.

But the graph above points to which future sources of energy will be able to supply power grids with non-carbon energy.

Nuclear power can make carbon-free aims realistic

The potential addition of nuclear power as a sustainable source under EU “green investment” status could make carbon-free aims in electricity more realistic. A research committee reviewing qualifications for green investment has concluded that nuclear power qualifies as “sustainable,” Reuters reported on March 28 citing the document itself.

The findings are neither law nor final. The European Comission’s review is yet to pass them. It has yet to reach consensus over how to label nuclear energy, due to the disposal of its hazardous waste. Yet the discussion itself shows the rising significance of battling carbon emissions.

The EU decision on nuclear and carbon may be very different from those taken in other parts of the world, where energy is consumed differently.

Chart: Energy consumption by region

energy consumption by region by type including nuclear oil coal gas and renewable energy
Source: BP

In Europe, and North America, nuclear power are currently viable and functioning businesses.  It would make sense for this to expand as a low-carbon option, supporting electric vehicle growth.

Other regions may need to take different paths. Asia, for instance, might do better to concentrate on reducing the role of coal, without pushing additional demand into the power sector in the form of electric vehicles.

The path to reduce carbon

The path to reduce carbon will take many different variations suited to many different locations. It will involve carbon capture and perhaps greater miles-per-gallon and emissions standards in petroleum-fueled cars. It will involve larger rollouts of wind and solar installations.

Nuclear power has had its disasters: Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island highlight real safety concerns. Especially in relation to earthquakes, tidal waves and negligence.

But nuclear power is not alone in producing fatalities. Coal mines collapse, miners live in coal dust, oil rigs blow out, oil support crews fall through ice roads, helicopters crash, refineries explode, drill ships sink, and even hydroelectric dams fail.

That said, nuclear generation has been a constant for at least the past 20 years. The technology is proven to produce massive amounts of energy with negligible carbon emissions. After renewables, nuclear energy expansion may be the best practical low-carbon option to combat climate change.

By Stephen Bierman

Stephen Bierman is an energy markets journalist and the editor of New Economy Observer.

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