Renewables? Or Nuclear? Jacobson, Gates, on Energy Breakthroughs
May 17, 2016
This should stimulate a discussion. No throwing food please.
This is another piece from my discussion with Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stanford, conducted in San Francisco in December. Here he gives his estimate of the relative value of renewables vs Nuclear power in solving climate change. I’ve intercut with a 2012 interview given by Bill Gates at a Wall Street Journal forum, which is still pretty current. Gates is an investor in a “4th generation” nuclear technology, which he is sure will be ready some time in coming decades, if all goes well. In a recent Scientific American piece, Gates confirmed that he is still backing the same tech, although the deadlines have slipped a couple years:
The idea, through a partnership with China or some other country, is: Can you get the pilot plant built, if everything went well, by 2024? And then have six years of operating experience where by 2030 you would say to the world, “Hey, build as many of these as you want. All new nuclear starts should be this and nuclear starts as a percentage of new or replacement energy should be very high.” That’s the possibility, but we’ve got to get the pilot plant built. We’ve got to get it approved. It has to work super well. The time frames can’t slip too dramatically. It’s a serious entrant and, from my potentially biased point of view, in the nuclear fission category I don’t know many other entrants that you look at and say, “Okay, if you go from paper to real, then this is a meaningful contribution to cheap energy, and to global warming as an incredible problem.”
Below, 2 more pieces from Jacobson, an overview of renewable potential, and his take on the impacts of natural gas.
In the first three months of 2016, the U.S. grid added 18 megawatts of new natural gas generating capacity. It added a whopping 1,291 megawatts (MW) of new renewables.
The renewables were primarily wind (707 MW) and solar (522 MW). We also added some biomass (33 MW) and hydropower (29 MW). The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) latest monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update” reports that no new capacity of coal, oil, or nuclear power were added in the first quarter of the year.
So the U.S. electric grid added more than 70 times as much renewable energy capacity as natural gas capacity from January to March.
It is increasingly clear that we don’t need to add significant amounts of any new grid capacity that isn’t renewable for the foreseeable future. In part that’s because demand for utility power generation has been flat for almost a decade — and should continue plateauing for quite some time — thanks to rapidly growing energy efficiency measures (and, to a much lesser extent, thanks to recent increases in rooftop solar).
Studies from NOAA and others — and real-world examples around the globe, such as Germany — show that the U.S. can absorb vastly greater percentages of renewables than we currently have, just with existing technology. Yet NOAA’s research shows that, with nothing more than an improved national transmission system, “a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years.”