Renewables and Nuclear: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

“The color of your skin don’t matter to me, as long as we can live in harmony.” – WAR, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”

The above verse was written about how differences in people should not matter in the grand scheme of life, but the words can also apply to the relationship between nuclear and renewables in the grand scheme of power generation.

It’s a well-known fact that the nuclear energy and renewable energy industries have a love-hate relationship. Critics of renewables say they are not reliable sources of energy, cost too much to build and maintain and are environmentally unfriendly, and anti-nuclear folks say just about the same thing. Both industries understand that all power generating sources will be necessary to reliably keep the lights on, but the claws come out when anyone tries to determine if one source is “better” than the other, or if financial incentives are unfairly given out to one source over the other.

President Barack Obama proposed an all-inclusive plan to cut emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 in the U.S. using renewables, natural gas, nuclear and coal (the coal industry obviously disagrees with that point, but I won’t get into that in this column). While he did not mention nuclear specifically, it is needed to keep the grid stable and provide much-needed, no-emissions baseload power.

The disparities in the sources essentially come down to cost. Upfront costs of new nuclear builds tend to push utilities to build natural gas-fired power plants since gas prices are low, while renewable energy costs are brought down with the help of financial incentives such as tax breaks, though technology prices have been falling for some time. Renewables and nuclear pay for themselves in the long run through their return on investments through fuel cost savings, credits and tax incentives.

Marvin Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in the Nuclear Executive Roundtable (pg. 13) that critics who turn from nuclear to natural gas because of the major upfront costs of a new nuclear power plant are not looking at the big picture.

“I think part of the reason for that is you’re looking at a 60-year asset and you’re projecting out not only gas prices, but you’re projecting out the performance of the nuclear plant,” Fertel said.

This isn’t to say that natural gas and coal are not equally as important, but if the focus is to increase the number of low- and non-emitting sources of energy, then we must look at how nuclear and renewable energy can work together instead of vying for the top spot.

Adverse market conditions are causing some nuclear power plants – such as Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Vermont Yankee in Vermont – to shut down, pushing some grid operators to rely more on natural gas- and coal-fired power plants to pick up the slack. However, increasing dependence on those kinds of plants leads to an increase in emissions and electricity rates, such as what we are seeing in Japan and Germany. Both countries are shutting down nuclear power plants due to the accident in Fukushima, but they are realizing that it’s not so easy to build enough renewable energy plants to replace all of the lost capacity. Not to say that it can’t be done, but it’s not coming along very smoothly.

This is why nuclear and renewables need to work together. Both emit very few, if any, emissions and are a great combo for the bigger power generation picture. To be honest, they need each other: Renewables need nuclear to help support the grid when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, and nuclear needs renewables to help in the reduction of levels of carbon, mercury, SO2 and particulates around the world. Just as some natural gas-fired projects are adding solar, wind or other renewables on the same site (check out Florida Power & Light’s Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center as an example), maybe one day the same can be done with nuclear and renewables. Of course, there are many issues that need to be ironed out, such as environmental approvals, transmission and distribution projects to handle loads from both sources and getting landowners on board with the amount of land required to build a new project. Renewables can be installed faster than a nuclear power plant and both can be a hedge against gas prices that are certain to fluctuate in the future like they have in the past.

So what do you say we put aside our differences and embrace the fact that the world’s power supplies need all hands on deck? It won’t be all puppies and rainbows, but it is a possibility that nuclear and renewables could be good buddies in the long run.

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I am the Editor of Nuclear Power International magazine and a contributing columnist to Renewable Energy World magazine. I started as the Online Editor for Power Engineering magazine. Though I am the editor of a nuclear magazine, I always enjoy learning about different generating sources and how they power the world. I live in Tulsa with my husband and son.

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