You got your uranium in my biomass! Why renewable policies and nuclear don’t mix

This post was inspired by a comment matthew-earleywine-173225 made on my last blog, Bush administration ‘best thing to ever happen’ to renewables. Thanks, Matthew!

There was a series of commercials in the 1980s for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in which one actor would exclaim, “Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” and the other actor would respond, “You got peanut butter on my chocolate!” Then an announcer would say, “Two great tastes that taste great together!”

Today, lawmakers at the state and federal level are mixing renewable energy policies with nuclear energy. They shouldn’t, because unlike chocolate and peanut butter, biomass and uranium do not go great together.

“We’re trying to have two conversations at once as a society,” said Tom Weirich, spokesman for the American Council of Renewable Energy. “We’re talking about renewable energy and fuels that lower carbon emissions. Those are two different conversations that have been melded into one.”

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Renewable energy resources, by definition, come from infinite resources. The earth will never run out of wind, sunlight or geothermal energy. Nuclear energy, like other renewables, does not emit greenhouse gases. However, it comes from uranium, a finite resource.

“We don’t describe ourselves as renewable,” said Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Steve Kerekes. “If you talk about a clean energy standard, then that’s something [nuclear energy] could be included in on, but if you’re talking about a strictly renewable energy standard, that’s not something we’re advocating.”

The renewable energy group is not lobbying for nuclear to join its ranks, either.

Although every type of fuel is competing for a bigger slice of the U.S. generation pie, the general consensus is that a diverse energy portfolio will be required to meet the nation’s energy demand while reducing emissions. “While it may take many years for one nuclear plant to be built, during that time we’re going to be doubling or even tripling our energy demand, so why don’t we use renewables in the meantime?” said Weirich.

That does not mean, however, that policies should lump wood pellets together with uranium pellets. What’s fueling this urge to merge nuclear into the renewable energy group? The push for new green jobs and economic growth, as well as concerns about the higher costs associated with renewable energy.

Last month, solar energy developers including SolarCity, KYOCERA Corp. subsidiary Kyocera Solar Inc. and Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. successfully lobbied against a bill Arizona lawmakers were considering that would have kept the renewable portfolio standard at 15% by 2025 but would have included existing nuclear included and hydroelectric power as renewable energy resources and eliminate any interim requirements between now and 2025.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, wrote on her Web site about the proposed legislation: “The Corporation Commission mandates LIMIT clean energy sources that can be used to satisfy their mandates to wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. Although these are good options that will continue to be pursued, AZ needs a diverse mix of energy sources that can produce base load (not intermittent) energy and not force more expensive and less-reliable energy onto consumers. After all, solar energy costs between .13-.16 per Kwh, whereas nuclear costs .02 cents.”

Lesko withdrew H.B. 2701, which became known as the “anti-solar bill,” on Feb. 26.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has proposed a broader clean energy standard that includes nuclear power and low-emissions coal along with renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass.

“My goal is to continue working with Senators [John] Kerry, [Joe] Lieberman and my Senate colleagues to create a new pathway forward that focuses on a more robust energy security package and a more business-friendly climate legislation,” Graham told participants in a clean energy, jobs and security forum at the Capitol on Jan. 27.

There is a significant difference in what is needed for renewables and for new nuclear plants in terms of funding and subsidies. Including existing and new nuclear in a renewable portfolio stifles potential growth for renewables. Given that it would take only a few nuclear plants to meet most RPSs, it would also undermine efforts to diversify our energy supply. Although the development of new nuclear plants would no doubt create new jobs, it should also be noted that the workforce needed to build such projects cannot be found in the United States because the country has not constructed a nuclear plant in decades.

Nuclear and renewables also face different issues. For renewables, transmission and storage pose the greatest challenges whereas for nuclear power, licensing and permitting are the largest hurdles. New nuclear projects will take massive amounts of capital and years to ramp up, and only a few will get built. Renewable projects are relatively smaller and cheaper to build and can be constructed quickly, which means jobs can be created more quickly.

Renewables are not pitted against nuclear, nor is nuclear against renewable energy resources. They are two very different resources that require complementary, not combined, policies.

Lawmakers need to keep renewables and nuclear separated by creating separate policies that effectively support each industry without compromising the other. That’s what the respective industries want.

In fact, they’re hungry for such policies.

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Jennifer Zajac has covered the U.S. electric power sector for more than eight years and was founder/editor of SNL Energy's Renewable Energy Week, a newsletter devoted to the utility renewable energy market in North America. Currently, she covers EPA policies that impact the power industry and is working on a masters' degree in Global Energy Management at the University of Colorado-Denver.

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