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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Strategic CSR - Nuclear

The article in the url below highlights the limits of our knowledge regarding renewable energies:
"The United States, and indeed the world, would do well to reconsider the promise and the limitations of its infatuation with renewable energy."
In particular, the issue is the reliability of renewables (e.g., solar is less productive in cloudy conditions), combined with our constrained ability to store and transfer that energy (wind energy, in particular, is difficult to transmit, meaning only windy places can generate wind energy). Although our knowledge and capabilities are improving at a rapid rate, our rush to bring renewable energy sources on-line is having repercussions throughout the network as a whole:
"Renewable sources are producing temporary power gluts from Australia to California, driving out other energy sources that are still necessary to maintain a stable supply of power."
In essence, the rapid expansion of renewable energies is a result of the success of the public policies (and subsidies) that were passed in an effort to reduce our dependence on carbon-based energy. The author suggests that these policies have been too successful. Of particular concern is the effect these constraints are having on the one renewable source that we know well:
"But in what may be the most worrisome development in the combat against climate change, renewables are helping to push nuclear power, the main source of zero-carbon electricity in the United States, into bankruptcy."
In response, the article calls for approaches that are "more subtle" than simply loading up on more and more renewable energy projects. And it is the public subsidies that are the cause of much of the trouble – a too rapid shift from known technologies to relatively unknown technologies. Although the market for nuclear energy has its own problems, its price per megawatt hour is continually being undercut either by subsidies or the failure to incorporate the full costs of an energy into the price (i.e., a carbon tax). Both forms of support distort the markets for specific energy sources:
"Nuclear generators' troubles highlight the unintended consequences of brute force policies to push more and more renewable energy onto the grid. These policies do more than endanger the nuclear industry. They could set back the entire effort against climate change."

California is offered as a case-in-point:
"As more and more solar capacity is fed onto the grid, it will displace alternatives. An extra watt from the sun costs nothing. But the sun doesn't shine equally at all times. Around noon, when it is blazing, there will be little need for energy from nuclear reactors, or even from gas or coal. At 7 p.m., when people get home from work and turn on their appliances, the sun will no longer be so hot. Ramping up alternative sources then will be indispensable. The problem is that nuclear reactors, and even gas- and coal-fired generators, can't switch themselves on and off on a dime. So what happens is that around the middle of the day those generators have to pay the grid to take their power. Unsurprisingly, this erodes nukes' profitability. It might even nudge them out of the system altogether."
Ultimately, the very real cost of integrating renewable energy sources into our utilities system has yet to be adequately accounted for:
"In Germany, where renewables have mostly replaced nuclear power, carbon emissions are rising, even as Germans pay the most expensive electricity rates in Europe. In South Australia, the all-wind strategy is taking its toll. And in California, the costs of renewables are also apparent."
At a minimum, it is worth making sure we know what we are getting with renewables before we shut-down the known problems of nuclear energy altogether:
"Displacing nuclear energy clearly makes the battle against climate change more difficult. But that is not what is most worrying. What if the world eventually discovers that renewables can't do the job alone?"
Once we get rid of the nuclear energy industry, we will not have the time or resources to bring it back.
Take care
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Embrace of Renewables Has a Hidden Cost
By Eduardo Porter
July 20, 2016
The New York Times
Late Edition – Final