When looking at climate solutions for clean energy generation, it is reasonable and prudent to look at both renewable energy (the obvious choice); as well as nuclear energy (which is non-renewable, and a not-so-obvious choice).
How Much Better Is Renewable Energy Than Coal?
The reason that economic arguments tend to trump (pardon the pun) environmental arguments when finding solutions to anthropogenic climate change, is because the Senate is majority climate denying Republicans, who are more likely to respond to economic arguments. You could simply say, “renewable energy is better than fossil fuels, because renewable energy is better for the environment, and is a more efficient energy source overall”; but odds are Republican Senators won’t care until you also point out that the LCOE* (see below for LCOE definition) of renewable energy is less than the cost of fossil fuels. Republican Senators will be needed to pass environmental regulatory laws (now that Trump has destroyed the Clean Power Plan, new energy/ environmental regulations are needed), and hopefully a federal carbon pricing system.
Congressional Republicans who continue to deny climate change don’t necessarily have to want to protect the environment, or “give in” to the science behind anthropogenic climate change. Republicans can simply vote for energy policies that represent a cost savings; which tend to be renewable energy investments over coal.
The cost of producing energy with a renewable fuel vs. fossil fuels is dramatically lower when just the cost of producing electricity (marginal cost) is considered. When the costs of the negative externalities (damage to public health & the environment) associated with fossil fuel production are added in with the LCOE*, the relative cost of renewable energy sources vs. fossil fuels is lower still. Overall, the lowest cost of energy production are wind and solar (which also have zero negative externalities), followed by natural gas (which carries the cost of negative externalities); followed by more renewable energy sources, most significantly solar thermal and offshore wind. Hydroelectricity also represents a relatively low cost source of domestic energy for the United States. Producing energy from coal is no longer cheaper than renewables or gas, and is very harmful to both the environment and public health.
Renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published today finds. Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 shows that more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants.
The report highlights that new renewable power generation projects now increasingly undercut existing coal-fired plants. On average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely. Next year, up to 1 200 gigawatts (GW) of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar PV, the report shows.
Replacing the costliest 500 GW of coal with solar PV and onshore wind next year would cut power system costs by up to USD 23 billion every year and reduce annual emissions by around 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 5% of total global CO2 emissions in 2019. It would also yield an investment stimulus of USD 940 billion, which is equal to around 1% of global GDP.
“We have reached an important turning point in the energy transition. The case for new and much of the existing coal power generation, is both environmentally and economically unjustifiable,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA. “Renewable energy is increasingly the cheapest source of new electricity, offering tremendous potential to stimulate the global economy and get people back to work. Renewable investments are stable, cost-effective and attractive offering consistent and predictable returns while delivering benefits to the wider economy. FROM – irena.org//Renewables-Increasingly-Beat-Even-Cheapest-Coal-Competitors
“Levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is often cited as a convenient summary measure of the overall competitiveness of different generating technologies. It represents the per-MWh cost (in discounted real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle. 4 Key inputs to calculating LCOE include capital costs, fuel costs, fixed and variable operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, financing costs, and an assumed utilization rate for each plant.” – quote from the EIA.
* Examples of levelized costs of energy include: up-front capital costs/ costs of initial investment (which are much higher for renewable energy than fossil fuel energy), marginal cost of the fuel source (which is much higher for fossil fuels, and almost nothing for free, abundant sources of renewable energy like solar and wind energy, and very low cost for hydro, geothermal, and biomass), cost of maintenance for the power plant/ energy farm/ dam, etc… , cost of transporting the fuel (again, zero for most renewable energy), costs associated with transmitting/ distributing the energy, insurance costs for the energy producing facility, etc…
Nuclear Energy – A Potential Bipartisan Climate Solution
For the initial capital costs, nuclear is the most expensive form of energy. However, nuclear energy represents by far, by a factor of a million, based on a similar quantity of nuclear fuel vs. coal, the most energy-dense energy source on the planet. Nuclear power also has the highest capacity factor of any energy source; and is the most reliable, and efficient, source of energy. Even with the high up-front costs to develop nuclear power plants, Republicans tend to back nuclear energy, and so do some Democrats in Congress; making nuclear energy a potential area of bipartisanship for Congress and the new U.S. Executive Administration. Nuclear is an incumbent energy source, and is associated with a great deal of money and political influence; therefore nuclear energy still has support from politicians in the United States. The “good” thing about nuclear energy production is that there are little to no negative externalities with regard to the actual energy production, i.e. little to no GHG emissions… and you just have to find Yucca mountains to bury the radioactive waste so people aren’t exposed to potentially cancer-causing radiation… oh, and we have to hope that there’s not a Fukushima-type catastrophe.
That said, 4th generation nuclear promises to be safe, clean, cost-competitive, and efficient (if it ever gets built). New reactors can run on spent uranium and even thorium. 4th generation nuclear has entirely safe, cost efficient designs. Actually, the levelized cost of energy production from new, advanced nuclear reactors is looking viable. So, nuclear is already a clean, efficient energy source – and future generations of nuclear energy production might prove to be perfectly safe, as well.
The major problems with the current generation of nuclear plants are: the potential for another Fukushima and/ or nuclear weapons proliferation, at least until 4th gen nuclear is ready to be produced and deployed; and the very high up-front capital cost of building nuclear plants. The US Energy Information Administration estimated that for new nuclear plants in 2019, capital costs made up 75% of the LCOE. Economies of scale drive down costs of building the next generation of new nuclear plants eventually over time; and the remaining costs of developing and running a new generation of nuclear plants are projected to be cost competitive with other relevant forms of energy generation, e.g. combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT). This is another point that makes nuclear energy a viable energy solution for the future.
..for more on how nuclear energy can be a climate solution, providing a clean, efficient, viable source of energy to power the modern, sustainable world.