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).
Nuclear Energy - A Potential Bipartisan Climate Solution
For the initial capital costs, nuclear is the most expensive form of energy. However, nuclear fuel (up to now - uranium; burned as fuel in current nuclear reactors) - represents by far, by a factor of a million - based on a similar quantity of nuclear fuel vs. coal (and coal is more energy-dense than renewable energy, but uranium is exponentially more energy-dense than other fuel sources)- 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 most Democrats in Congress; making nuclear energy a potential area of bipartisanship for Congress and the new U.S. Executive Administration.
Nuclear is a global incumbent energy source based on burning uranium to generate energy; and is associated with a great deal of money and political influence worldwide; and therefore nuclear energy continues to have support from most politicians in the United States. The "good" thing about nuclear energy production is that there are little to no GHG emissions (no GHGs associated with the actual energy production from nuclear fuel)... However, it's necessary to find suitable locations to safely secure the radioactive waste produced from the combustion of nuclear fuel (although next-generation nuclear fuels do burn significantly cleaner than uranium - see below paragraph), so people aren't exposed to potentially cancer-causing radiation...oh, and we have to hope that there's not a Fukushima-type catastrophe.
Gen IV Nuclear
That said, 4th generation nuclear promises to be safe, clean; and a source of cost-competitive and efficient energy (if it ever gets built). New reactors being planned in advanced nuclear designs can run on spent uranium and even thorium. 4th generation nuclear has entirely safe, cost efficient designs; these reactors jneed to get through R&D and demonstration phases, and become commercial viable alternatives in global mixes for countries. 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 disaster 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.
How Much Better Is Nuclear & Renewable Energy Than Coal?
The reason that economic arguments tend to trump 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, 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. That includes supporting both renewable and nuclear energy.
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. 4th generation nuclear promises to have a relatively low up-front capital cost, and a low marginal cost. Fuel for Gen IV nuclear designs promise to potentially run on spent uranium; which is a cheap fuel that produces little waste,
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 (as well as Gen IV nuclear) 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.
The following are snippets from articles listing reasons nuclear and renewable energy are the best options for future global energy sources:
"Nuclear power and hydropower form the backbone of low-carbon electricity generation. Together, they provide three-quarters of global low-carbon generation. Over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has reduced CO2 emissions by over 60 gigatonnes – nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions." FROM - iea.org/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-system
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.
“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... As Gen IV nuclear promises to have lower capital costs, and low marginal costs, until Gen IV gets developed and deployed, we just have to hope the costs really are going to be low as advertised.
..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.
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