Monday 3 July 2023
Power generation from combined wind and solar have now completely overtaken nuclear on a global basis. Given the long term stagnation of nuclear power, and the rapid expansion of global wind and solar, this dominance was long anticipated by many observers, including The Gregor Letter. The crossover first took place in 2021, but only by smidgeon. In 2022 however, the trouncing took flight.
Nuclear zealots have long made a faulty argument that the world cannot decarbonize without nuclear in the lead. Worse, this assertion is routinely paired with the claim that wind and solar are not fast enough to get the job done. Ouch. These arguments, quite obviously, need to be retired. As time is of the essence, wind and solar have now proven themselves fully through speedy construction timelines. Over the next few years in fact, solar in particular is going to melt your brain with wild annual growth.
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Anti-nuclear advocates also make a mistaken argument, asserting that we don’t need any nuclear at all. This is false, and wrong-headed. We do need some nuclear, and here’s why: wind and solar despite torrential growth are still not able to do more than, at best, cover marginal growth in global power demand. And energy transition itself is driving above average growth rates in global power. Accordingly, wind and solar have no near term prospect of actually digging into existing fossil fuel usage in global electricity. The recent issue of The Gregor Letter, Portfolio Nuclear, which goes into this problem in much greater depth, put it this way:
If you still believe it’s not necessary to build even some new nuclear, then show your work claiming the year emissions from the global power system go into decline. Not when emissions enter a plateau, no. We are near to that juncture already. You’ve got to show that wind, solar, and batteries are not only able to handle 100% of marginal growth, but are actually able to cut into that thick, sedimentary layer of fossil fuels in global power and get them into sustainable decline.
Energy transitions are wealth creation events. The new energy source is either cheaper or more powerful, or both. And if it’s not, no transition takes place. This was true when coal overtook biomass (wood) and when oil took leadership over coal. Wind, solar, and now batteries have decisively won the election to the leadership position in global decarbonization. But the leadership position from a growth standpoint does not entirely control the fate of the legacy sources. They may fade, but they do not die. Biomass continued to be used (and is today) despite coal. And coal very obviously remains a part of the system, a junior part, despite oil.
Wind and solar will dazzle you with their growth rates. Awesome. We’ll charge EV on grids flush with wind and solar, and cut our energy use in transportation by half in the process. But the timelines are long, and every year we fail to add new nuclear to the grid is a year that one of two things will happen: either natural gas will continue to grow when wind+solar cannot take 100% of the marginal growth. Or, just as bad, all fossil fuels in the grid will just sit there not declining as the new layer of wind and solar gets built atop the system. The good news: the twenty years of nuclear stagnation shown in the chart only needs to be bumped up moderately. Adding just some new nuclear to wind and solar’s relentless advance would make for a powerful combination.