Science Gazette

Nuclear energy might be the key to low-cost, zero-emission power systems

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More instruments in our arsenal will be required to nail down the last 10% or 20% of decarbonization.

According to new research published in Nature Energy by Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology’s Lei Duan and Ken Caldeira, nuclear power generation can play a critical role in assisting the world in meeting a key goal of zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, particularly in countries with limited wind resources.

Human activity is releasing carbon pollution into the atmosphere, disrupting the global carbon cycle and generating warming and changing precipitation patterns. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change, it is critical that mankind try to keep the global mean temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels in order to avoid catastrophic climate effects. To attain this aim, the panel said that carbon emissions from the whole energy system must be zero by the middle of this century.

“Renewable energy sources like as wind and solar are excellent for lowering carbon emissions,” Duan added. “However, the wind and sun have inherent variations in their availability from day to day as well as between geographic areas, complicating overall emissions reduction.”

Today, gaps in the energy provided by wind and solar may be filled by natural gas power production. However, in a zero-emission power system, another method of supplying electricity is required when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

Previous research has shown that increasing wind and solar power harvesting systems may reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%. However, the gaps in supply and demand caused by natural resource unpredictability would need enormous infrastructure upgrades – huge increases in energy storage and transmission capacity, as well as energy producing equipment – in order to accomplish 100 percent curtailment.

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“We need other instruments in our arsenal, not just wind and solar, to nail down that final 10 or 20% of decarbonization,” Caldeira added.

Duan and Caldeira, together with Robert Petroski of TerraPower LLC and Lowell Wood of Gates Ventures LLC, researched the wind and solar resources of 42 nations and utilized this knowledge to evaluate nuclear power’s capacity to produce low-cost electricity and replace natural gas as a backup energy source. Their research focused on determining which nations might benefit from investigating nuclear power as an option for their energy portfolio sooner rather than later.

They discovered that in nations such as the United States, which had the ideal geographic and climatic circumstances for producing plenty of wind power, nuclear would not be implemented until it was absolutely necessary to overcome the final remaining barriers to decarbonization. However, in nations with limited wind resources, such as Brazil, strategic nuclear power utilization might allow for a speedier shift away from carbon.

“Under tight greenhouse gas emission regulations, nuclear power’s steady power production offers a lot of potential value in the energy system for most countries,” Duan said. “Areas with limited wind resources may benefit from nuclear sooner in the route to zero emissions, while places with abundant wind resources would only need it to eliminate the final vestiges of carbon emissions.”

Caldeira added: “In our study, we looked at the most cost-effective strategy to remove carbon dioxide emissions based on current costs. We discovered that, at the current pricing, nuclear is the most cost-effective solution to remove all electricity-system carbon emissions virtually everywhere. However, if energy storage technologies become extremely affordable, wind and solar might possibly be the most cost-effective approach to a zero-emission power grid.”

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The Carnegie Institution for Science is financed by a grant from Gates Ventures LLC.

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