Nuclear-based energy remains today’s only viable replacement of carbon-based energy

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By Dave Wilkin

Buckle up, a climate-change political storm is coming!
The COP24 Climate conference in Poland recently ended, with some limited cheering over creating the ‘Paris Rulebook’ (a guide for countries to put their Paris commitments into action). Concurrently though, a newly released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raised the climate-change action bar again – stating we have just 12 years to cut our emissions in half, a step to reaching zero emissions by 2040 (to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C) and avoid ‘climate disaster’. The current Paris commitments don’t come close to hitting the new targets. A rule book is a good step forward, but only if countries follow the rules. Sadly, their track records raise serious doubts, with recent forecasts showing accelerating emissions growth – a 2.7% 2018 increase, following a 1.6% increase last year.

Too often mainstream media reporting misses the big picture entirely, choosing to focus on popular narratives, like blaming the US Trump Administration, largely for its plan to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement (which actually helps by focusing attention on its serious flaws). The facts show the US has achieved emission declines over the last decade. China is a far bigger problem though. It is responsible for 25% of all emissions (twice the #2 USA), and growing much more quickly (largely from increased coal burning). I strongly recommend you read “The Road from Paris: China’s Climate U-Turn” by Patricia Adams (Executive Director of Probe International, a Toronto-based NGO) to better understand China’s real goals, and the games it plays. Globe & Mail columnist Gary Mason nicely summarized it in his recent column “China’s Great Leap Backward on climate change”, quoting Ms. Adams With green energy an abject failure in terms of meeting China’s need for either energy or clean air, all that’s left is propaganda”.

Yet, China is far from alone. Behind them are many fast-growing countries with rapidly developing middle-classes, and like China, none committing to emission reductions. China is helping them industrialize, with massive investments like their trillion $ ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, which will build pipelines, ports, railways, and power facilities (including many of the ~700 coal-powered plants per my previous article) in more than 70 countries. The China economic ‘miracle’ was, and continues to be, fuelled by carbon-based energy. It took 200 years to place three billion people into the middle class; it will take just 20 years to double it (most in Asia-Pacific). This, plus two billion in global population growth, drives the 27% global increase in energy demand forecasted over the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, the risks of man-made climate-change turns the miracle of carbon energy into a global ‘zero-sum game’. Achieving the new IPCC 2040 targets means replacing all carbon based energy (81% of all energy globally), and the retiring nuclear energy, with zero-emission energy. With hydro-power tapped out, and biomass not being zero-emission, that leaves the 1% green renewable sector expected to fill the entire energy gap. This requires the sector to grow at ~25% each year for the next 20 years. To understand how unrealistic this is, China saw just 0.7% share growth in the sector last year . Also note, the power-grids’ renewables’ energy cap would be reached long before the energy gap is closed. The reality is that nuclear-based energy remains today’s only viable zero-carbon energy source able to scale and replace all carbon-based energy. It’s sad that the Canadian government, in listening too much to environmental lobbyists, has significantly diminished our nuclear power industry over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, they are far from alone. The International Energy Agency understands this big picture, and has only lowered the 2040 global energy carbon-energy share forecast to 74%, far from the 0% IPCC target.

Broadly speaking, governments have these five big levers to reduce carbon emissions (roughly ordered in decreasing impact and political risk/challenge):

  1. Limit overall energy demand (and deforestation) by slowing/restricting population and economic growth.
  2. Limit carbon-based energy supplies (e.g. stopping pipelines, shutting down carbon-based fuel extraction, closing carbon-based power plants).
  3. Large new investments in nuclear energy, and electric power-grids (improving efficiencies, capacity, flexibility, interconnections)
  4. Reduce carbon-based energy demand by driving their costs up (e.g. new taxes) or by significantly reducing costs of greener alternatives through large incentives or subsidies.
  5. Reduce overall energy demand through efficiency incentives & subsidies.

It’s understood that these tough actions come with enormous costs and political risk – modest actions on levers #2 and #4 are already hitting ‘political walls’, #1 is hard to see any government undertaking, and #3 (nuclear) requires acceptance of largely unpopular risks. Short of non-existent massive carbon removal or high-risk geo-engineering schemes, the new IPCC targets and timelines look impossible to reach. However, that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. The risks and costs will only rise.

While some countries are struggling to find an acceptable balance (avoiding massive public backlash), others are all talk and little action. Buckle up, a climate-change political storm is coming!


Watch for the final instalment in this series – Getting the Transition to a Post-Carbon-Energy Future Right – next week.

Dave Wilkin, Masters, Electrical Eng., P. Eng.

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14 Comments

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_Scotland Also if i had my way Huntsville should put up about 4 of these wind generators one on the reservoir hill one on the hill above the vernon narrows one on top of the look out and one on the hill beside it,
    With 4 wind generators we could probably do a good job of powering our town or sell it all to ontario hydro , it dosnt have to be the huge wind turbines it could be the ones that a spanish man invented that look like a cone ..https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vortex_Bladeless

    • Wendy Brown, thanks for taking an interest in my article. I would like to help you and other readers understand some things about wind power that the main-stream media doesn’t tell you in articles like the one you are referring to. On the positive side, Scotland does generate a substantial amount of electricity via wind power, which is a good thing. Scotland is blessed by being a very windy country (much more than the average). However, what the article doesn’t mention is that Scotland exports a majority of its wind power to the rest of the UK (when the wind is blowing) as their total electric energy generation capacity is over 3x their demand need (of about 4000MW). When the wind is not blowing, it is dependent on its base-load generation from Hydro & Nuclear, and makes up the power shortfall with its variable on-demand power, mostly from Natural Gas, & some diesel. The engineering facts for wind are clear – until ‘grid-scale’, mass energy storage is viable, wind taps out at roughly 10-15% share of total electric power generation in the mix, for most countries. Scotland is likely an outlier, at maybe roughly double that.

      The article is therefore incomplete, and certainly misleading. Don’t feel bad though, this is complex stuff. Most don’t understand it. I am an electrical engineer (masters), and at times its even hard for me to sort out the truth from the spin. Sadly, it was this kind of misleading information that likely caused the recent Ontario liberal governments to fall for the wind power myth, creating the over-capacity, high costs, and waste in Ontario’s power system we live with today. Unlike Scotland, who was smart and able to sell excess power to the rest of the UK, Ontario’s excess wind-power ended up being dumped, or sold for a huge loss to the US, costing tax payers over a $1B/yr (https://torontosun.com/news/provincial/ontario-lost-up-to-1-2-billion-selling-clean-energy-at-a-loss-engineers).

      Here is a well written analysis (technical), that explains the reality of the limits to Scottish wind power in their power grid. http://euanmearns.com/scotlands-wind-exports-to-england-and-the-myth-of-a-100-renewable-scotland/

      Hope this helps with understanding.

    • Wendy, 4 two-megawatt wind turbines could indeed power Huntsville, IF the wind were to blow all the time. But it does not. On average, wind turbines produce at rated capacity for 25% of the 8,760 hours per year, and in Ontario, solar fields produce at rated capacity 14% of the time. And there are entire weeks in the fall with no wind and weeks in winter with no solar output. So those intermittent sources must be backed up 100% with gas plants which makes them expensive. You would not want to be riding a high-rise elevator or an underground subway that depended on wind or solar power. In Ontario, clean nuclear provides most of the base load power with clean hydro responding to variation in demand. Peak load power is provided by the responsive gas plants that can be turned down to save emissions whenever wind and solar are actually producing. That is the reverse of what most people imagine. As Dave says, “it’s complicated”.

  2. Dave, you’re preaching to the choir: personally, it’s impossible to consider anything but nuclear energy as a solution. Unfortunately, even after all these years, the spectre of Chernobyl is still fresh; although it was an isolated occurrence and safeguards have increased significantly. Another problem is that China and the U.S., as you aver, continue to set such a poor example; the former due to massive coal reserves, and the latter due to political expediency.
    .
    Something new on the green front: A few countries are experimenting with lead/hybrid lead solar cells, which have shown surprising increases in efficiency.

  3. Hard to get nuclear energy to replace the “carbon-based energy” ie combustion engine! Won’t happen .. too much money in oil based products! ie. FUEL! Think about it! This carbon tax is a Fake News tax grab($$$) for YOUR LIBERAL FED SJW government .. period! The only people who will pay($$$$) this additional tax etc etc is …YOU! The countries who do not buy in .. will flourish like you have never seen before! Their economies .. USA and China, India .. will soar …jobs, investment ,etc etc.. ! If you think the economy in Canada is low now, not moving, no jobs, high taxes etc etc .. you watch the new ‘cradle to grave’ programs that are required to keep the country ‘alive’! Check this out! https://www.fraserinstitute.org/blogs/ten-year-end-facts-canadians-need-to-know

    • Bob, the thing that most people forget is that oil is a finite resource and global reserves will be gone in 50 to 60 years. Yes there are estimates that say it will last longer but those estimates are not supported by the International Energy Agency or the US Energy Information Authority because the oil included in the higher estimates is as much as 10 miles (16 kilometers) below ground and is unlikely to be economically accessible. The USA, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are pumping oil like drunken sailors in a hubris-driven race to be the number one producer. Apparently the leaders of those countries don’t care about their grandchildren as long as they look good for the next election. At current production rates, “proven” US reserves will be depleted in 15 years and if it turns out the high estimate is right, max potential US reserves (10 miles deep) will be depleted in 39 years. Then what? Canada is the only stable democracy that can supply oil to the world at planned rates for 100 years.

      So we will indeed need the emerging fleet of SMRs (Small Modular Nuclear Reactors) to supply electricity for the addition of 3 billion people by 2100 (3 new Chinas, or 10 new USAs, or 100 new Canadas) and to power the global fleet of electric vehicles that will be rolled out over the next 30 to 40 years. Oil will still be needed for the most difficult mobile application. Hopefully the EVs and SMRs will be rolled out before we run out of oil.

  4. Totally agree a Carbon tax, or as Trudeau likes to spin it, “taxing polution” will accomplish little, other than piss off the well informed. He doesn’t care though, it’s all about virtue signalling to his base and the uninformed masses. The liberal media makes it worse.
    Your are right about the money in oil, and we will need it for a long time to come for agriculture, products, and transportation where battery power or reactors don’t work… like flying.

  5. Dustin Wainwright on

    As someone whose job it is to make Electricity, id say anyone who states Nukes are the “only” option for Electrical Generation in Canada is not being totally honest or fully done their research, no disrespect intended.

    The root of Nuclear Energy is still to make steam for Turbines and generating Electricity. This can be done with pretty much anything that makes Heat.

    For example, at my work we use Natural Gas Engines for around 7 MW of primary electrical generation, and take the exhaust gases from those engines and make steam with it for heating and cooling of the building. This is instead of dumping pure exhaust out the stack into the atmosphere.

    On the other side, there are steam plants that can take their “flue gases” from their fuel source and use it to run a turbine creating electricity ON TOP of their original steam purpose, be it for heating, cooling or process. More bang for their gas buck so to speak.

    I do want to also mention that as far as coal goes, while expensive to do its a common misconception that coal is unclean to burn. Fact is, that coal CAN burn clean with limited release of the products of combustion (abrv. NOCASH Nitrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, Ash, Sulphur, Hydrogen) to the atmosphere.

    However, a bit of federal funding to either finance or encourage the implementation this tech to a few plants that still exist in elsewhere in Canada (since Ontario has none left) can allow us to still use coal as another fuel source for decades to come while also keeping environmental concerns in mind. For companies interested in this, think of it this way, there is NOCASH to be had in just dumping pollutants into the atmosphere. Instead, use them.

    We certainly have the technology and these option and i’m more than sure we can use is to make both environmental and oil industry folks happy. So why don’t we go this route?

    • Thanks Dustin. Just for clarification, the point is the need for a viable zero-carbon emissions technology that can fully scale and replace carbon based power. The options you mentioned are not zero-emission options.

      • Dustin Wainwright on

        Dave, I can see your point, but ignoring what we have already available is irresponsible is what i’m trying to say.

        A large number of folks just are not even aware of what we got, but are clamoring for a replacement. It’s a bit foolish.

        • Agree Dustin. Improving emmissions/efficiency in any current carbon power facilities helps in the near term. Longer term, we are going to need the newer generation nuclear reactors.

          Canada use to be a world leader in nuclear reactor research and design… led by AECL.
          I know this well, my brother was a top nuclear research scientist there. He witnessed its slow steady decline over the last 2 decades. It’s a shell of its former self. Most of the engineering has been sold off to private entities. Most of the leading edge researchers and scientists that they had are gone now. Very sad.

  6. Sadly, with our addiction to energy to run all our toys and necessities electricity is the only form of energy that can be easily transmitted over large distances and it is able to accept generation supply from virtually any source. Thus our electricity use can only climb as we try to use less fossil fuels.

    Green sources are great but they are notoriously unreliable. Also, I’m not sure Huntsville would be able to accept a giant windmill on top of every hill. That poor little “pipe man” caused enough consternation, lord only knows the outcry for a half dozen windmills.

    Nuclear has its problems, most are solvable, but there is always that small risk of a total disaster and Chernobyl and Fukushima sure don’t impress me much when some scientist type starts talking probabilities of failure. A probability on a page of paper is one thing but having to take a vacation for 300 years while your property cools from a green glow is another entirely.

    This said, do we really have any choice? We either use nuclear, very, very carefully, suffer great climate changes or freeze in the dark of winter, at least in Canada those seem to be the options.

    Fortunately the nuclear science has progressed even without the AECL leading it and there are several newer technologies that allow nuclear-fuelled generation with much greater reliability than the traditional, 60s technology we currently use. Canada’s record is an example to the rest of the world and if we use this new technology going forward there is really no reason we cannot meet our needs, stay clean and be safe enough. Burning fossil fuels might be safer on the actual plant site, but then how does one address the flooding of all our coastal cities, the expansion of deserts and the increase in violent storms? These climate effects are about the same as a nuclear accident when you get to the overall effect so I’d vote for new tech nuclear, at least until we find something even better.

  7. Great points Brian. Canada could be a nuclear leader again, but that would require immediate reversal of decades of poor government leadership and lack of any vision. Far easier to listen to the ignorant fringe green extremists rather than the energy scientists and engineers. I don’t see this current government doing much at all.. sadly.

    As for other new energy sources, some people think new marvelous ones are just around the corner. I don’t see any candidates on the horizon. The basic laws of physics apply, don’t see them changing any time soon…

    As for nuclear breakthroughs, perhaps fusion reactors in maybe 40 or 50 years, but the technical challenges on containment, and scaling are still enormous.

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