Soaring demand for electricity and coal shows why we need nuclear energy

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The cooling towers of a nuclear energy plant.

Last week, BP released its annual Statistical Review of World Energy and the report shows, yet again, that electricity is the world’s most important and fastest-growing form of energy.

In 2021, global electricity generation grew by a record 1,577 terawatt-hours, an increase of 6.2 percent over 2020. For perspective, last year’s increase in electricity production was greater than the electricity output of France, Germany and Britain combined. The surge in electricity generation — nearly half of which happened in China — reflects the jump in demand for power as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers also show that, despite all the hype about renewable energy and the “energy transition,” when it comes to producing power, countries are still heavily dependent on King Coal. Indeed, coal-fired generation continued its dominance of the electricity sector in 2021, accounting for 51 percent of the increase in global electricity generation. Furthermore, coal’s share in the global generation mix increased slightly to 36 percent, while natural gas’s share of the generation mix fell to just under 23 percent.

While renewable generation increased by double-digit percentages, the increase in coal-fired generation — up 805 terawatt-hours — was greater than the jump in wind and solar production combined. Not surprisingly, China had the biggest share of the increase in coal use, accounting for more than half of the global increase of 418 terawatt-hours. By itself, China accounts for 54 percent of all global coal use.

But China is only part of the story. Coal-fired generation also increased in the United States last year, up 122 terawatt-hours, and in India, up 152 terawatt-hours. The surge in coal consumption shows that what I call the “Iron Law of Electricity” remains in effect — that countries, businesses and individuals will do what they have to do to get the electricity they need. China and India usually get the headlines, but European countries also are ramping up coal use. Russia’s restrictions on westward flows of natural gas have spurred Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Poland to increase their coal use. 

All of these numbers matter because the electricity sector produces more greenhouse gasses than any other sector of the global economy. And because the global electricity business is so dependent on coal, there is simply no way to cut emissions without making a big dent in coal consumption.

Again, the BP numbers tell the tale. In 2021, the jump in coal use — which surged by 6.3 percent — was greater than the growth in global oil use (up 6.1 percent), natural gas consumption (up 5.3 percent), nuclear (up 3.8 percent), or hydro (down 1.8 percent). The surge in hydrocarbon consumption also explains why global greenhouse gas emissions continue climbing. Last year, global CO2 emissions increased by 5.9 percent. Here in the U.S., emissions increased even more than that, climbing by 6.6 percent.

Despite these facts, academics, policymakers and climate activists routinely claim that we don’t need hydrocarbons and that we can meet the world’s energy needs solely with renewables — wind, solar and a dash of hydropower — an idea debunked in a 2017 report published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Don’t buy the hype. The reality is that all around the world, land-use conflicts are slowing or stopping large-scale wind and solar projects. As can be seen in the Renewable Rejection Database, some 344 communities across the U.S. have rejected or restricted wind projects since 2013. To cite just one recent example: Last month, Butler County, Ohio, banned large wind and solar projects in a dozen townships in the county. The rural backlash against the energy sprawl that comes with big renewable projects also has occurred in Europe. In 2010, the European Platform Against Windfarms had about 400 member organizations. Today, it has more than 1,600 members in 31 countries.

There are many reasons why renewables cannot — will not — be able to meet soaring global energy demand. They include intermittency, land constraints, lack of sufficient high-voltage transmission capacity, and the staggering quantity of commodities such as concrete, copper, steel and rare earth elements that would be needed.

So, if renewables cannot meet our needs, and we are concerned about climate change, what is the way forward? The answer is nuclear energy. Indeed, the other big energy news from last week was a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which said that “building sustainable and clean energy systems will be harder, riskier and more expensive without nuclear,” and that global nuclear capacity must double between now and 2050 if the world is to have any hope of slashing emissions.

The IEA also underscored the lack of progress being made in the U.S. and Europe on building new reactors. It said that “advanced economies have lost market leadership” in nuclear development and deployment and that “27 out of 31 reactors that started construction since 2017 are Russian or Chinese designs.”

This must change. For decades, the U.S. led the world in the development of nuclear energy. But we have ceded that leadership to Russia and China. Furthermore, the U.S. has foolishly allowed too many of our existing nuclear plants to be prematurely shuttered, including two in the past 15 months: Indian Point in New York and Palisades in Michigan.

The energy crisis in Europe and the latest BP numbers show that if we are to have any hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we have to embrace the atom. The U.S. doesn’t lack investment dollars or good reactor designs. Last year alone, some $3.4 billion in venture capital was invested in nuclear-focused startups. What’s needed is committed and sustained leadership from President Biden and Congress.

Today’s crises are a prime opportunity for President Biden to use the bully pulpit to promote nuclear energy. And the time for him to do so is right now.

Robert Bryce is the host of the “Power Hungry Podcast,” executive producer of the documentary, “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World,” and the author of six books, including most recently, “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.” Follow him on Twitter @pwrhungry.

Tags Electricity electricity demand electricity grid Nuclear energy Renewable energy

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