The electric power sector is on the cusp of a critical transition to help meet energy demands in a cleaner energy future.
This is vitally important for economy-wide decarbonization. Reducing emissions in line with Paris Agreement goals requires we eliminate emissions from the U.S. and global electric power sectors — which represent 31 percent and 40 percent of total annual energy-related carbon emissions (CO2e), respectively — while scaling electric generating capacity to meet rising demand for clean electrons from buildings, transportation, industry and other increasingly electrified sectors without compromising system performance. This much, at least, is one of the “key pillars of decarbonization” the International Energy Agency (IEA) says is needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
It’s a tall but nonetheless necessary order.
Fortunately, the electric power sector’s impressive decarbonization record, along with expectations of still more progress towards net-zero to come, gives us some reason for optimism. In the U.S. for instance, annual power sector CO2e are more than 30 percent below their 2007 peak, due mostly to coal-to-gas switching across the U.S. generation fleet, as well as energy efficiency improvements and rapid capacity expansions in solar, wind and other renewable energy resources. There are signs that these same dynamics are driving similar CO2e reductions in markets around the world.
More to the point, the amount of avoided CO2e attributable to global annual renewable capacity additions has increased by an average of 10 percent each year in the last decade, according to the IEA. And with the precipitous declines in the cost of solar, wind and other renewable generation expected to continue, the sector is poised to far exceed the record set in 2020 for year-on-year growth in global renewable capacity additions.
But it’s important we don’t let our optimism get the best of us. While deployment of renewables accelerates at an unprecedented rate and with it, promises to take the lead in cleaning up the power sector, the natural intermittency or variability of solar, wind and other renewable primary energy sources cannot be ignored. This attribute, in turn, limits the ability of a 100 percent renewable-based system to reliably supply the amounts of electricity that our electrifying economies will soon need.
However, were the world’s policymakers to recognize this shortcoming for what it is — intractable, unless mitigated by substantial deployment of energy storage infrastructure or rapid buildout of power generating “overcapacity” — and instead take a more pragmatic, integrated approach to cleaning up the electricity system, then we would have a much better shot of dramatically reducing power sector emissions while maintaining system reliability. Indeed, the least-cost, most dependable power sector decarbonization pathways are those that strategically leverage existing infrastructure to, if nothing else, support the ongoing research, development and economical deployment of low- and zero-carbon power generation technologies and energy carriers.
One established generation source that is often left out of public energy discussions is nuclear energy, which generates roughly 40 percent of all low-carbon power and, similar to Texas, about 10 percent of total global electricity. It also is the world’s largest source of firm, readily dispatchable low-carbon generating capacity that, as the February Texas extreme cold weather event revealed, carries with it significant reliability and resilience advantages that are critical to bolstering an increasingly renewable-based power generation mix.
Paired with renewable sources, and with an eye on future enhancements to enable production of hydrogen and other versatile low-carbon energy carriers, nuclear has much to offer policymakers seeking a demonstrably reliable and readily available clean energy technology to support renewables deployment, investors seeking to recoup investments in legacy energy infrastructure and the rest of us who otherwise stand to benefit from a carbon-free future electric power system.
Advancing nuclear and moving it forward as one decarbonization solution within our evolving power system starts with greater institutional support. Buy-in and cooperation of energy industry firms and associations, academic institutions, intergovernmental and supranational organizations and especially national and state governments will be key.
At the global scale, myriad international institutions, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), are collaborating to produce the research, recommended frameworks, and estimates of needed investment and data on the power and potential of new and emerging nuclear generation technologies that decision makers will need.
Tactics for preserving the existing nuclear fleet within the current decarbonizing power sector, as the economics of advanced nuclear generation and more efficient solar panels and wind turbines continue to improve, are also critical. In addition to revisiting the nuclear plant license renewal process, policymakers in the U.S., for instance, are exploring the introduction of production tax credits for legacy nuclear facilities similar to those made available to solar and wind developers.
In the E.U., recent amendments by the European Commission to the E.U. “Taxonomy Regulation,” or classification of environmentally sustainable economic activities, did not rule out the sustainability of nuclear energy, signaling to private institutional investors that engagement in the nuclear sector remains permissible.
Power sector decarbonization pathways that exclude or limit the nuclear energy option risk incurring both avoidable costs and delays in reaching emissions reduction targets, as in Germany, for example. Nuclear energy offers a demonstrated pathway towards enhancing the reliability and resilience of their decarbonizing electricity systems with dispatchable, clean power. It avoids more CO2e than solar and wind and has the added potential to support the production of hydrogen, ammonia and other low-carbon energy resources, making it a well-rounded contributor to an integrated mix.
The advantages nuclear offers as one solution in a decarbonizing world have as much to do with technology as with its supporting global network of experts and institutions committed to its safe, dependable and ultimately beneficial performance to society. The true “superpower” of nuclear is the global community.
Nuclear power — and the global workforce of experts behind it — stand ready and able to play a foundational part in the global zero-carbon energy strategy.
Neil Wilmshurst is senior vice president for energy system resources at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is partially funded by the nuclear industry.