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Outlook: IEA Sees Nuclear as 'Essential Foundation' for Net Zero

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The pathway for reaching worldwide net-zero emissions by 2050 unveiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA) this week envisions global nuclear power capacity doubling by that date, and finds that alongside hydropower, nuclear power provides an "essential foundation" to the energy transition. The May 18 report, titled Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, was requested by the UK government ahead of the upcoming climate summit in Glasgow to model a way to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °C. It made headlines for its finding that new oil and gas exploration is not needed (EC May21'21). But the report just as forcefully advocates for nuclear power, saying it would make a "significant contribution" to the report's Net-Zero Emissions scenario (NZE), and IEA head Fatih Birol pushed back against those hoping it would recommend shuttering reactors or against nuclear newbuilds. "Unfortunately some colleagues who are really finding solutions to our incredibly difficult-to-solve problem don't like this technology or that technology, even though they are green," Birol said in a May 19 interview with Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. "Colleagues who are saying this do not make their hands dirty with data. ... If you don't want to put nuclear power in your country, I understand. But nuclear power today, in the US and Europe, is the single largest source of clean electricity. If we just shut them [reactors] down, how are you going to fill it -- the entire system -- with solar and wind, in such a short period of time and with a secure electricity system?" Critics of the report argue that a 100% renewables solution by 2050 is credible. Stanford University environmental engineer Mark Jacobson, for instance, pointed to three prior studies that envision a shift to 100% wind, water and solar energy in addition to energy efficiency and storage solutions also envisaged by the IEA. Unlike the IEA, Jacobson tweeted May 18, "none of the three prior global studies finds need for nuclear." Assuming the argument in favor of nuclear is accepted, there is also the question of supplying the needed capacity particularly given the current direction of the global nuclear power industry. As the report itself notes, worldwide nuclear output last year fell to 2,698 terawatt hours from 2,792 TWh in 2019. Last month the Paris-based IEA projected that this figure would rise in 2021, but the output levels projected in the NZE would require such massive nuclear capacity additions that new policy frameworks would be necessary, even in nuclear-friendly countries (NIW Apr.23'21). Costs and Political Will The IEA argues that a global energy transition without both nuclear and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) would be costlier in terms of both money and political capital. "Failing to take timely decisions on nuclear power and CCUS would raise the costs of a net‐zero emissions pathway and add to the risk of not meeting the goal by placing an additional burden on wind and solar to scale up even more quickly than in the NZE," read the report. The report includes a low nuclear and CCUS case, in which there are no reactor lifetime extensions in advanced economies and no pickup in the pace of nuclear newbuilds in emerging market and developing economies, and only already-announced CCUS projects go forward. But it found that between 2021 and 2050 this pathway would cost electricity consumers an additional $260 billion compared to a scenario in which nuclear capacity doubles by 2050 and some 1,330 coal and gas plants are equipped with CCUS. Such a pathway envisions annual nuclear capacity additions reaching 30 gigawatts by the early 2030s, representing a different order of magnitude from the comparable figure of 6 GW for 2011-20. "Two‐thirds of new nuclear power capacity in the NZE is built in emerging markets and developing economies mainly in the form of large‐scale reactors, where the fleet of reactors quadruples to 2050," read the report. "This raises the share of nuclear in electricity generation in those countries from 5% in 2020 to 7% in 2050 (as well as nuclear meeting 4% of commercial heat demand in 2050)." As with the halt of hydrocarbons exploration, this rate of nuclear newbuild growth would require a policy sea change in newbuild countries, even in China, the fastest-growing nuclear newbuild country in the world (NIW Apr.23'21). The latest Five Year Plan unveiled by Beijing earlier this year would see Chinese nuclear capacity expand from the current 51 GW to 70 GW by 2025 -- under 4 GW per year -- and gives no guidance on targets beyond that (NIW Mar.19'21). China's nuclear industry has ambitious longer-term goals, but for the moment it's not at all clear those goals are shared by Beijing's State Council and other key decision-makers. The nuclear industry was quick to embrace the IEA report, and to push policymakers across the globe to commit to nuclear. "Governments must now take action to ensure that nuclear energy can play a major role in the clean energy transition to which so many of them have now committed," World Nuclear Association (WNA) Director-General Sama Bilbao y Leon said in a May 18 statement. But the WNA was actually critical of the report: even though the IEA's NZE has global nuclear capacity expanding from 415 GW in 2020 to 515 GW in 2030 and then 812 GW by 2050, the WNA believes this "fails to reflect both the size and scope of the contribution nuclear technologies could make." Phil Chaffee, London

Topics:
Nuclear, Nuclear Fuel, Low-Carbon Policy, Renewable Electricity , Electricity Prices
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