Vision is needed: a response to Julian Spector
Last week I found myself in a social media spat about the credibility of the main source cited in an article written by Julian Spector on Greentech Media. The central theme of the article is a stance against the 100% renewable energy mandate proposed by California Senate President Pro Tempore, Kevin De Léon. The author asked for a debate on the merits of the argument he put forth, and against my initial judgement, I have decided to oblige him.
However, when looking deeper into Spector’s arguments, I found them sorely lacking the evidence to back up his central claim, that a 100% renewable energy mandate is indeed “a bad idea”.
Spector writes that “there’s a lot of evidence that 100 percent renewable energy is not the optimal way to decarbonize the grid”; however, does not actually provide substantial evidence or – more essentially – a better plan. Instead, he sets up a rather fragile straw man, and relies on casting doubt on the practicality of integrating large amounts of renewable energy with mere anecdotes.
Spector further employs unsubstantiated claims and references technologies that are not actually commercialized yet; a weak base for an argument about something as urgent as Climate Change. The source of the material in question, Jesse Jenkins, is a researcher and nuclear industry advocate with a history of working with with an anti-renewable energy propaganda organization.
New technologies, or same old nukes?
Jenkin’s, and by extension, Spector’s primary argument is that the choice to mandate 100% renewable energy by 2045 “may” curtail development of other potential low-carbon technologies which may emerge in the next 28 years. To this end, the two cite new nuclear technologies, as well as fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Neither of these are commercialized today, and may well never be.
The argument Jenkins and Spector make in this regard serves as fearmongering; nowhere is it written that you cannot develop or build carbon-free generation while moving towards 100% renewable energy, or that renewable energy mandates cannot be modified in the future if circumstances change – in fact, they frequently are.
Most RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standard) systems work with a renewable energy credit system, for which non-renewable forms of generation don’t quality. RPSs, however, do not preclude funding for other emerging technologies. The list of not-yet and maybe-never commercialized nuclear technologies promoted by nuclear advocates like Jenkins, including fusion and small modular reactors, have already received copious amounts of research and development and in some cases even licensing support through the U.S. Department of Energy. All told, the federal government has generously funded civilian nuclear R&D for over 60 years.
The function of an RPS is solely to set a plan for future deployment of renewable energy, and to support this deployment, usually with credits and fines for under-compliance. As such, it makes no sense to plan for emerging technologies, because we don’t know if or when either will be commercialized, how much they will cost, or in the case of nuclear power, if they will even fit into an energy system based on the practical solutions that are actually deployed today: renewable energy and energy storage.
It is true that RPS policies also do not fund the construction of new conventional nuclear reactors. There is no reason to. Conventional nuclear power plants – including the handful of plants that have come online in the 21st century – have received a whole portfolio of support from the federal government, including federally backed insurance through the Price Anderson Act, federal handling of waste, and federal R&D.
The most recently built plants are also beneficiaries of federal loan guarantees, without which the asset developers would not have access to capital – because no investor in their right mind would invest in a nuclear plant without the backing of the government. They are simply too risky. Beyond that, it would be redundant to also subsidize nuclear power plants at the state level.
Most poignantly, there is simply no reason to build any more conventional nuclear power plants: they are far too expensive. The energy consultancy Lazard calculates the cost of energy from new nuclear power plants – even with the government picking up the tab for R&D and waste – at $97-$136 per megawatt-hour. That is three times the cost of wind and more than double the cost of utility-scale solar. The new nuclear power plants currently under construction in the United States are also massively over budget, but benefit from being built in the territories of monopoly utilities who can put ratepayers on the hook for construction costs.
Nuclear power is also an impractical vehicle for decarbonizing our electricity supply, since it takes around 10 years to plan, license and build a nuclear power plant. We simply cannot afford wait a decade to start decarbonizing our electricity supply.
Finally, nuclear power is by far the least flexible source of power on our grid, and it does not fit in with a massive build-out of renewable energy. I encourage Spector to review the California utility PG&E’s recent statements about how inflexibility, not environmental concerns, are the reasons for shutting down Diablo Canyon. Any claim to the contrary should be regarded as either unintentionally inaccurate, or worse, politically motivated.
Scheming for ZECs?
The well-known inflexibility of existing nuclear power plants makes Jenkin’s repeated claims, that nuclear will somehow accompany new renewable build-out, patently dishonest.
Instead of a concern about the development of new technologies being hamstrung, I suspect that Jenkins is actually gunning for is the inclusion of zero-emissions credits (ZECs) in California’s renewable energy mandate, as was done in New York and Illinois.
ZECs are an interesting mechanism. RPS policies usually exclude pre-existing renewable energy generation, such as legacy hydroelectric plants. However, ZECs actually pay for even the oldest power plants, which would fail without what is effectively a bailout.
Nuclear power plants that are new and in good condition have a very low marginal cost, and don’t need to be rescued with subsidies. The reason old nuclear power plants fail financially is the “bathtub curve” – towards the end of their useful lives, when they start to fall apart, they require more and more maintenance.
At that point such plants are quite dangerous. ZECs serve to keep aging nuclear power plants online under conditions in which they would normally (and should) be pushed offline, effectively decommissioned, by market forces.
The irony is not lost on me. While Jenkins laments the demise of future technology development, the financial mechanisms that most resemble what he is proposing have kept the oldest and most dangerous power plants online.
Spector has not been in the trenches all that long, so we can give him the benefit of the doubt here. Jenkins, however, is an old hand of the nuclear power industry. My reticence about formally responding to the latter’s arguments stem entirely from my aversion to giving him any more ink.
Straw men and anecdotes
Returning to the issue of 100% renewable energy, Spector wrote that 100% renewable energy “falls short, for both structural and practical reasons”. This argument is simply not supported by the evidence.
Spector supports his argument about how difficult achieving 100% renewables goal is, citing the work of Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson. While Jacobson’s work is important, as I have written before, it is more academic exercise than practical roadmap. As an academic exercise, Jacobson introduced artificial limitations to his studies of moving to 100% renewable energy. These artificial limitations, like not including grid-scale battery storage in his plans, results in a plan that requires massively over-building renewables and other technologies to get to 100%. This is something that no grid operator, regulator or utility is planning to do, or would ever do, in a high renewable energy scenario. In fact, large-scale deployment of battery storage is already beginning, with mandates in California, Oregon and Massachusetts.
As such, leaning on Jacobson’s work – as published in 2015 – is an alarmingly weak foundation for an argument, since it does not reflect actual pathways already in play today to move to high levels of renewables.
Spector’s other evidence – such as pointing out the volume of energy storage that must be deployed – is anecdotal at best. The NREL study Spector cites makes it clear that we must deploy truly massive amounts of energy storage and electric vehicles to integrate high levels of renewable energy. Fortunately, the price of lithium ion batteries is following a declining price curve similar to that of solar PV, so this simply becomes an issue of how fast the industry can scale. Tesla’s “Gigafactory” has already demonstrated that industry, when motivated, can scale quite quickly.
Finally, Spector points to the difficulty of siting and building the new transmission lines required to make the grid flexible enough to support large amounts of renewable energy. I can only note that if Spector considers it hard to site and build power lines, then perhaps he would like to try siting and building the large number of nuclear power plants Jenkins envisions. It’s safe to assume that the radius of local concern for nuclear power plants is orders of magnitude larger than the one for transmission lines.
This includes small modular nuclear reactors, which are a terrorist’s wet dream.
Goalposts and the road ahead
We still haven’t discussed why 100% renewable energy is an important target. I don’t actually argue for 100% renewable energy in electricity – I support 80% by 2030. By the time we get to 80% renewable electricity, the real action will be in decarbonizing transportation and heating, which will to a greater or lesser degree involve electrifying both.
I’m not all that concerned about what happens after 2030. The increasing pace of man-made Climate Change means that we have to decarbonize our electricity supply as soon as possible. If we don’t achieve this in the next 10-15 years, we, as a species, will have much more basic concerns to attend to. Like surviving on a near-uninhabitable planet.
Also, I personally don’t care if we have a few gas peakers still supplying flexible power in 2030. I also don’t have anything against 100% renewable energy mandates, as renewable energy does beat “every other option available” at this time. Renewable energy is the only existing alternative to a massive build out of nuclear power plants, as already mentioned, is impractical for both cost and timing reasons.
Building out renewable energy and energy storage (along with the enabling grid modifications) is the most practical path to survival available today. 100% renewable energy is a good set of goalposts to move towards, and a good way to mobilize investment to accelerate the transformation of our electricity system – a transformation which is well under way.
Spector and Jenkins’ work lacks the urgency with which we, as a species, have to act. With their call for a debate about our energy future, and warnings about not shutting out new technologies, I find that Spector and Jenkins treat the question of Climate Change and the future of energy as an academic one. It isn’t. This is a problem unlike any other we have ever faced, and we need to use the best _existing_ tools, including deploying wind, solar and energy storage, to decarbonize as quickly as possible.
Neither I, nor will anyone else who is versed in the challenges of the Energy Transition, will assert that this is an easy task without challenges. Spector and Jenkins simply do not provide a better plan to deal with humanity’s most serious and urgent threat. Instead, the two build their arguments on technologies that are not yet, and may never be, commercialized, and on anecdotes and straw men. This transparent contribution to the Fear Uncertainty and Doubt campaign that the nuclear industry and its proponents have long waged against renewable energy is not only not useful, it is irresponsible.
Instead, what is needed at this time is vision – the kind of vision supplied by people like Elon Musk and Kevin De Léon.