The Breakthrough Institute and other major environmentalists say we need nuclear power to stop climate change because renewables will not be able to replace fossil fuels. Renewable energy can’t scale to meet the hundreds of gigawatts of 24/7 power needed to transition to clean energy. Plus it is expensive, once you factor in the humongous grid upgrades needed to handle large amounts of intermittent power. Nuclear power, by contrast, generates power 24/7 with no grid upgrade needed.
These charts are generated by CAISO, The California Independent System Operator, and show the problem. Yesterday at 4 pm, on a sunny day with lots of wind in the right areas, California generated 23% of its power from renewables. This is certainly impressive but at night at least half of that disappears. The electrical grid requires that supply always match demand perfectly. Fluctuating amounts of wind and solar can be problematic for grids to handle and difficult to plan for.
Our analysis was further biased toward solar over nuclear by not accounting for the high costs of backing up and integrating intermittent solar electricity. Leading anti-nuclear greens, including Bill McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., note that for a few hours during a sunny weekend day, solar provided 50 percent of Germany’s electricity; at the same time, as we pointed out, only five percent of the country’s total electricity came from solar in 2012. What that means is that if Germany doubled the amount of solar, as it intends to do, there might be a few hours or even days every year where the country gets 100 percent of its electricity from solar, even though solar only provides 10 percent of its annual electricity needs.
If a country like Germany can’t get all its power from renewables on a steady basis then it will use fossil fuels or nuclear. That’s the problem. The power has to come from somewhere. And unless nuclear is available they will use fossil fuels.
In reality, there’s little evidence that renewables have supplanted — rather than supplemented — fossil fuel production anywhere in the world. Whatever their merits as innovation policy, Germany’s enormous solar investments have had little discernible impact on carbon emissions. Germany’s move away from baseload zero-carbon nuclear has resulted in higher coal consumption since 2009. In 2012, Germany’s carbon emissions rose 2 percent.
Nuclear, by contrast, replaces fossil energy.
And to highlight this, the recent permanent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California will boost carbon emissions by at least 8 million metric tons a year…