Back in October, Texas GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw opined that solar and wind “don’t work,” calling them “silly solutions.” Instead, nuclear energy would be a “far better energy resource than solar and wind if [Democrats] cared about zero emissions.” Crenshaw will likely be challenged on this – quite seriously.  

On Nov. 4, the day after the election, the United States officially withdrew from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a global pact it helped create in an effort to avert the threat of catastrophic climate change. Newly elected president Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the accord on the first day of his presidency, a task that does not require Congressional approval.

Biden has outlined his $1.7 trillion Climate Plan that targets a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero status for the country not later than 2050.

Although the Democratic Party leader has distanced himself from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal that was roundly defeated in the Senate last year, Biden has gone ahead and picked AOC and former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry to co-chair his Climate Change Plan – a potential win for renewable energy.

But given the Senate deadlock, the plan of the Democrats to implement sweeping changes to federal policies to mandate aggressive investments in renewable technologies that will accelerate decarbonization goals is likely to be severely hampered.

And now some nuclear experts and activists are suggesting a middle-ground: The Green Nuclear Deal.

Far more Republicans (65%) than Democrats (42%) are pro-nuclear as per Gallup Polls.

Green Nuclear Deal

Madi Czerwinski, the founder of the Campaign For a Green Nuclear Deal, has opined that not only should Biden aim to revive the United States’ ailing nuclear sector but should also pursue legislation that will raise its contribution to the electricity generation mix from the current 19% to 50% by 2050.

It’s a sentiment supported by the Atlantic Council, which argues that nuclear energy is an established low-carbon source of reliable power that’s likely to enjoy bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle.

The Atlantic Council notes that there’s clear precedent here: In 2018, Congress passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) that will facilitate public-private partnerships through the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) to fast track the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors. In the same year, Congress passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) to help modernize the regulatory process for nuclear reactors.

The nuclear energy camp has received further support from unexpected quarters. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) has declared that “Without nuclear power, the world’s climate challenge will get a whole lot harder.”

These are valid points.

We have discussed the gains being made in the development of advanced nuclear reactors that use thorium instead of uranium. Thorium is now being billed as the great green hope of clean energy production, producing less waste and more energy than uranium. Thorium is meltdown-proof, has no weapons-grade by-products, and can even consume legacy plutonium stockpiles.

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The United States Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Engineering & Science Center at Texas A&M, and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have partnered with Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy (CCTE) to develop a new thorium-based nuclear fuel they have dubbed ANEEL. ANEEL, which is short for “Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life”, is a proprietary combination of thorium and “High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” (HALEU) that hopes to solve some of the knottiest problems nuclear power faces, including high costs and toxic wastes.

That said, we pointed out that the main sticking point to the promotion of thorium as a cleaner nuclear fuel is that it remains unproven on a commercial scale. Thorium MSRs (Molten Salt Reactors) have been in development since the 1960s by the United States, China, Russia, and France, yet nothing much ever came of them. Further, only about 50 of the world’s 440 reactors can currently be configured to run on thorium.

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We have also highlighted how scientists have finally broken ground by kicking off the five-year assembly phase of the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion reactor, in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France. Funded by six nations, including the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea, ITER will be the world’s largest tokamak fusion device with an estimated cost of ~$24 billion and capable of generating about 500 MW of thermal fusion energy as early as 2025. Unfortunately, practical nuclear fusion remains a long-shot and could be decades away from becoming a commercial reality. 

We simply don’t have the luxury of time.

Further, nuclear power in the U.S. faces an uncertain future. Of the country’s 97 currently active commercial nuclear reactors, 11 are scheduled for retirement by 2025. Only the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee has been commissioned over the past two decades, though two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia could be pressed into action as early as 2021.

The biggest obstacle for nuclear power, however, is that it remains a tough sell with well-publicized nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island still looming large in the American public’s psyche. A Morning Consult survey has revealed that just 29% of Americans view nuclear energy favorably with 49% viewing it negatively thus making it the most unpopular energy source.

Solar rising

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Whereas the nuclear sector comeback has its work cut out for it, solar power has clearly been on the ascendancy thanks in large part to falling costs.

Nuclear advocates have pointed to rising electricity costs in California as the reason why other states should think twice before adopting its model. Environmental Progress has reported that between 2011 and 2018, power costs in the Golden State increased by 27.9% compared to a 4% national average. This period coincided with a period when California has been aggressively ramping up its renewable generation capacity. Renewable sources currently account for ~30% of California’s electricity generation with an aim to double that by 2030 and hit 100% by 2045.

But that’s being a bit disingenuous because it fails to capture just how much solar costs have fallen over the timeframe.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), solar installation costs have dropped by more than 70% over the past decade, opening up vast new markets and systems nationwide. The organization says prices as of Q2 2020 dropped to their lowest levels in history across all market segments, with utility-scale prices ranging from $16/MWh – $35/MWh, thus making it competitive with all other forms of generation. Meanwhile, costs for the average-sized residential system were cut in half from a pre-incentive price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $20,000 today.

And no, renewables are not to blame for California’s blackouts.

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

Higher Soft Costs Remain

A common complaint is that solar power is only becoming cheaper for utilities but not for residential applications.

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That’s partly true but not entirely so because residential costs have actually been falling but at a slower clip than their bigger brethren. 

According to SEIA, residential PV pricing fell only 20% between 2014-2020 to $2.84/Watt mainly due to soft costs, including labor, overhead costs, supply chain, customer acquisition, and permitting/inspection/interconnection costs remaining high. Further, inconsistent permitting practices and building codes and permitting practices across jurisdictions have led to some regions not being able to enjoy the full benefits of falling hardware costs.

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

Strongly Bullish 

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Despite these challenges, the solar sector remains strongly bullish.

Indeed, S&P Platts says that the shift to renewable energy is likely to continue full steam ahead regardless of fed policies noting that the energy transition has “clearly been moving forward on a regional basis,” despite lacking clear endorsement at the federal level under Trump.

It remains to be seen whether nuclear energy can command the same level of support.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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