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OP-ED: Wind and solar power won’t replace fossil fuels

  • Published at 01:53 am October 8th, 2021
nuclear power plant
Contrary to popular belief, next-generation nuclear power plants are quite safe BIGSTOCK

Fortunately, nuclear power can

Many activists think that protests will persuade governments to shut down fossil fuel power plants and replace them with wind and solar power. Unfortunately, that will not happen.  Cities demand continuous power. Most electric power is generated by burning fossil fuels, and is continuous. Wind and solar power, on the other hand, are both intermittent. Cities don’t want intermittent power.

If a utility owns a solar or wind installation, that installation typically produces power only 30% of the time.  70% of power supplied by the utility is “backup” power from a power plant which burns fossil fuels. That’s why huge investments in intermittent wind and solar power have not made CO2 emissions fall. Intermittent wind and solar power are effectively ensuring continued reliance on “backup” fossil fuel power.

It is possible to make solar power continuous; this requires adding expensive energy storage. An illuminating case study is the Andasol solar power installation in Spain, which stores solar energy as heat in tanks of molten salt. The stored energy is used to produce power at night. Continuous power from Andasol costs 31 cents per kWh. Using batteries for energy storage would be even more expensive, as batteries need to be replaced every few years. Most governments will not invest in continuous solar power because it costs too much (per kWh). 

There are many different estimates of the cost of continuous power from a new nuclear power plant in the US; a small change in the interest rate has a huge impact on this cost, as a nuclear plant requires a very high investment of capital, and thus incurs very high interest expense. The cost per kWh of nuclear power is likely to be between 8 and 9.6 cents. This is not much more expensive than continuous power from the new Payra coal power plant, which will cost about 7 cents per kWh.

The choices before governments are simple. They are presently getting continuous power from coal and gas burning power plants, costing about 7 cents per kWh. Continuous solar power from a system like Andasol costs over four times as much, 31 cents per kWh. That’s why governments are opting for intermittent solar power (without any energy storage), which ensures that fossil fuels will continue to be burned as “backup” power. So how do we shut down fossil fuel power plants? The answer is to replace fossil fuel power plants with nuclear power plants. Continuous nuclear power costs between 8 and 9.6 cents per kWh, just slightly more than what governments are now paying for continuous power from fossil fuels.  That’s why nuclear power can replace fossil fuel power plants, but solar power won’t. Continuous wind power would require even more energy storage than continuous solar power, because a wind farm might experience several days without much wind. 

The most common argument against nuclear power is the fear of a disaster like Chernobyl. Many people are under the impression that Chernobyl and Fukushima “proved” that nuclear power is unsafe. However, those accidents happened because of specific design flaws which have been thoroughly studied, and which will not be repeated. Statistics show that nuclear power is safe (a quick google search will show you these statistics). We should be much more worried about fossil fuel power. Outdoor air pollution, mostly from burning fossil fuels, kills over 4 million people every year (according to WHO).

The other argument against nuclear power is the waste disposal problem. Radioactive waste from nuclear plants (used rods of solid uranium fuel) contains plutonium, which is radioactive for thousands of years. However, the uranium and plutonium in these used rods can be recycled (reprocessed) into new fuel rods; France has been doing this safely for decades. 

The next generation of nuclear power plants will probably be molten salt reactors (MSRs). These will never experience the kind of accidents which were seen at Fukushima and Chernobyl. Those accidents occurred when reactors overheated. In molten salt reactors, the uranium fuel is dissolved in molten salt coolant. If the temperature of the reactor becomes slightly higher than normal, the molten salt will expand, stopping the nuclear chain reaction. So molten salt reactors simply can’t overheat. Molten salt reactors will also fission the plutonium they produce (transforming it into lighter elements), which means that their waste will only be radioactive for a few hundred years. 

We need to get over our fear of nuclear power. We need to build nuclear power plants to replace fossil fuel power plants. If we don’t, it is just a matter of time before Bangladesh (and all other coastal regions) become permanently inundated by rising sea levels.

Kazi Zahin Hasan is a businessman living in Dhaka.