The Role that Nuclear Plays: Michel Schellenberger Testimony to the U.S. Senate

Earlier this month, internationally renowned environmentalist, Michael Schellenberger, testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  His input was requested by the Senate as it enamines the reliability, resiliency, and affordability of electricity in the US against the backdrop of increasing extreme weather and also the changes in energy generation.

The interest from the Senate has intensified following the well publicised energy shortages experienced by a number of US states in February, most notably Texas. However, concerns have been growing for some time. As Schellenberger points out, the National Academies of Science and Engineering have published multiple reports since 2012 warning that US electrical grids are becoming "increasingly complex and vulnerable".

The reports outline several issues, however, foremost among them is the transition away from coal and nuclear in favour of renewables, backed up by just-in-time natural gas.

Before I share some of Mr. Schellenberger's key observations and suggestions to the Senate, let me make my own statement on this state of affairs for both the US and other countries pursuing a similar approach:  Removing coal from the energy mix is vital for decarbonizing the world's economies, however, trying to remove nuclear – one of the cleanest energy sources we have – will result in  widescale disruption , dramatically increased costs, and almost certain failure in reaching climate targets.

Let's get into some of the most interesting soundbites from the testimony:

  • Nuclear plants are among the most reliable components of America's power grids. Nuclear plants operate as a national fleet at 94 percent annual capacity factor, thanks to tightly choreographed refueling operations that barely interrupt eighteen-month continuous uptime at most facilities.
  • The impact of variable renewable energy sources on electricity prices can be seen in the more than two-dozen states that have had in place renewable energy mandates. "Cumulatively," wrote the authors of a University of Chicago report on the impact of variable renewables on electricity prices, "consumers in the twenty-nine states studied paid $125.2 billion more for electricity than they would have in the absence of the policy." The study authors concluded that higher variability was the main driver of higher costs.
  • With France and Germany, we can compare two major (sixth and fourth largest) economies, which are highly proximate geographically and at similarly high levels of economic development, on a decades-long time scale. France spends just over half as much per kilowatt-hour for electricity that produces one-tenth of the carbon emissions of German electricity. Electricity prices in Germany have risen 50 percent in the 15 years since 2007. In 2019, German electricity prices were 45 percent higher than the European average.
  • A study published in late 2019 found that Germany's nuclear phase-out is costing its citizens $12 billion per year.
  • The land requirements of industrial renewable energy projects are two orders of magnitude larger than those of nuclear and natural gas plants. Industrial solar and wind projects require between 300 and 400 times more land than nuclear plants. If the United States were to try to generate all of the energy it uses with renewables, 25 percent to 50 percent of its land would be required.
  • "One of the largest lithium battery storage centers in the world is Escondido, California. But it can only store enough power for about twenty-four thousand American homes for four hours."
  • "Without large-scale ways to back up solar energy, California has had to block electricity coming from solar farms when it's extremely sunny, and pay neighboring states to take it, in order to avoid adding too much energy on the grid during hours of peak solar production."
  • One study by a group of climate and energy scientists found that when taking into account continent-wide weather and seasonal variation, for the United States to be powered by solar and wind, while using batteries to ensure reliable power, the battery storage required would raise the cost to more than $23 trillion.
  • Germany will have spent $580 billion on renewables and related infrastructure by 2025, according to energy analysts at Bloomberg and Germany generated 37.5 percent of its electricity from wind and solar in 2020, as compared to the 70 percent France generates from nuclear. Had Germany invested the $580 billion it's spending on renewables and their grid upgrades into new nuclear power plants instead, it could be generating 100 percent of its electricity from zero-emission sources and have sufficient zero-carbon electricity to power all of its cars and light trucks (if electrified) by 2025, as well.

If you have the time, I fully recommend reading the entire testimony as it exposes the fallacy and the dangers of thinking that renewables can effectively replace nuclear - the world's only form of clean, baseload energy.

By Ross McElroy, CEO of Fission Uranium