Benn Steil


A graphical take on geoeconomic issues, with links to the news and expert commentary.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Can Renewables Replace Nuclear Energy?

March 24, 2011

Japan’s nuclear industry is in full-blown crisis, raising global concern as to the safety and viability of nuclear energy. In response, China has frozen its nuclear reactor development program, while Germany has shut down seven reactors and initiated a three-month moratorium on a policy program meant to extend the lifespan of existing facilities. Chancellor Merkel said the policy shift was needed to allow the country “to reach the age of renewable energy as quickly as possible.” But the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton appeared to pour cold water on such a vision: “Wishful thinking about magic-bullet alternatives is not going to heat and cool our homes, get us where we need to go, and power the businesses that provide jobs.’’ Upton is almost certainly right. If the world were to freeze nuclear energy use at current levels, renewable energy output would have to double by 2035 to fill the energy-requirement gap on its own. If it were to abandon nuclear energy entirely, renewable output would have to triple by 2035 to fill the gap. To realize such historically unprecedented renewable growth rates, a wide range of technologies would have to be exploited, many of which will be very expensive for the foreseeable future. Onshore wind energy, which could fill a portion of the gap, is among the cheapest at about $83 per megawatt hour, compared with $70 for coal and only $60 for natural gas. Yet solar energy is 3-4 times more expensive, at $224. Therefore, it is not surprising that governments had to subsidize renewables to the tune of $57 billion in 2009, according to the International Energy Agency. As of November of last year, the IEA expected this to quadruple to $205 billion by 2035. But with rich-country governments in fiscal retrenchment such expenditure looks implausible. The British government recently announced that it actually plans to cut solar subsidies. In short, a move away from nuclear energy is unlikely to fuel the green revolution that many hope for.

Note: The original text misattributed Upton’s quote to Steven Chu. We apologize for this error.

Bloomberg: Japan Committed to Atomic Power as Renewable Energy Insufficient
Levi: The Devil We Know
Spiegel: With Moratorium, Merkel ‘Driving into a Dead End at Full Speed’
CSM: China, Russia stand by nuclear power despite Europe’s backtracking

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Richard L. Huber

    Why do you (and almost all other commentators on the subject of renewable energy) ignore EfW or the conversion of solid municipal waste into energy? EfW generates 17% of all alternative energy produced in the US (and far more in most European countries) equal to all the energy generated by wind & solar combined. One ton of municipal waste is the equivalent of one barrel or petroleum or one ton of coal. Why do we as a country still insist on burying most of it in the ground?
    See for more information on this subject.
    Richard L. Huber
    139 W. 78th St. NYC

  • Posted by Dr. J. Singmaster

    Renewables can replace N-energy if someone will wake up to many renewable options not even being recognized. The first is to make organic wastes into a resource by using pyrolysis on them. Some many benefits accrue as I have detailed in many blog comments that can be checked on by Googling my name. The biowastes are an already harvested biofuel crop having no costs for growing and no usurping of land and water from food crops.
    The second option is using the sun’s energy much more effectively mainly by getting catalysts to split water to get hydrogen. About a dozen catalysts have gotten reports on them in the last 3 years but Sec. of Energy, Dr. Chu seems badly misinformed to be supporting the CC&S Clean Coal farce and more N-power. So he tried to cut support for developing hydrogen soon after becoming Sec., but Congress rebuffed him. Hydrogen is the clean fuel and every effort should be made to get one or more of the catalysts working.
    A third option again with the sun would be to use solar concentrators to distill sea water to get drinking water. The concentrated salt solution left over could be used to disinfect sewage water if it goes directly to the oceans. Present processes for purifying seawater, none of which have been very successful, require much energy input while this process might be able to get the distilling steam generating energy.
    Dr. J. Singmaster, Environmental Chemist, Ret.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required