According to new work in natural energy by Lei Duan and Ken Caldeira of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology.
Human activity releases carbon pollution into the atmosphere, affecting the global carbon cycle and causing warming and changing precipitation patterns. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to minimize catastrophic climate impacts, it is important that humanity strives to keep the average global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius per year. compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, the panel said carbon emissions from the entire energy system should reach zero by the middle of this century.
“Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are great for reducing carbon emissions,” Duan said. “However, wind and sun have a natural variation in their availability from day to day, as well as from geographic region to geographic region, which creates complications for total emission reductions.”
Today, the gaps in wind and solar energy can be filled by generating electricity from natural gas. However, in a zero-emission electricity system, another means is needed to provide electricity when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.
Previous studies have shown that the 80% reduction in carbon emissions can be achieved by strengthening wind and solar energy harvesting facilities. However, the supply-demand gaps created by this variability in natural resources would require significant infrastructure changes – massive expansions of energy storage and transmission capacity, as well as power generation infrastructure – to achieve a 100% reduction.
“To nail that last 10 or 20 percent of decarbonization, we need to have more tools in our toolbox, not just wind and solar,” Caldeira explained.
To assess the possibility that nuclear energy could meet this need, Duan and Caldeira, along with Robert Petroski of TerraPower LLC and Lowell Wood of Gates Ventures LLC, studied the wind and solar resources of 42 countries and used this information to assess the ability of nuclear power to provide low-cost power and replace natural gas as a backup power source. Their analysis focused on identifying countries that would benefit from exploring nuclear power as an option for their energy suite as soon as possible.
They found that in countries like the United States, which have geographical and climatic conditions conducive to the production of a large amount of wind energy, nuclear power would not be deployed until it was necessary to overcoming the remaining obstacles to decarbonization. But in countries with poorer wind resources, such as Brazil, the strategic use of nuclear energy could enable a faster transition away from carbon.
“Under strict greenhouse gas emission controls, reliable electricity generation provided by nuclear power has a lot of potential value in the electricity grid of most countries,” Duan concluded. “Places with low wind resources may benefit from nuclear earlier on the path to zero emissions, whereas places with very good wind resources would only need it to get rid of the last traces of carbon emissions.”
Caldeira added: “Our analysis looked at the cheapest way to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions assuming current prices. We found that at current prices, nuclear is the cheapest way to eliminate all carbon emissions from the power system almost everywhere. However, if energy storage technologies become very cheap, then wind and solar could potentially be the cheapest route to a zero-emission power system.”
This work is supported by a gift from Gates Ventures LLC to the Carnegie Institution for Science.
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Material provided by Carnegie Institution for the Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.