Shifting to a renewable energy system: should we target nuclear before coal?

In an attempt to reach a wider audience, we will henceforth write some posts in English. This is our first try. Note that most links are to Swedish articles.

(Kära läsare: tala gärna om för oss om ni finner det svårt att följa resonemanget när inlägget inte är på svenska)


Nuclear energy is often debated in politics and media, in Sweden as well as internationally. I assume that no one has missed the speed-up of Germany's planned nuclear energy exit (all plants to close by 2022). Immediately after the announcement I was rather ambivalent. Naturally, it would stimulate production of renewable energy (which is good). On the other hand, as many people have pointed out by now, Germany could be forced to replace the low-carbon nuclear energy with more coal, Russian gas and/or French nuclear (which is not so good). I remember stating it was a shame that they didn't target fossil energy first.

But then researcher Fredrik Hedenus made a very good point in an interview with GP:

We have an emissions trading system in the EU. If Germany shuts down their nuclear power plants and replace the low-carbon energy with higher-carbon energy, emissions will have to decrease elsewhere. Therefore, as long as this system is in place, the climate effects will be rather neutral.

This made me quite embarrassed (why wasn't that obvious to me?)...

When I recovered from the embarrassment (which I did when I realized that several seemingly more competent people than I had raised the same concerns that I so hastily did), I started to think some more. In order to develop these thoughts further, I want to ask all pro-nuclear (or anti-nuclear for that matter) people to point out the errors in the following reasoning. It should be noted that this is purely speculative, so do not feel offended by the final "suggestion" in case you are in favor of nuclear energy. Instead, contribute to the discussion by writing a balanced comment. Emails are also welcomed.

That said, let's say that we are contemplating two very different alternatives:

Exit fossil energy: Then we can replace it with either nuclear energy or renewable energy.

Exit nuclear energy: Then we will have to replace it with renewable energy, since we have an emissions trading system in the EU (as previously discussed).

The immediate feeling is that the former alternative would be the fastest way to obtain a non-fossil energy system (something that I have claimed several times in this blog to be the preferred choice, by the way). This makes sense since the fossil energy is what we really want to get rid of. Right?

Let's say that we choose the former alternative. In this case, the demand for both nuclear and renewable energy would naturally increase. However, nuclear power would probably be the preferred alternative for many countries as it can provide a reliable base load without significant modifications of  the grid . This means that, even though the demands for renewable energy are likely to increase, the incentives to modify the grid (as necessary for renewable energy to provide a stable and reliable load) would be weak, since the base load is guaranteed anyway from nuclear energy. Renewable energy would thus remain a complementary energy source in the energy system.

Let's say that we choose the latter alternative instead. Then the demands for renewable energy would become very high, since it would be the only alternative to the energy that is being phased out from the system. This would naturally decrease production costs rapidly as well as increase the incentives to adapt the grid accordingly, in order to safeguard the stability of the base load. As the production costs would decrease faster than in the "exit fossil energy" alternative, renewable energy would become competitive faster and eventually be used not only for replacing nuclear energy but also fossil energy - it would simply be cost-effective to do so.

Therefore, I (most deliberately provocatively) suggest that the transition to a renewable energy system in the EU would be completed faster by targeting nuclear energy instead of fossil energy. Disagree? Explain why!

Publicerad den 5 juli, 2011 av Oskar Englund under kategori(er) Blogg, Energisystem, Kärnkraft, Mest lästa, samt under etikett(er), , , , .

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