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Is Nuclear Energy Needed to Fight Climate Change? How Much Better Is Renewable Energy Than Coal?

Nuclear Power Plant, Cooling Tower

The reason that economic arguments often trump (pardon the pun) environmental debates when finding solutions to anthropogenic climate change, is because the senate is majority climate denying Republicans, who are more likely to respond to economic arguments. You could simply say,”renewable energy is far better than fossil fuels, because renewable energy is better for the environment”, but odds are Republican senators won’t care until you also point out that the LCOE of renewable energy is less than the price of fossil fuels. Republican senators will be needed to pass surroundings regulatory laws (now that Trump has destroyed the Clean Power Plan,bat pest control, new energy/ environmental regulations are needed), and hopefully a federal carbon pricing system.

Congressional republicans who continue to deny climate change do not necessarily need to want to protect the environment, or”give in” to the science supporting anthropogenic climate change. Republicans can vote for energy policies which represent a cost savings; which are inclined to be renewable energy investments, more than coal.

The price of producing energy using a renewable fuel vs. fossil fuels is dramatically lower when only the expense of generating electricity (marginal cost) is considered. When the expenses of the negative externalities associated with fossil fuel production are added in with the LCOE*, the comparative cost of renewable energy sources vs. fossil fuels is lower still. Hydroelectricity also represents a cost source of domestic energy for the United States. Producing energy from coal is no longer cheaper than gasoline or renewables, and is quite harmful to public health and the environment.

It represents the per-MWh cost (in discounted real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant within a supposed financial life and duty cycle. – quote from the EIA

  • Examples of levelized costs of electricity include: up-front funding costs/ prices of initial investment (which are much higher for renewable energy compared to fossil fuel energy), marginal cost of this fuel source (that is much greater for fossil fuels, and almost nothing at no cost, abundant sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind energy, and very low cost for hydro, geothermal, and biomass), cost of upkeep for the power plant/ energy farm/ dam, etc.. . , cost of transporting the fuel (again, zero for most renewable energy), costs associated with transmitting/ dispersing the energy, insurance prices for the energy generating facility, etc.. .

For the capital costs, nuclear is the form of electricity. The”good” thing about atomic energy production is that there are little to no negative externalities with regard to the actual energy production, i.e. little to no GHG emissions… and you just have to find Yucca mountains to bury the radioactive waste so individuals aren’t exposed to potentially cancer-causing radiation… oh, and we have to hope that there’s not a Fukushima-type catastrophe.

That said, 4th generation nuclear promises to be safe (if it ever gets built). New reactors can run on thorium and spent uranium. Generation nuclear has entirely safe, cost efficient designs. As you can see in this graph actually, the levelized cost of energy production from new, innovative nuclear reactors is looking viable. The only major problems with plants are: the high up-front capital cost of building new plants, and the possibility for another Fukushima and / or nuclear weapons proliferation, at least till gen atomic is ready to be produced and deployed. The US Energy Information Administration estimated that for nuclear plants in 2019 capital costs will constitute 75 percent of the LCOE.

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