Low Carbon Electricity

environment, energy

Now that the European Commission has presented its Green Deal, some observers, and countries like France, Hungary and Czech, note that nuclear energy is but a footnote in this new goal. In discourse with people I sometimes see that definitions are not clear, or not consistently used. So let’s define them once and for all, on this very authoritative and internationally established blog of mine.

Climate change is caused by various processes, one of them is the injection of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. To stop emitting this greenhouse gas would go a long way towards reducing global warming. To stop emitting carbon-dioxide, we must halt the use of combustion of materials containing that carbon, fossil fuels most of all, but also wood. Options include wind and solar power generation, and also nuclear reactors. Decarbonisation therefore is key to halting global warming, and climate change.

‘Green’ means ‘good for the environment’. Is wind energy better than nuclear power for the environment? Probably. Solar better than nuclear? Possibly. ( Personally I am not convinced, because I have been unable to find sources on pollution during production in life-cycle analyses. In all likelihood because China has that market cornered, and has lax or absent environmental laws, and generally does not like it when foreign observers snoop around looking for problems. ) But, I will agree that uranium mining (or any mining) should not be considered very green, and certainly is not renewable, whereas wind and sunlight are. So, while all are low-carbon, nuclear energy will eventually peter out (fission that is, but let’s leave fusion out as it simply is not a solution at this time). So, we could rank these low-carbon options in order of green-ness.

The confusion of ‘renewable’ with ‘green’ can be illustrated with another example. Short carbon cycle vs. long carbon cycle is an invention of the energy sector, allowing it to have coal plants count as green(ish) upon ingestion of wood chips. Global warming does not care where carbon-dioxide comes from, so when it comes to green versus renewable, wood chips (or biomatter) can count as renewable but not as green or low-carbon.

What is best? That depends on many factors, so a realistic decarbonisation program should include all options. Due to the absence of commercial and large scale energy storage, we cannot at this time shift to a fully renewable power production scenario. An interesting paper takes a numerical approach to establishing the right mix. That paper and future work may help depoliticize the nuclear discussion and allow us to simply compute what’s needed for a given region to become decarbonized.