The Missed Opportunity of the Clean Energy Ministerial

By Matt Goldberg and Josh Freed

Nuclear Who?

On May 31st, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and dozens of his counterparts from around the world will sit down at the 7th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) in San Francisco to shape the future of clean energy. Together, the nations represented are responsible for 90 percent of global investment in clean energy and roughly three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. There will be site visits to clean energy facilities, roundtable discussions between high level decision-makers, and even a showcase to display the breakthrough technologies and startups that will drive change in the clean energy sector. However, there’s a crucial technology missing from this convention of energy luminaries — nuclear power.

The omission of nuclear from CEM7 is glaring. It’s like having a global conference on grains and excluding rice.

Not only is nuclear power one of the most prevalent sources of zero-carbon electricity, representing an estimated 1/3 of global clean energy generation, it is also seeing tremendous growth with 64 nuclear facilities under construction around the world. Just last year, ten reactors — eight in China, one in South Korea, and an experimental fast reactor in Russia — connected to the grid with 9.4 gigawatts total capacity, the most since 1990. According to a new report from the Breakthrough Institute, these reactors over the course of their lives will generate as much low-carbon electricity as all the wind turbines added in 2015, and 35% more than the solar panels added that year. Nuclear’s contribution should increase even more in 2016, with at least eleven more reactors expected to come online in China, South Korea, Russia, India and the United States.

There is also a whole new wave of advanced nuclear concepts currently in development that provide even more flexibility and benefits than existing technologies. This emergent coalition of innovators, financiers, and nuclear experts has plenty of exciting developments to show the world. In fact, there will be one company, NuScale, at the event to showcase its small modular reactor technology. While it’s good that nuclear will have some presence at the CEM, it’s just crumbs next to cake. For example, there isn’t a single initiative at CEM7 that will assess the substantial progress made in the nuclear space. Meanwhile, technologies like wind, solar, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles will each get their own initiative.

The potential of nuclear ought to be highlighted with the same enthusiasm as other clean energy technologies. Instead, this potential is getting buried.

An Inclusive Climate Approach

The problem is that CEM7 defines clean energy much too narrowly, focusing primarily on renewables like wind and solar. These forms of energy do need to be incentivized as much as possible and rightfully garner serious attention at the Ministerial. Still, the near absence of nuclear at CEM7 misses a huge opportunity to build on the Paris Climate Agreement’s technology neutral approach to addressing climate change.

To be clear, we aren’t seeking equal standing with renewables out of some sense of fairness toward nuclear. We lost the luxury of such philosophical arguments about 0.5 degrees ago.

Instead, global leaders should promote nuclear — loudly and without the slightest bit of shame — because it is absolutely vital if we are to reach our emissions goals.

As Third Way has explained, variable renewables like wind and solar will only get us part of the way. Without a large expansion of zero- and low-carbon “baseload” sources like nuclear, we will be unable to finish the job.

Underplaying the role of nuclear because it doesn’t fit with the predominant “green” narrative has significant implications for how quickly we can replace fossil fuels with zero-emission energy. Simply put, technology preferences shouldn’t drive policy. Instead, future events that bring together energy and climate leaders should include nuclear, along with other essential clean energy technologies, like wind, solar, hydro, and carbon capture and storage. If global energy policy isn’t focused on developing and deploying all of these technologies, we will underutilize the tools at our disposal and reduce our chances of winning the fight against climate change. Nobody wants that, least of all the leaders at CEM7.

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