Switching from fossil fuels to 100% renewables: Is it possible?
The switch to renewable energy for electricity generation starts with energy efficiency and changing the way people value energy to change consumption; making renewables cost-effective through government incentives and carbon taxes; and addressing the problem of intermittency and storage. But how do we get there? Not everyone is willing to give up savings, comfort and old habits for something that is still viewed as a status market.
One fact that many RE advocates (myself included) hate to admit is that we need conventional energy for RE deployment. Specifically, natural gas and nuclear. Fast-ramping natural gas plants are useful in addressing intermittency and providing peak load generation that does not match with wind or solar generation, eg. afternoons or winters when wind is not blowing or sun is not shining. In addition, the carbon emissions for natural gas are two times lower than that of coal, which makes it a “lesser of the two evils.”
Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is a sensitive subject for people that lived through nuclear disasters “in their back yard” or anyone, for that matter, that worries about disaster risk and accumulation of nuclear waste. The latter can be addressed immediately with The Integral Fast Reactor technology. With this technology nuclear fuel can be reused to reduce nuclear waste and its half life and dramatically. US does not currently employ nuclear reprocessing; a conventional nuclear reactor utilizes only 1% of fissionable material, the rest is just waste. Considering it has to be stored for thousands of years, it begs the question whether all this waste is worth it. On the other hand, countries in Europe, Russia and Japan are successfully recycling their spent fuel leaving only 2–3% of nuclear waste. There is, of course, the human factor in nuclear plants that raises the concern for safety, but with concrete standards, scrutiny to the process, physical barriers and the use of mature technology, the risk of a nuclear accident is negligent. It makes sense to explore this option with a pragmatic and logical eye, to allow the birth of solutions to the challenges that deter RE deployment. If we can make nuclear energy a baseline generator, making up for the energy demand that RE cannot yet satisfy, we will be able to expedite the switch to renewables.
To solve the intermittency problem, RE and the conventional sources mentioned above need to work in concert in the early days of adoption. Supergrids, for example, can potentially solve the problem of RE intermittency but require mass deployment of expensive RE projects to become a successful solution. It creates a chicken or the egg problem. To break this cycle, we need to address intermittency and small market share of RE through the expansion of nuclear and natural gas, in addition to government incentives. This will allow generation to reach the point in the future when these sources alone will be able to satisfy the demand for energy, overpassing coal. Only then can we mass deploy renewables without worrying about reliability, reducing financial risk, thereby making renewables cost-effective.