If nuclear power is only a marginal energy source, then what about “renewables”?

Recently I came across this webpage of Platform Stop and Go (Dutch and French). It is a website written by those who also wrote the brochure about the German Energiewende: Greenpeace, Bond Beter Leefmilieu and WWF, but also the French speaking Federation Inter-environnement Wallonie. It is apparently an older site (probably dated from 2011 or so), dedicated to make the demand (to our previous government) to keep with the decision to close some nuclear plants in 2015. In the meanwhile the decision was made (by the current government) to prolong the life of those nuclear plants because security of supply was not guaranteed otherwise.

The page that I initially landed on was Closure of nuclear plants and climate goals go hand in hand (Dutch) in which several reasons were given to show that the closure of nuclear plants doesn’t interfere with “climate goals”. They start with this bang (translated from Dutch):

Contrary to what proponents of nuclear power would have us believe, nuclear energy worldwide is a marginal energy source. Nuclear energy produces only 5% of global primary energy consumption. The total number of plants would have to rise incredibly spectacular, before nuclear power would make a real difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To decrease global emissions by 6% by 2050, the current number of 436 commercial nuclear reactors should be quadrupled. This is much too late and too little.

So the claim is that nuclear energy produces only 5% of the global primary energy and therefor doesn’t make a difference and that it needs to grow incredibly before it could reduce emissions. It is certainly true that nuclear energy is only 5% of the primary energy consumption. This because nuclear energy is almost only used for electricity production and not in the transport sector, industry, agriculture or households. But the same problem will be true for the two darlings proposed by those groups as the solution for lowering emissions: wind and solar. These are also largely used for electricity production and this means that when looking at the share of the primary energy consumption, it will be rather small. The problem of that reasoning is that it cuts both sides. So my question was: how do those two saviors are doing compared to nuclear energy that is only 5% of primary energy consumption?

According to the IEA outlook 2015 the share of nuclear energy in the global primary energy sources is indeed almost 5% (4.8%).

world primary power 2013 IEA

It is clear that the names of wind and solar are absent in that graph. It is in the “Others” category of 1.2% (which includes not only solar and wind, but also geothermal, heat). I couldn’t find any breakdown of that “Other” category, but I did find the data from another report made in 2015, this time with 2012 data, also going back to IEA data and this time broken down in its different components. The numbers are obviously rather similar, there is only a difference of one year:

world primary energy 2012

But what about the other “renewable” energy sources like biomass, biofuels, hydro and geothermal? Greenpeace and the like are not exactly keen on biomass, biofuels and hydro. Rightfully so. I also would not categorize biomass or biofuels as “renewable”. In general it are only wind and solar (and to a lesser extent geothermal) that are liked by them and proposed as the solution for emission reduction. However, when it comes to counting the share of “renewable” energy sources in our energy use, biomass, biofuels and hydro are happily included as “renewable” sources…

Wind and solar are 0.5% of the primary energy in 2012… That is awfully little for the energy sources that are considered destined to replace nuclear energy and fossil-fuels. Together with geothermal that is a whopping 1% that can get a stamp of approval by those organizations. But then I found this:

IEA 2015 World - New Policies Scenario

It confirms the 1.2% of the “Other” category in 2013, but apparently IEA thinks that the entire “Other” category increases from 1.2 in 2013 to only 5.2% in … 2040.

So by their own reasoning, if nuclear energy is only a marginal player with a current share of 4.8%, then what are those renewables with only 1.2% now and reaching 4.8% after 2035? Could I also say that the total number of windmills, solar panels and geothermal installation would have to rise even more incredibly spectacular before renewable power sources would make a real difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions? If quadrupling nuclear power plants from now is too late and too little, what then about those renewables that will have to do the same, but then starting only after 2035?


7 thoughts on “If nuclear power is only a marginal energy source, then what about “renewables”?

  1. manicbeancounter

    A similar forecast of the growth in renewables to 2040 (spectacular in percentage increase, but still a small part of global energy production in 2040 was provided on last week by the US Energy Information Administration in their INTERNATIONAL ENERGY OUTLOOK 2016
    You can get figures from Chapter 5 Electricity.
    Figure 5-4. World net electricity generation from renewable power by fuel, 2012-40 (trillion kilowatthours)

    Non-Hydro (Geothermal+Wind+solar+other) are forecast to grow by 367%
    Hydro by 53%

  2. manicbeancounter

    From http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/
    I find the most interesting part is Chapter 9. Energy-related CO2 emissions. Interesting items that corroborates what I have been blogging on over the last couple of years. In particular fig 9.4 compares the CO2 emissions between OECD and non-OECD countries. In 1990 the OECD had over half of global emissions. In 2040 it is forecast to be less than a third. That is enormously important it the aim is to reduce global emissions. But it is totally overlooked.
    Another point is that to get to stop the 2C of warming, global emissions need to be reducing rapidly after 2030. But both the IEA and the US EIA forecast emissions will still be rising in 2040.

      1. manicbeancounter

        I have posted on the US EIA report.
        The 2C emissions target, even with vast investments in renewables and nuclear power, is only achievable if many of the non-OECD countries cap their emissions soon and then reduce them rapidly. That would have large consequences to the economic growth rates of some of the poorer but growing economies.

  3. poitsplace

    The much more amusing problem is that if you look up the amount of materials, maintenance and labor necessary to erect a wind turbine or a solar plant, it’s about 5X-10X that of nuclear.

    So if replacing our entire energy infrastructure with nuclear would be virtually impossible…then clearly doing 5x-10x as much work to build wind/solar plants is just never going to happen. Just for electrical production alone it would take a couple years worth of the sum total of all concrete production. That’s why the figure was so devastating to me. We’re just not going to be able to divert 10-20 years worth of concrete production into a “solution” that will specifically have the side effect of dramatically increasing the cost of concrete production/distribution.

    It’s a failure machine…almost like it’s a system that was built for the sole purpose of breaking its self.


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