Alberta is not currently looking to nuclear power to help it get off its coal dependency. But if it did, according to new research, the controversial energy source would allow the province to shift to low-carbon electricity with reliably fewer emissions, and at lower cost than the province’s current plan that emphasises wind backed up with natural gas.
For each energy option (coal, natural gas, nuclear, geothermal, hydro, solar, wind, biofuel), there is a range of emissions possibilities, with some technologies experiencing greater emissions uncertainty than others.
This uncertainty is usually not taken into account by long-range energy systems planning. This means that there is a risk of emissions overshoot that until now has not commonly been accounted for.
So researchers with the PICS 2060 Project on energy futures tweaked a commonly used energy systems model with a mathematical technique commonly used in financial portfolio analysis to take risk into account. They wanted to develop a tool that could be used by any fossil-fuel-dominant electricity system—such as India, China, and many US states—to examine what emissions are likely to be once this uncertainty is incorporated, and also what the risk is that a system would have higher emissions than expected.
Applying their new model to Alberta with its climate plan over the period 2010-2060 as a case study, they ran two analyses: one with nuclear as an option and one without.
What they found was as the province’s carbon tax ratchets upward, by 2050, if nuclear is unavailable, natural gas and wind dominate generation in the system, with tiny amounts of solar, geothermal, hydro and biofuels. If nuclear is available as an option, by mid-century, wind and nuclear dominate the system. The nuclear scenario resulted in 20 percent fewer emissions, a 35 percent reduction in risk of not meeting emissions targets, and at a 1.5 percent lower cost, and with significantly less need for capacity build-out.
Nuclear proved to be the option with fewer emissions and less risk of emissions overshoot because it is able to provide reliable energy and ramp up and down quickly to fill in the gaps when the wind is not blowing. Furthermore, while nuclear has considerable up-front capital costs, because running a plant is cheap, over time, it realises cost savings for the system. Some of the risk of emissions overshoot in a non-nuclear scenario (where gas fills in the gaps) might be able to be hedged with earlier adoption of wind and solar, and not just earlier but also more substantial build-out of the latter, but policies to encourage this would have to be implemented almost immediately.
The reports noted however that adopting nuclear would require significant shift in social acceptance and political will. A 2011 survey that found that 19 percent of Albertans supported development of the sector, 45 percent thought it could be considered on a case-by-case basis and 27 percent opposed nuclear altogether.
The research follows related findings by the 2060 group last year that showed that due to the variability of wind, without the use of nuclear or imported hydroelectricity, almost as much new natural gas capacity would have to be built out in Alberta as wind capacity. A paper from a trio of University of Victoria economists published in November likewise found that a combination of wind and natural gas could reduce Alberta electricity system emissions by 30 percent, but nuclear would allow reductions of upwards of 85 percent.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.