Renewable Energy and the Future of Nuclear Power

Engineer in solar plant courtesy of worradmu at

I’m teaching the “Introduction to International Studies” again this quarter. Because my university has an exchange program with Waseda University in Japan, the class is a mix of mostly American and Japanese students, which I really enjoy. Today I began my discussion of history by asking students to think about the three historical events or processes that had the largest impact on their families and themselves. For my Japanese students, there were two key events: World War Two and the April 2011 Fukushima earthquake. I think that disaster may be a defining event for their generation.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Germany made a decision to transition entirely away from nuclear. There were widespread warnings that this was impossible, but in fact the transition is happening very successfully. Of course, this was possible because a system of feed-in subsidies for solar, which has led Germany to have more installed capacity than any other country on the planet (although it looks like China may soon take that title). I’ll be giving a lecture at the University of Trier this summer, and when I am there I always enjoy seeing the large windmills turning on the hillsides near the Mosel River Valley. So Germany has developed not only solar, but also wind power in an impressive manner.

One of my favorite websites is Clean Technica, because it tends to provide positive information about renewable energy. One recent article caught my eye, which made the point that although Germany may have more installed solar power than any other country, Australia may soon be introducing solar energy at a lower cost point. Indeed, renewable energy in Australia is already cheaper than either new coal or gas-fired plants. For this same reason, Germany may get half of its electricity from renewable energy in 2025.

Other nations -such as Britain- are also making a surprisingly rapid transition to a post-carbon future. In the British case, this may be accompanied by some difficult times ahead, as old coal power plants go off-line before renewable sources can be brought into production. But it is telling that -as the video shows- the only bidder on a new powerplant is a nuclear energy company owned by the French government. And building the plant essentially entails massive government subsidies to guarantee electricity rates for forty years. But what happens if electricity rates fall dramatically, and the British ratepower has to overpay this French company for 40 years? Nuclear energy entails  substantial risks, beyond nuclear waste and the risk of nuclear disaster. But there are alternatives. The Scottish government now says that 100% of electricity generated in Scotland in 2020 will come from renewable sources. That’s a remarkable goal to achieve in seven years. The fact that it is even plausible is a sign of how far some societies are coming in addressing their energy challenges. It’s also clear that geography is not destiny. It might not be surprising that Australia can reach grid parity, so that solar is as cheap as coal. But if Scotland and Germany are able make renewable energy the dominant part of their energy mix, it’s hard not to believe that this is possible anywhere.

One of the challenges that I have in teaching the class is to deal with major global challenges, without letting the class become too depressing. But in the case of energy, I believe that there is a lot of reason for optimism. Already its not very attractive economically to build a new coal power plant in the United States, because of the glut of natural gas. That’s the reason that the coal industry is increasingly focusing on exports. But if things look bad for coal, they look worse for nuclear energy, which never did solve the waste disposal problem, and remains only viable if the government subsidizes it through such means as disaster insurance. I think that we may reach a post-carbon future in some developed countries far quicker than anyone predicted. Interestingly, it appears that the change may soon be driven less by economics than by costs. So we may see a day when the fear of another Chernobyl or Fukushima is only a memory.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University



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