More than a century ago, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla quarreled over the world-changing inventions of direct electric current (DC) and alternating current (AC). From man-made electricity’s mid-1800s beginnings at the Pearl Street Station in New York—and the provision of electricity during the Great Depression by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), rural cooperatives, and individually owned utilities—modern power has revolutionized civilizations around the world.
By the 1950s, the United States succeeded in delivering electricity to an overwhelming majority of the population, from metropolitan population centers to rural farms, from individuals to families to businesses and schools, from coast to coast, regardless of geographic limitations.
Various electric energy sources generate electricity, which is delivered to consumers over electric distribution networks (called grids). Energy sources encompass renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro power, and others), nuclear power, and the fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, and oil). Each of them has its pros and cons.
Chemist Meredith Angwin, a respected author and specialist in grid oversight, suggested in a recent interview that nuclear energy generation is often overlooked in favor of renewables.
To better understand the case for nuclear energy generation, an understanding of the grid is needed, and Angwin brought forward the fragility of the grid. “The general rule was that you shouldn’t have any power plant on the grid that [delivered] more than 10% of the amount that is wanted,” she said. This is because when unexpected high electricity demands occur, or power plants shut down or are having problems, the needed extra electricity must be gathered from other nearby power plants to mitigate the unexpected peak demand or shortfall.
“As long as renewables are weather-dependent, we don’t control the weather, they can go off, [and] then we are stuck.”
There is a constant balance of input and output on the grid, with the input being the electricity generated and the output being that used by consumers (Figure 1).
The social, political, and environmental push for increased renewable energy sources to generate electricity is confronted with renewables’ current limitations. Renewable energy sources are weather-dependent. “As long as renewables are weather-dependent, we don’t control the weather, they can go off, [and] then we are stuck,” Angwin stated. “We don’t have 100% renewable energy at night,” and even if there is sunlight somewhere on the Earth at any given time, there is no infrastructure to transport it. “‘It’s always sunny somewhere’ is not viable,” she said.
The sensitivity of the grid was evident during the 2021 Valentine’s Day storm in Texas. “The requirements on the grid were higher than the availability of electricity on the grid,” said Angwin. Balancing the grid with its input and output demands has been key to providing electricity to the American public, regardless of the energy sources.
California’s Push for Renewable Energy
California’s push for renewable energy sources has prompted the creation of California Flex Alerts, where the state and local governments request citizens to turn off unnecessary energy-consuming equipment.
“If you have solar for 60% of the grid, you get duck curves,” said Angwin, referring to an industry description of how normal energy grid levels can dip to unstable levels before rising again, forming the outline of a duck.
“Duck curves result from an imbalance of the grid due to solar energy sources,” said Angwin. “The sun sets just at the time that many grids have their highest demand: the sunset hour. People are coming home, turning on lights and TV, and cooking dinner. Yet, many businesses are still operating. If plotted on a graph, it somewhat resembles the shape of a duck. … A whole area loses solar power all at once.”
“If you have enough solar on the grid to provide 100% of the grid at noon, what are you going to do at 4 p.m. in the afternoon?”
“If you have enough solar on the grid to provide 100% of the grid at noon, what are you going to do at 4 p.m. in the afternoon?” According to Angwin, 50% of solar could be provided at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, yet the remaining 50% that is still needed would have to be provided by other power plants.
Solar power as a renewable energy source has some predictability. No one has control over the weather, but there is a consistency in predictive accuracy with sunlight, given the geographical location on the Earth, give or take cloud cover.
In contrast, wind power has no consistent schedule, although there are locations that are consistently windier than others, providing limited predictive forecasting. For example, high wind conditions exist in offshore Ireland, corridors in California’s Altamont Pass, and states like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.
Nuclear Power Provides Electric Baseload
“The reason nuclear energy is so tremendously important is that we could have a very clean grid with nuclear [energy] providing baseload,” said Angwin. Baseloads are what is required every day of the year, 24 hours a day (Figure 2), and nuclear power plants can supply that baseload demand continuously without interruption.
Renewables cannot compete with nuclear energy in supplying baseload, as nuclear energy is controlled, unlike the weather.
“The reason nuclear energy is so tremendously important is that we could have a very clean grid with nuclear [energy] providing baseload.”
In a case such as New York City, baseloads often represent nearly half of the peak daily average consumption of electricity. In “the city that never sleeps,” nighttime events and activities would be difficult to support by solar energy. In the summertime, New York also experiences high air conditioning demand in the months from June through September.
New York City (NYCA Zone J) Electricity Demand
Nuclear is not perfect as it does produce nuclear waste, which must be disposed of with care due to its radioactive qualities. But it is environmentally preferable to its non-renewable counterparts in energy generation for the quantity of energy being produced. According to the US Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear energy protects air quality, has a small land footprint, and produces minimal waste.
For the quantity of energy being produced, renewables need more research to determine their true footprint in land use and in waste produced. Solar panels and wind turbines have a lifespan and are already turning up in landfills.
A newer generation of citizens, who seem to have little to no understanding of the grid, are fervently pushing for 100% renewable energy sources with no alternatives. Until renewables are independent of the weather and fully controllable, nuclear energy generation is the best available energy source to support our early 21st century lifestyles.
*Christopher Olson is an environmental engineer, working on his Ph.D. in numerical modeling.
Source: Interview with Meredith Angwin, a specialist in grid oversight and governance, instructor at Osher at Dartmouth (formerly ILEAD) and the owner of Carnot Communications.
See also "Promises and Pitfalls: The Future of Nuclear Energy, " The Earth & I, August/September 2022, and "UK and France Promise Nuclear Energy Resurgence," The Earth & I, December/January 2021-2022.