Global Hydro and Nuclear Power in Perspective

At the recent ASPO conference in Washington, DC I found myself in a lunchtime conversation discussing the contributions Nuclear and Hydro were making to world energy supply. It’s worth noting that Hydropower did experience an uptick in global use in the past five years. Nuclear meanwhile, which has seen a slowing rate of consumption since the 1980’s, leveled off and fell during the same period. While these two energy sources are worth discussing, they pale in comparison to oil and coal use globally, as the second chart shows.

In a post earlier this year, I showed similar graphics as below for global energy use by source for two distinct years: 1998, and 2008. With updated data, it’s worth juxtaposing the latest information (for 2009) with the close-up of  Hydro and Nuclear to give a sense of proportion.

The prospects for any future growth from nuclear power are now very dim, at least, if one was hoping to extract a meaningful contribution from that energy source. The reasons are myriad, but, in the developed world because of societal concerns and the pricing of risk it’s not even possible for the nuclear industry to function without government support–from financing to insurance. Meanwhile wind power, with its relatively fast construction times and consequent return on investment at moderately attractive levels, is now more competitive by comparison. Yes, wind is a different kind (and different quality) of energy. But we are already witnessing wind power construction globally pulling way, way ahead of the nuclear industry.

Unfortunately, the entire discussion of Wind, Solar, and Nuclear power is marginal when considering how the world powers itself, in the main. The title of my ASPO conference talk, Return to Coal, addressed the coming crossover point when coal once again becomes the primary energy source of the world. When we consider these energy sources, and their actual use in perspective, we can see that the politics of Climate Change legislation for example is actually just a parlour game played in the developed world: and one that offers no practical solutions. Most proposals have been very light and mostly symbolic, regardless, and even these failed to pass as most leaders recognize them as lose-lose propositions for their political careers. Meanwhile, it’s the five billion people in the developing world, industrializing, who are now in the drivers seat of the world economy, and world energy usage. They have adopted coal as their primary energy source while the OECD countries, overly indebted and losing power on the world stage, delude themselves into thinking they have some say in the matter. (We) don’t.


  • Eric714

    I think you are probably right, but for the wrong reasons.

    Domestically, the government provides neither the financing nor insurance for nuclear power.

    It’s also unreasonable to compare nuclear and oil. That’s like comparing running shoes to tires. Both get you from A to B, but they are very different. Nuclear is only used for electricity and makes up about 20% generation in the US. Only 2% of our electricity is generated by oil. And those plants that burn oil for electricity are primarily used for peaking or backup. That portion of the market could never be replaced by nuclear power. The only connection to nuclear replacing oil is for district heating (which is not very likely) or to replace fuel for cars – Plug-in Electric Hybrid Vehicles.

    Coal is the dominant source of electric in the US. Over 50% comes from coal.

    The plateau you see in nuclear is due to the fact that there been tremendous increases in capacity factor (basically the percentage of the time that the plant runs at full power) that has occurred over the past decade. This was getting more juice from the existing plants. The plant are now running at near maximum capacity. With out “uprates” there’s no way to increase the output.

    Hydro electric is limited by the number of places that it can be installed. In the US, there just are not that many places that you can install another hydro plant. We are near maximum capacity. Also, while hydro is more predictable than solar and wind, it does require water. Droughts are always a concern with hydro.

    And what about Natural Gas? Where’s that fit in?

    What is holding back nuclear, at least domestically, is:
    1) Economy – electricity usage trends with GDP. The global recession has set back the need for new baseload generation.
    2) Low Natural Gas Prices – A natural gas plant can be build faster, cheaper, and with less risk than any other form of generation (i.e., coal or nuclear.)
    3) Federal Loan Guarantees – There’s a new licensing process for new nuclear plants. The Federal Government has not committed to awarding those. However, those are not essential several companies are seeking other financing.

    In the US there are three nuclear sites under construction. One unit at TVA’s Watts Bar 2. Southern has two units at Voglte in Georgia. SCANA has two units at Summer is SC. Expect to significant progress at STPNOC’s South Texas Project and Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs very soon.

    When you consider Globally, the situation is different. Governments do play a much bigger role. However, in places like China where there are 24 units under development. Four units (Sanmen and Haiyang) are the news “American” based technology and are designed by Westinghouse. There is other development in the Middle East (UAE awarded plants to Korea’s KHNP) and most recently in Europe. The UK has committed to replace they Magnox technology and they are likely to build 2 – 4 unites very soon. Poland and the Czech Republic have also show serious steps toward new nuclear.

    With respect to “societal” concerns. That’s old data. Most recent surveys show that nuclear power is supported by the majority of people.

    Climate legislation would further development of nuclear. But the biggest issue is the economy. The truth is that we don’t need new power plants. Not nuclear. Not gas. Not coal.

    When the need for baseload generation returns, the market for nuclear will be there. Gas and coal will also be part of the mix, too. But it’s the economy that’s keeping that from happening.

  • Anonymous

    Looks like its back to Hemp

  • Gregor, would you be willing to share your ASPO presentation? The growth in coal consumption of the last decade has been almost entirely driven by China. I’m curious what you have to say about the sustainability of China’s growth, and its policy initiative to reduce pollution, for example by ramping up natural gas in partial replacement of coal.

    By the way, I’ve graphed changes in the energy mix over the last ten years here:

    Jim Fickett

  • But why invest in nuclear when wind is cheaper. They power quality is lower but then again there are enough ways to make wind a steady supply which is less of an environmental burden than nuclear. No one wants the waste products of nuclear in this country. The sites are a national security issue and expensive.

    Name a terrorist group that wants to gain access to a wind farm. LOL
    Offer folks a choice of either a wind farm or a nuclear plant in their neighborhood.
    And wind is cheaper.

    I dont buy your counterargument. But I enjoyed reading it 😉

  • The assumption underpinning this, is that society will be able to function as it does now into the future – thinking 10, 20 and 30 years hence – nuclear power infrastructure is a by-product of our specialised economy that has been developed on the back of the cheap BTU of oil.Take away that cheap BTU of oil and where does the entire nuclear industry stand then?