Business & Economics

Electric Vehicle Mandates Need Nuclear Power to Work

If lowering emissions in the transportation sector is a serious goal, then nuclear plants should become an important source of electricity

Image Credit: Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images

Before the inauguration of President Biden, governments in 11 states—led inevitably by California—had declared their intentions to ban the purchase or registration of new gasoline-powered vehicles by as early as the mid-2030s. The United States’ state-centric approach mirrors national efforts by a growing number of countries to regulate gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles out of existence. These efforts are popularly conceived as a means to combat climate change. Biden wasted no time in signing an executive order committing the U.S. government to purchasing a zero-emissions vehicle fleet as part of a sweeping—some would say reckless—program to radically transform the fossil-fuel economy in short order.

Nearly every state already promotes the use of hybrid and electric vehicles through incentive programs. The new administration’s policies will only accelerate this trend. Governors and legislators will likely try to outdo each other in how quickly they commit to banning traditionally fueled cars and trucks. Of course, making a declaration is the easy part. If policymakers keep these promises and succeed in replacing fossil-fueled vehicles with electric cars, these new cars will have to be recharged from the electric grid.

While green energy purists may dream of electric cars powered solely by the wind and the sun, the variable nature of these intermittent energy sources introduces problems of when and where plug-in vehicles can be recharged. Generally, utilities and similar entities that are required to use renewable energy by government mandate would devise schemes to incentivize recharging electric vehicles during off hours. But sometimes, like when wind turbines freeze in Texas, you just can’t generate electricity at any hour.

Right now, recharging is something of a boutique problem for the relatively small segment of electric vehicle owners, many of whom have a second, gas-powered car to rely on. But the widespread use of electric vehicles will create a new surge in demand for electricity. And while wind and solar are desirable and have their place in the energy mix, any strategy to meet this new demand, while at the same time working toward a 100% “clean energy” future, cannot succeed without a dramatic expansion of our nuclear power capability.

Some proponents of electric vehicles already recognize the need for nuclear power. For example, the Democratic Party platform in 2020 included nuclear power in its stated “technology-neutral” approach to carbon-free power generation. Similarly, New Jersey’s energy plan through 2050, developed under its Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, prioritizes the adoption of electric vehicles and embraces nuclear power along with renewable sources—that is, wind and solar energy—as part of the strategy to power them. But even this plan, from a very blue state, acknowledges the reality that renewable energy cannot be implemented with equal success in every state.

Electricity Demand Is Set to Spike

In January 2020, Pew’s Stateline reported that the U.S. Department of Energy anticipated electricity consumption in the country to increase by 38% by 2050, primarily due to demands from electric vehicles. By comparison, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) reported that summer demand for electricity has remained relatively stable from 2005 through 2020. By any analysis, a significant increase in electric vehicles on America’s roads is going to require a vast increase in electricity generation.

A growing number of countries, including the U.S., have announced their intention in the coming decades to phase out the sale of internal combustion vehicles in favor of plug-in electrics and other clean-burning alternatives. Image Credit: the_burtons/Getty Images

Shifting the energy burden of powering a vehicle from fossil fuels to the electricity grid is beneficial from an emissions standpoint only if the sources used to generate the electricity are themselves low or near-zero emission. The EIA report cited above notes that the same period saw a dramatic drop in power generation from coal and a commensurate increase in the use of natural gas, along with minor rises in wind and solar power usage. According to the DOE, carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector had declined by 20.3% from 2005 through 2014, “largely as a result of two long-term trends: a slowing of electricity demand growth and a reduction in the carbon intensity of electric power generation.”

Electric vehicle mandates (often called “zero-emissions vehicle” mandates) will cause these trends to diverge, leading to an overall decrease in emissions across the transportation and power generation sectors. Electricity demand will increase, but presumably the carbon intensity of electric power generation will be shepherded on its downward journey.

Wind and Solar Are Not Sufficient

A November 2019 report sponsored by the DOE, “Summary Report on EVs at Scale and the U.S. Electric Power System,” concluded that based on previous performance, the U.S. energy sector should have no difficulty adding the generating capacity required by increasing demand from electric vehicles through 2050. The report, which is agnostic about the source of electricity, only distinguishing between dispatchable (traditional nonrenewable) and intermittent (renewable) sources, says the following:

The U.S. electric power system has added on average a dispatchable generating capacity of only 12 GW per year, with years that exceeded 25 GW when including intermittent sources. This dispatchable generating capacity is equivalent to the aggregate demand of nearly 6 million new light duty EVs per year. Accordingly, with adequate utility resources and preparedness to install new capacity, adequate energy generation and generation capacity are expected to be able to support a growing EV fleet as it evolves over time.

“Dispatchable” is a key word from this report. It means that generators will provide electricity at required levels on command at all times, barring problems with the generators themselves or the power lines. The rolling blackouts in Texas because wind turbines unexpectedly froze show that even reliable sources of renewable energy cannot be considered dispatchable. This is why they are classified as intermittent or variable.

Compared with the 6 million new light-duty electric vehicles mentioned in the DOE report, about 17 million new cars and light trucks—almost all powered by internal combustion engines—were sold in the U.S. in 2019. A widespread switch to electric vehicles clearly will require significantly more generating capacity. However, policymakers supporting the Biden administration’s agenda also want the electric grid to be carbon-free. This means that natural gas, which is the single biggest factor in the decline in U.S. carbon emissions in recent decades, is not good enough. Advocates want a 100% renewable energy grid, even if this is unobtainable.

Yet renewables are destined to have their role. While renewable energy still makes up a modest percentage of the U.S. generating mix, wind and solar represent the largest segments of new capacity. Indeed, according to the EIA, these sources will provide 70% of the nation’s 39.7 gigawatts of new utility-scale generating capacity scheduled to come online this year. Notable too is the 1.1 gigawatts of new capacity from the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, which, although representing only 3% of the total for 2021, is the single largest project in terms of output.

While the rise of economically competitive wind and solar power is important and encouraging, the variable nature of the sources is a well-documented barrier to universal usage. The EIA report notes that utility-scale battery storage is set to provide 33% of new U.S. capacity this year, quadrupling the nation’s battery total. The 409-megawatt battery at the Manatee Energy Storage Center in Florida reportedly will become the largest such solar energy storage system in the world. Battery storage is widely regarded as the key to significant penetration of renewable sources, but it remains expensive. American companies—led by Tesla with its electric vehicle, battery and solar photovoltaic businesses—are striving to increase battery production and bring down costs.

Even if the required economies are reached, battery storage combined with renewables will be practical only in regions where there is enough solar and wind energy to meet demand. There are large portions of the country where this will never be the case, particularly if electric vehicles become ubiquitous and demand increases nationwide. Renewable energy success stories, such as Hawaii, generally occur where solar or wind power is taking over from fossil fuel sources, particularly coal and oil, during a period of relatively stable demand for electricity. A situation where renewables must meet rapidly increasing demand is essentially untried.

Substitute Renewable with Clean

On Jan. 21, the nuclear power advocacy group Nuclear Matters hosted a webcast entitled “Progressive Energy Policy in the Biden Administration,” featuring experts who expressed their thoughts about their industry’s relevance under the new regime. The virtual panelists pointed out New Jersey Gov. Murphy’s embrace of nuclear energy when confronted with the electricity shortfall his state would experience—it gets nearly 40% of its electricity from nuclear power—if the nuclear plants were shut down.

The big question was how to build on nuclear power’s existing base. The two new reactors for the Vogtle plant (one of which, as mentioned above, is scheduled to go online this year) will end a decades-old drought in new nuclear capacity in the U.S. But it is merely a drop in the bucket of overall new capacity. Moreover, there are no other gigawatt-scale reactors under construction at present.

Late last year, U.S. regulators approved construction of the first-ever small commercial nuclear reactor, which will be built by NuScale Power in Idaho. Image Credit: NuScale Power.

However, late last year U.S. regulators approved the construction of the first small commercial 60-megawatt nuclear reactor, developed by NuScale Power of Portland, Oregon. The first of these modular reactors will be built at a federal government site in Idaho by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which says it wants 12 of these reactors by 2030. Such smaller-scale designs are expected to be easier to finance and find more community acceptance than traditional nuclear projects.

Ralph Izzo, chairman, president and CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group, said during the Nuclear Matters webcast that new technology was welcome but that changes in regulatory policies, financing options and state renewable portfolio mandates for utilities were required for nuclear power to grow into the future.

“I would look for clean energy standards that are not technology specific but are outcome specific,” Izzo said, adding that nuclear power should be in the same category with wind and solar. “What’s [the] final problem we’re trying to solve? A carbon-free kilowatt hour is a carbon-free kilowatt hour. To the extent that renewable portfolio standards can become clean energy standards—and hopefully at the national level—that would create the incentive for carbon-free energy.”

There’s the rub. Is the goal clean energy? Or is the goal pretending to achieve clean energy? Renewable sources such as wind and solar backed by batteries can replace a given number of polluting sources, such as coal and oil. But they cannot fully meet increased demand. If natural gas is not considered clean enough, then nuclear power is the only alternative.

Of course, “clean” is a relative term. While nuclear power is clean in terms of emissions, one significant drawback is the highly deadly radioactivity of its fuel, waste and adjacent processes. On the other hand, the United States has been handling and transporting nuclear fuel and waste successfully for decades, not just for its civilian power reactors but for the power plants of large classes of warships and submarines. U.S. expertise and infrastructure for handling nuclear power safely has proven itself over time.

Given the push for clean energy and the expected demand imposed by electric vehicle mandates, nuclear power developers may one day have access to the tools renewable energy developers now enjoy, such as the ability to enter into power purchase agreements with owners that guarantee energy pricing. A key reason for the success of the new Vogtle projects is that the electricity market is regulated, guaranteeing operational cost recovery. If carbon-free vehicle mandates are to be accompanied by carbon-free power mandates, then a nuclear power renaissance must be on the horizon.

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