Navigating the Zero-Carbon Crosswinds

In another impressive and depressing feat for this plagued year, the most recent assessment of the state of the global climate notes that in 2019 the average carbon dioxide concentration at the earth’s surface was the highest recorded by modern instruments. It exceeded levels found in ice cores dating back 800,000 years. This further intensifies the case for zero-carbon energy of all kinds, not only renewables.

The impacts of this carbon concentration are on display in California where just days ago the highest temperature ever recorded on earth was reached in Death Valley. At the same time, wildfires are once again raging across the state, and the world’s 8th largest economy is experiencing rolling electricity blackouts as a result of a heat wave and inadequate power supplies.

Wind and solar farms now provide more than one-third of California’s energy supply while battery storage for that power has lagged and the state has decreased its reliance on natural gas, large-scale nuclear power, and coal.

The reliance on renewable energy makes California a poster child for the energy transition that is necessary to achieve net zero-carbon emissions by 2050. But it also makes it the “the canary in the coalmine” according to the head of the Electric Power Supply Association.

The canary has stayed alive until now because California can still ramp-up its natural gas output and it imports power from other Western states. But in recent days the gas surge has fallen flat, and the heatwave drove up neighboring state electricity demand, leaving less for the Golden State.

However, a small part of the California electric grid is a participant in the Utah Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) project to receive the electricity scheduled to be produced by the country’s first small modular nuclear reactors. These units are being produced by NuScale Power and sited at Idaho National Laboratory.

If successful, this new power generation could open the pathway to the deployment of small reactors that can displace fossil fuels, particularly in smaller and distributed electric grids. But, the usual nuclear cost and schedule problems are already surfacing for the UAMPS project.

The question is whether the U.S. government will allow these difficulties to fester and fatally weigh down this initiative, and those lined up behind it, or whether it will prove it can meet the high-hurdle technical challenges of this century the way it did in the last one.

The stakes of failure are high, particularly for global security. Russia has already cornered the international large-reactor market. China is making inroads in that area. And both are eyeing the export market for their next generation of small nuclear power technologies.

Developing economy nations that face major population and electricity demand growth are a prime target for small nuclear reactor deployment. But most of them are newcomers to nuclear power and will require significant support to effectively integrate this technology into their energy systems. The U.S. and its allies are best positioned to provide this assistance because they prize strong safety, security, and nonproliferation standards.

But to uphold those norms, it is necessary to have a proven technology that can compete with Russian and Chinese reactors. Holding back American nuclear commerce can exacerbate proliferation and nuclear security concerns if the market is then dominated by its undemocratic geopolitical rivals.

The recent exposure of China’s collaboration with Saudi Arabia on uranium mining is clear evidence of the current and likely future impacts of the continued weakness of America’s nuclear export capacity. Saudi Arabia is actively pursuing both large scale and small modular reactors raising concerns from American lawmakers about the potential for weapons proliferation.  But those same concerns are slowing U.S. nuclear cooperation with the kingdom.  The congress will need to decide whether China or the U.S. is better positioned to restrain nascent Saudi nuclear weapon ambitions and over which nation’s policy it can exert the most influence.

As the climate continues to warm and global electricity demand increases, it will become increasingly necessary to navigate the strong crosswinds emerging in the zero-carbon energy space. The global population will grow, energy demand in developing economies will increase, and the need for net zero-carbon by mid-century is well established. Cherry-picking preferred technologies is unsustainable. No zero-carbon contribution can be left off the table. This will inevitably become ground truth because this reality is already on graphic display in California.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security