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12 December 2019

MIT “doth protest too much” – pushes ignorant nuclear agenda

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a report this week highlighting nuclear as an essential partner to renewables – an argument similar to that we’re always hearing from the gas industry. The report bases the entirety of this argument on the intermittency issues surrounding renewables, but without a single mention of battery or hydrogen storage, its hard not to question the institute’s agenda to promote a vested interest in nuclear.

The report, entitled “Deep Decarbonization of the US Electricity Sector: Is there a role for Nuclear Power?” was issued as part of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. The findings of the paper indicated that once solar and wind power rise to a 40-45% share of electricity production, the high costs of curtailment, gravity-based storage and back-up capacity means that nuclear power is required – and required now.

The crux of the paper that “Wind and solar continue to play a substantial role in the power sector, but only so far as their hourly availability matches well with demand” is hardly groundbreaking. Renewables sceptics have always used “the wind doesn’t always blow” or “the sun doesn’t always shine” arguments. Using this logic, the paper pushes nuclear as a key method of clean and secure power generation – Full project costs should be known, and therefore there shouldn’t be any sudden surprise need for storage.

While the paper involves a wealth of complex modelling, its fundamental flaw is that it seems to be stuck in the past – or that any future it presents is weirdly distorted. You wouldn’t need to ask many people in the energy industry about the future of renewables before someone brought up battery storage or hydrogen. But this MIT report has absolutely no mention of either technology.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance highlighted in March this year that battery projects now sit at a cost of around $0.187 per kWh, falling 35% since the previous year, which is projected to continue into the 2020s. The storage market is set to surge by 737% by 2024, according to Wood Mackenzie, largely driven by utility procurement and residential storage for resiliency during extreme events. This can also be seen in the increased uptake of solar-plus-storage projects, which we predicted would account for 50% of all solar projects by 2030 in our storage report earlier this year.

Even if MIT is trying to use the smaller scale and release time of batteries as an excuse to dismiss the technology, the same logic cannot be applied to hydrogen or ammonia, which have much more long-term storage potential, but again – are not included in the report.

Publications like this, which cast doubt over the potential of renewables, are detrimental to the uptake of renewables, promoting a safe environment for companies with an interest in oil and gas or nuclear to continue with business-as-usual. This is especially prevalent when articles are published from sources as highly regarded as MIT, which surely should have a duty to publish articles with a full picture of the energy sector and climate change.

A worrying possibility here is that academics are lobbying based on their research pedigree. MIT is one of many institutions with an established nuclear science department and even has its own small-scale reactor. We would speculate that the findings of this report are less of an attempt to provide an accurate outlook of America’s future energy mix, but more to promote the relevance of their own research in a struggling industry; after all, these academics are heavily dependent on funding and sponsorship from energy companies who may be turning their heads away from nuclear towards renewables.

The paper also discusses how lowering the cost from $0.076 per kWh to $0.050 per kWh would create a “substantial role for nuclear and reduce the needed carbon price by 2/3.” This 34% decrease in costs for nuclear would be unprecedented for such a technology that’s been maturing for 80 years.

It’s impossible to imagine this happening in conventional large-scale nuclear. If you look at projects being developed by EDF, concerns around safety are leading to massive delays and huge additional costs. The Flamanville project for example has been delayed by 10 years, running at €1.5 billion over budget. The global consensus of nuclear is generally seeing a phase out of these larger projects, with concern around how to store radioactive waste – a problem that is not inherent in renewables. Austria is even in the process of suing the European Commission as a result of the Hinkley project, UK, calling it a “technology of the past” which “should not be kept artificially kept alive with government subsidies.”

This cost reduction and timescale therefore suggests that MIT expects some serious innovation. With the timescales surrounding cold fusion as unpromising as ever, the only form we expect that this could take is in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

SMRs use fairly conventional nuclear techniques on a reduced scale. Those being developed by Rolls-Royce for instance, use a triple-loop pressurized water reactor (PWR) to produce between 400 MW and 600 MW of electricity. At a reduced size, Rolls-Royce claims that a standardized modular design can allow a 500-day construction phase, reducing project lead times and Capex costs while simultaneously alleviating uncertainties around safety.

It is this timescale of production, and the certainty it provides, that is advantageous over large-scale nuclear projects. This will implicitly drive down costs, with some estimating an LCOE of around $0.08 per kWh in the medium-term future. This is still not as low as MIT would like, and the $0.05 target will not be reached for a long time, if ever.

While this may prove more expensive than renewables in the long run, the baseload power of a single plant provides a constant energy stream of 150 modern wind turbines. The ability to build these at speed to use as a ‘peaker’ style generator would be a far more attractive alternative than investing in large-scale nuclear or gas facilities and would be far more easily integrated into a smart or decentralized grid network. However, speaking to Rolls-Royce, which is leading the UK’s SMR efforts, even optimistic predictions would not see these enter the market until the 2030s, before even considering the opposition that will inevitably arise due to a dramatic security change in that many more sites would have to become protected using SMRs. In this timeframe, it is impossible to ignore storage and its ability to expand viable renewable capacity.

This is not to say that SMRs have no place in a long-term energy electricity grid, and interest has been shown by Xcel Energy in the US as well as by the British Government, who have granted £18 million to a British consortium led by Rolls Royce for the R&D. But these are early stages and viewing these as an immediate alternative for storage in rapid decarbonization is quite simply not realistic. Which quite simply leaves a massive hole in MIT’s credibility as it protests the fate of nuclear.