Will Nuclear Energy be the Key to Mass Electrification?
Over 30 countries have pledged to phase out sales of new gas and diesel cars in upcoming decades. Major automakers Ford and General Motors, among others, will phase out all ICEV production by 2040. Fleets around the world are taking action to cut emissions and meet government-mandated sustainability goals. To say that a global shift and mass electrification are underway could be an understatement.
Still, less than 1 percent of cars and light-duty vehicles on America’s roads today are electric. There are several factors contributing to a slow transition, from production delays to chip shortages to insufficient charging infrastructure. Another major challenge that will become more prevalent as EV adoption accelerates is the overwhelming strain on the nation’s electric grid.
While fleets are evidently more concerned with the procurement of EVs themselves, energy suppliers are concerned with ensuring that the grid can even support such a large increase in demand. The US Department of Energy estimates that electricity consumption could go up by 38 percent by 2050 with the rate at which EVs are expected to be adopted. In addition to providing enough power to fuel these vehicles, there is the added challenge of doing so without fossil fuels, which currently account for 61 percent of electricity generation in the US.
Could nuclear energy be a solution?
The US is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power today, with about 19 percent of the nation’s total electricity coming from over 90 nuclear power reactors across the country. The energy source is stable, emissions-free and can be a key tool in supporting mass electrification and reaching carbon-neutrality.
Even with 60 years of experience with nuclear power, however, the public opinion remains very mixed. A 2021 study by Pew Research found that 50 percent of adults in the US are in support of expanding nuclear power production, while 47 percent are against. This is unsurprising due to the various disasters that have left a tainted view on nuclear power throughout history. But the fact is that nuclear power plants are some of the most advanced and secure facilities today.
Let’s discuss some of the pros and cons of nuclear energy production.
Stability: Nuclear power is non-intermittent, meaning it can run 24/7, 365 days a year without any interruptions. This is a common criticism of solar and wind power sources, as these technologies depend on sunny skies and constant winds in order to produce energy. Nuclear power plants provide a steady flow of electricity, ensuring reliability on the grid which is already shaky in many places. The already overwhelming demand, which will only increase with more EVs, leads to a maxed out grid and city-wide blackouts.
Low carbon: In the US, nuclear power is the largest source of emission-free energy. While the construction of a new nuclear plant does result in GHG emissions, the decades of power generation that follow are GHG-free. This helps to minimize the effects of air pollution and global warming that are exacerbated by energy generation nation-wide. This is an especially important opportunity as the majority of electricity in the US is generated by heavy-polluting fossil fuels, contributing 31 percent of the country’s total carbon-emissions.
Cheap energy: Nuclear power is even cheaper to generate than fossil fuel-sourced electricity. In fact, it costs between 33 to 50 percent as much to generate nuclear power versus coal. Nuclear plants need minimal maintenance, meaning that they can operate continuously for 2 years or more before needing refueling and servicing. This also contributes to their extremely high capacity factor, allowing them to produce up to twice the amount of electricity as coal and gas plants. Expanding nuclear power production can keep electricity rates low while increasing energy supply, ultimately making EVs an even more attractive option.
Capital costs: While the operating costs of nuclear plants are relatively low next to coal and gas plants, the costs to build one are far higher. Each nuclear reactor can cost upwards of $7 billion to build due to their highly complex technology, design and construction. From start to finish, plant construction can take several years, the work of highly qualified specialists, extensive licensing requirements and potentially obstructive delays. These high capital costs are a major barrier that have led to an overall decline in new plants in the US.
Nuclear waste: The management of nuclear waste is another major concern in nuclear power production. Once nuclear fuel has been used to generate power for a few years, it is removed from the reactor as highly radioactive waste. While not that much waste is actually produced, what comes out can remain radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years if not disposed of properly. While countries struggle to create a permanent solution for their nuclear waste, many employ temporary storage strategies that are holding onto waste from as early as the 1940s. Ultimately, these plants hope for the development of deep geological repositories to become permanent solutions for the toxic waste.
Potential for disaster: Major nuclear disasters like Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have left society with deeply negative associations of nuclear power. The magnitude of devastation caused by these reactor meltdowns has resulted in political divide and fear, even decades after. As a result, many are against nuclear power and fearful of the destruction that another meltdown could cause. For example, California recently shut down its last remaining nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon largely due to concerns about nearby fault lines. Just as in the case of Fukushima, a severe earthquake could be enough to cause system failure at a plant.
In the end, the debate to expand or reduce nuclear power production is a complex one. From fossil fuels to nuclear to solar and wind, each energy source entails its own set of pros and cons that can sway public opinion for or against. With the growing demand for energy and an increasingly urgent climate crisis, reliable and sustainable options are needed as soon as possible.
Until cleaner energy sources can meet demand and phase out gas and coal, energy suppliers will have to rely on careful planning to support nation-wide EV charging. While Congress already has plans to invest $5 billion into grid expansion and updates, other measures such as incentivizing off-peak charging will help to mitigate the strain on the grid in the meantime. All things considered, energy suppliers still have a bit of time to explore sustainable alternatives and invest into the future of energy as EVs progressively gain popularity.
If you’re interested in finding out about other sustainability solutions for your fleet, schedule a demo with a member of our analytics team today.