Despite the advancements seen in solar and wind in recent years, including the recent news that Tesla is now pushing its highly touted home energy battery storage solution called the “Powerwall”, if the U.S. has any real intention of meeting its 2025 U.S. emissions targets, storing renewable power alone won’t satisfy nearly enough of our low-carbon, low-emission energy needs. As a result, I believe Tesla’s news reinforces nuclear’s pivotal role in the future of U.S. energy.
I must admit I was excited to hear Tesla’s battery announcement. It is an undeniable fact that cheap, clean, available and reliable energy is a fundamental building-block of a successful modern economy. Therefore, any technology that advances these objectives makes us all more prosperous and healthy. But, envisioning a nirvana where each and every energy consumer can live entirely off the grid is unrealistic. Not everyone has access to large amounts of sun, robust wind or, perhaps most importantly, the financial resources required to afford even moderately-priced storage solutions. Indeed according to a recent article on Bloomberg, a homeowner would need $45,000 of Tesla batteries to provide the same 16 KW of continuous power provided by a $3,700 generator from Home Depot. Furthermore, Tesla’s storage system “doesn’t really make financial sense” according to a spokesman for SolarCity, a company on which Tesla’s Elon Musk serves as chairman. Surely battery costs will drop, but there will still be a rather large need for clean energy, far beyond renewables and batteries. In addition, Tesla’s batteries are focused on residential end-users, which only represent about 38% of total U.S. energy demand. It is unlikely that batteries will penetrate the large-scale commercial and industrial markets. In my view, Tesla’s news makes the nuclear story even more important to America’s clean energy future.
Make no mistake about it, battery innovation is a good thing. It will help the U.S. ween itself off of fossil fuels and lower CO2 emissions. However Tesla’s Powerwall aside, many battery designs and prototypes won’t be readily available for large-scale, affordable commercialization anytime soon. This suggests the nation’s power grid is not going away anytime soon either.
What does this mean for nuclear energy? It means nuclear energy, which currently accounts for 63% of all the low-carbon electricity being produced in the U.S. today must continue to play a major role in making sure the lights stay on and emissions stay low.
In short, renewables must work with nuclear energy, not against it. This may be why the state of Illinois was recently able to deliver over 10,000 signatures supporting the proposed Low Carbon Portfolio Standard (LCPS) legislation, which includes a major role for nuclear. According to Doug O’Brien, executive director of the Illinois Clean Energy Coalition (ICEC), “We can never hope to meet our goals for carbon reductions and make progress towards a cleaner environment if we abandon clean nuclear and increase our reliance on fossil fuels”.
Clearly, with a greater national focus on lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, there is likely more clean energy regulation coming here in the U.S. This is especially true post the April release of President Obama’s Quadrennial Energy Review (QER). While the Obama Administration has not yet officially recognized nuclear energy’s enormous role in reducing air and GHG emissions, the future of nuclear energy is electrifying, regardless of the growth in renewables and batteries.