Among the renewable energy sources, biological energy – like the burning of wood pellets - is definitely the worst choice. With its 878 square kilometers per terawatt-hour – which could power only one-quarter of New York City – it is not even in the running to be the most area-efficient solution.(Photo: Shutterstock / NTB)
Nuclear power is a friend of nature and the environment
OPINION: Based on our recent study of 870 power plants worldwide, nuclear energy is a clear winner in protecting ecosystems, while bioenergy is an indisputable loser.
Jonas KristiansenNølandASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF ELECTRIC ENERGY, NTNU
They say «Misfortune never comes alone». That is certainly the case for the current climate crisis. The climate crisis is closely followed by nature and energy crises, and the three mutually influence each other, like the parties of an insoluble triangular drama.
The world will need three times more electricity in 2050 than we currently have to reach the current climate targets. We must be willing to set aside enough land areas to produce enough electricity without emissions. Paradoxically, confiscation of land damages ecosystems, which in turn reinforces climate change.
How do we prevent this drama from unfolding on our planet?
A new study I co-authored at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in collaboration with the Grenoble Institute of Technology, has systematically shown the environmental footprint of different energy solutions.
We have investigated 870 power plants worldwide, including sources like solar power, wind power, hydropower, and nuclear power. The study was published in the world’s largest scientific journal – Scientific Reports, which is part of the Nature Portfolio.
Is it time to stop cutting down our forests to make on-demand electricity and go nuclear instead?
One of the surprising results is that hydropower is found to be the most area-efficient renewable energy source worldwide, contradicting the consensus that solar power is the most energy-dense renewable resource.
A world in ecological sorrow
Contrary to conventional thinking, our work also demonstrated that nuclear power exhibits a higher energy density than that of natural gas power plants, considering the land use of pipelines and mining to feed gas-fired power plants. The generation density of a nuclear power plant included the exclusion zone in addition to the nuclear power plant itself.
This land area is approximately three times larger than the nuclear power generation facility. It shows that even when we take the most challenging assumptions, nuclear power is the world’s most area-efficient source of clean energy.
Our research shows that human intervention in nature will increase sixfold by 2050 if we follow the energy mix predicted by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It is impossible to solve the climate policy without seriously compromising with nature if today's energy policy is implemented.
With today’s energy plan, the world’s electricity production would require an area one and a half times the size of India or the entire European Union – assuming we become climate neutral.
We need to put a price on nature
We are already consuming a lot of space on this planet. The United Nations Nature Panel (IPBES) warns us that we need to protect and restore nature to preserve the world’s biological diversity. We have been told not to burn down our forests, which store CO2 and give us fresh air to breathe. It is, therefore, shocking to many that bioenergy is being greenwashed as a renewable energy solution.
All energy transitions until now have allowed us to acquire more energy on smaller and smaller land areas. Once upon a time, the forest was our sole source of energy – it had to be sacrificed for food and heat. We went from wood to coal and then on to oil and gas. Originally, the industrial revolution was a way out of natural crises and deforestation. We could protect and enjoy the forest for recreational purposes. Until today.
Burning of wood pellets might ruin our planet
In order to best resolve the trilemma between climate, energy, and environment, the obvious answer is that we must continue to search for the most energy-dense solutions. To do so, we must follow the data wherever it leads, and our new study provides an opportunity for this.
Among the renewable energy sources, biomass – like the burning of wood pellets - is definitely the worst choice. With its 878 square kilometers per terawatt-hour - – which could power only one-quarter of New York City – it is not even in the running to be the most area-efficient solution.
Then we find onshore wind, offshore wind, wave power, and solar power, followed by hydropower, which is the most area-efficient renewable source. Even though biomass is a very dilute source of energy, the paper also found wind power to have some of the same problems:
«While biomass is by far the most dilute renewable energy source, this paper found through a population study of 148 specimens that onshore wind farms are the second most dilute source for power generation….»
Onshore wind power also have challenges
It has been pointed out by proponents of wind power that the land use of wind farms can be used for multiple purposes, like grazing, agriculture, and recreation. However, the wind power resources on land areas that are already taken up for other purposes are quite limited, which limits the possibility of scaling up wind power to be a dominant energy solution worldwide. It does not offer an opportunity to restore damaged nature, either. The paper states:
«When the occupied area of wind power only considers tower footprints and access roads, the specific power could easily increase by at least an order of magnitude. However, this does not fully represent the high spacing between the distributed sources of a wind farm and the low scalability in space-limited regions. High land requirements also generate significant implications for the need for materials and infrastructure to collect energy from wind turbines. There exist potential indirect effects on wildlife and degradation of the quality of landscapes, and the visual footprint is significant throughout the entire area.»
Nuclear power is a friend of nature
If you consider all energy sources, nuclear power is the clear winner in terms of energy density. On an area approximately half the size of the island of Hawaii, nuclear power could supply the entire world with emission-free energy after the fossil age. Nuclear power has a land use that is 99,7 percent less than wind power - in other words, 350 times less.
This should be seen in light of our predicted land use crisis in 2050 if today’s energy policies are implemented. An energy transition based on nuclear power alone would save 99,75 percent of natural interventions in 2050. We can even remove most of the natural footprint we have already caused today, which would be a way to restore nature.
«Not in my back yard» vs. «Yes in my back yard»?
Nuclear power has had a public relations problem for a number of years. Today, nuclear power is outside the definition of renewable but will presumably be considered renewable in the long term.
Uranium - the fuel of nuclear power – will, in the future, be obtained from the sea, where uranium is naturally replenishable. In addition, used uranium can probably be reused with new technology. Nuclear power would then be qualified as a renewable energy source.
Land use is a factor that increasingly influences the popularity of competing energy sources to nuclear power. This is found in the well-known acronym NIMBY, which stands for «Not in my back yard». This is often used in the context of unpopular wind and solar power developments that affect people, animals, and nature where they’re suggested.
On the contrary, recent studies show that nuclear power is a desirable neighbor, as it provides local communities with the security of energy supply for business development and jobs. We are therefore talking about the reverse NIMBY effect. Or YIMBY, «Yes, in my back yard».
Climate and environment must be solved together
Just as the three crises – climate, nature, and energy – have arisen together, they must also be solved together. For many years, the focus has been on climate-smart solutions while the environmentally and nature-smart solutions have gone under the radar. We have forgotten how nature conservation and restoration can play a vital role in mitigating climate effects.
Therefore, we should focus on land use. Our recent study hits on precisely this matter, as it has area efficiency as its focal point. There is no doubt that in such a competition among clean energy sources, nuclear power would be a clear winner.
At the same time, it would be the nail in the coffin for the biggest loser – bioenergy. Is it time to stop cutting down our forests to make on-demand electricity and go nuclear instead?