Will nuclear power eclipse solar energy?

Solar energy installations, like the world-class Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant,have amped-up in Canada, reaching 0.5 per cent of total energy production despite an international resurgence in nuclear energy.

Solar generation now produces over 2,900 megawatts of electricity in Canada, up from 500 megawatts in 2011 – enough power to supply an industrialized city of approximately two million people. Europe, Asia, and North America lead the world with 300.4 gigawatts of combined annual solar energy production.

Belarus, Bangladesh, UAE and Turkey are currently building new nuclear powerplants. Thirty other countries, including Norway, Portugal and Australia, are considering, planning or starting nuclear power programs.

The current need for consistent baseload power offered by nuclear – and reduced emissions offered by solar, is reinvigorating the global energy debate.

In a recent popular TEDx Talk, American environmental policy writer and energy expert Michael Shellenbergerwarned the environmental damage caused by the deployment of millions of solar panels threatens solar energy’s status as an alternative to nuclear energy – which produces approximately 10 per cent of the world’s electricity.

“We tend to think of solar panels as clean, but the truth is, there is no plan to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20 or 25-year life,” Shellenberger said.

“A lot of experts are concerned that solar panels are just going to be shipped to Africa or Asia with the rest of our electronic waste – exposing people to really high levels of toxic elements – lead, cadmium, and chromium.”

At the beginning of his fight against climate change, Shellenberger thought the technical solutions – solar panels on every rooftop – electric car in the driveway – were straightforward. He proposed a $300 billion renewable energy investment, which paid off when the Obama Administration invested $150 billion in cleantech.

Problems were encountered.

“Solar farms require covering a pretty significant amount of land and also building very big transmission lines to bring all that electricity fromthe countrysideinto the city,” said the founder of Environmental Progress.

Shellenbergersaid that solar farms, which kill thousands of birds and displace wildlife, require almost 20 times more raw materials than nuclear plants – in the form of cement, glass, concrete steel, and nuclear fuel.

“About the same volume of uranium as a Rubik’s Cube can power all of the energy that you need in your entire life,” he explained.

Shellenbergersaid nuclear energy ends up being a lot more reliable, generating emissions free power 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He explained that transitioning to solar and other renewables actually increases CO2 emissions.

“All of which I think raises a really uncomfortable question,” he said.

“In the effort to try to save the climate, are we destroying the environment?”

 The World Information Service on Energy (WISE), an anti-nuclear environmental group, said that Michael Shellenberger and Environmental Progress are disseminating misleading information that minimizes nuclear energy hazards.

“Shellenberger claims that “under 200” people have died and will die from the Chernobyl disaster,” asserted Jim Green, in a WISE report.

“In fact, the lowest of the estimates of the Chernobyl cancer death toll is the World Health Organization’s estimate of up to 9,000 excess deaths in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union – of course, there are higher estimates for the death toll across Europe.”

Fred Schwartz is an adjunct professor of renewable energy at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, former manager of renewables and advanced generation for the City of San Francisco, and winner of the U.S. President’s Conservation and Environmental challenge Award.

“There’s no way in the world you could talk about nuclear energy being clean,” Schwartz said.

“Nuclear is like playing Russian roulette with the most toxic stuff we produce. It’s the single-most toxic thing we do on the planet – the consequences could last tens of thousands of years.”

Schwartz said the cadmium telluride, lead and other toxic ingredients in solar panels “are only a tiny fraction of solar modules – benign compared to nuclear waste.”

“Uranium mining and concentrating are extremely energy intensive,” he added.

Jeremy Leggett, author of The Winning of The Carbon Warsays the nuclear renaissance is “doomed to fail.”

“Nuclear power has become uneconomic,” he said.

“It now costs $9 billion to build one reactor.”

Leggett, who sat on the UK Renewables Advisory Board, said that in 2017, worldwide solar power production grew faster than nuclear and fossil fuels combined – reaching 399 gigawatts. He said that the average cost of solar power has dropped to approximately $50 / MWh in 2019, down 78 per cent from $350 / MWh in 2010.

“Solar and wind are now the cheapest new sources of generation in every developed country except Japan,” Leggett said.

The International Energy Agency reported that current global solar energy production is over 328,000 gigawatt hours, up from 3,904 in 2005.