Essay Contest 2019 - First prize in category Energy Transition: Hybrid Renewable-Nuclear Energy Systems for Clean Energy

The 2019 edition of the Essay Contest finished successfully with nineteen talented writers submitting their essays on three different topics - Energy Transition, Mobility and Energy in Africa. This week we present to you the winner essays in the category Energy Transition starting with the essay of Jakub Damian who won the first prize.

1   Introduction 
     In a modern world, there can not be economic growth and high quality of life without energy. Today, over 60% energy we produce come from fossil fuels [1]. As we face the climate crisis caused by unprecedented anthropogenic GHG emissions, we need a rapid change of our energy generation and consumption structures. This is not only problem related to European Union (EU) - in fact the projected global primary energy consumption increase by nearly 50 % in years 2018-2050 will take place mainly in non-OECD countries in Africa and Asia [2]. Comparing the soaring consumption of energy with very low costs of gas and coal leaves the grim impression that our future energy systems cannot help conserving our planet’s climate. 

The global scientific consensus is that the climate crisis is a fact and thus is the global challenge of the XXIst century. To tackle it, combined effort of many countries is more than required. In order to coordinate those actions, the Paris agreements was signed in 2016 by almost every country in the world. The purpose of this action is to maintain the average temperature growth at our planet below 2oC. To do this, each country sets it’s own increasing goals of carbon footprint reduction and climate change mitigation agenda. This opens an opportunity for EU’s countries to become leaders of decarbonizing energy sector, industry and transportation. 
In such context, I would like to shed some light on what is called Hybrid Nuclear-Renewable Energy Systems (HN-RES). Currently, both nuclear and renewable energy technologies have physical and economical constraints that hampers deployment based purely on one of the sources. Nevertheless, both technologies provide clean and sustainable energy and could therefore contribute to meeting strict climate goals. According to existing nomenclature, we can distinguish three types of HN-RES, based of their thermal/electrical configuration: tightly coupled, thermally coupled or loosely coupled (only electricity production) [3]. Without getting into details, I would like to point out that the most achievable at the moment might be the loosely coupled system, as the technological gaps in thermal coupling are obstacle in fulfilling the criteria of accessible technology. In consequence, I will be referring to this type of the HN-RES, which is presented in the figure 1: 

Figure 1: Loosely-coupled Hybrid Nuclear-Renewable Energy System [3] 

Key advantage of such system is that it provide grid balancing for renewable energy, with flexible nuclear generation. To smoothen the production and consumption peaks, various storage techniques can be provided. In more advanced systems, heat from nuclear power plan could be used to create extra revenue stream - from steam production for industrial processes to hydrogen production. Such solution would allow for nuclear power plant to maintain high load factor. 
By proposing development of Hybrid Nuclear-Renewable Energy Systems I would like to make a claim, that substantial resources and tools already exist to carry out EU’s clean energy transition. We have renewable energy investments, we have nuclear fleet in 14 out of 27 EU countries, we have European energy market and interconnected electrical grid. Instead of discriminating certain solutions based on non-technical criterias, as recent battle over sustainable fund taxonomy shows [4], we should focus on utilizing all means possible. What is important here is the production of clean energy which can be achieved in European Union when energy system have a good impulses to develop. Nuclear energy and renewable energy should create alliance for clean energy and EU countries can become leaders in this change. 

2   Analysis 
     Firstly, to understand the today’s landscape, we should look at the proportion of money spend on low carbon technologies and the clean energy produced. According to International Energy Agency, average investments per year in 2010- 2018 on renewable energy technologies were 90% of total low-carbon power generation investments, providing over 60% of clean energy in 2016 [5][6]. On the other hand, average investments per year in 2010-2018 on nuclear technologies were 10% providing 34% of clean energy [5][6]. Even tough these number present global situation, there is a message in it - achieving the clean energy transition using only renewable energy may be possible, but not necessarily feasible. Investment in hybrid systems may plummet the costs of decarbonization, as analyzed by International Energy Agency in report ”Nuclear Power in Clean Energy System”. For two scenarios analyzed - with and without nuclear energy, the difference in cumulative electricity sector investment(both generation and grid) in years 2019-2040 was 2 trillion USD [7]. By shaping the EU’s energy policy to achieve clean energy production, but not solely renewable, the energy transition can be achieved more rapidly. 

Figure 2: Cumulative electricity sector investments in two scenarios [7] 

Secondly, nuclear industry is mature in several countries in Europe. It means over six decades of research, experience, testing and adapting. This knowledge, already existing research infrastructure and most importantly, human capital, can contribute to successful development of emerging, advanced energy systems. One good example is CEA (Commissariat `a l’energie atomique et aux énergies alternatives) in France, that contributes to nuclear research since 1945. Recently updated French goal on renewable energy (33% by 2030 [8]), along with the decreased dependence on nuclear energy is reflected on the alternative research fields in CEA: solar power, biofuels and marine power. This creates an unique environment to investigate hybrid systems. 
Thirdly, EU has the potential to influence energy market on the continental level, supporting concept of loosely coupled hybrid systems through policy instruments and hence reducing electricity prices volatility and increasing grid reliability as the renewable energy penetration increases. Recent study by Nuclear Energy Agency presents the new approach to estimating costs of electricity [9]. What is required is the incentive to restructure energy market in EU - zoom out from the purely generation cost assessment approach (Levelized Cost of Energy) to system cost assessment approach which takes into account not only generation costs but also influence of various energy sources on the grid stability. 

3   Conclusions 
     Becoming a leader of the energy transition is the ambitious goal - the question is not ”if?”, but ”how?” and EU’s industry has the resources to become one. In order for it to happen, the objective must be clear: strive for zero-carbon emission in 2050. Even though improving statistics about certain energy share might help track the progress, it shouldn’t be a goal itself. As I stated previously, EU’s energy industry have to utilize all means possible - by developing systems that can produce energy in a sustainable, flexible and carbon-free way. Development of Hybrid Nuclear-Renewable Energy Systems should be included in the EU’s energy policy and remain an option for a countries with existing nuclear fleet or planning to have one. Each technology creates challenges and opportunities - our role is to learn the best way to utilize it as the climate change clock is ticking. 

By: Jakub Damian

Published on: 19.11.2019


[1] Max Roser Hannah Ritchie. Our World in Data: Energy Production & Changing Energy Sources. 2018. 
[2] U.S. Energy Information Agency. EIA projects nearly 50% increase in world energy usage by 2050, led by growth in Asia. 2019. 
[3] Quadrennial Technology Review 2015. Hybrid Nuclear-Renewable Energy Systems - Technology Assessments. Tech. rep. U.S. Department of Energy, 2015.
[4] Energy for Humanity. SUSTAINABLE NUCLEAR Assessment Report (2019). 2019.

[5] International Energy Agency. World Energy Outlook 2018. 2018.
[6] International Energy Agency. World Energy Investment. 2019.
[7] International Energy Agency. Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System. 2019.
[8] Fr
éedéric Simon. Three EU countries bump up renewable energy goal for 2030. 2019. 
[9] OECD NEA. The Costs of Decarbonisation: System Costs with High Shares of Nuclear and Renewables. 2019.


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