Nuclear and renewables: The perfect couple?

The Lam Ta Khong pumped storage project in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province responds sustainably to the challenge of peak power demand.
To stay competitive without jeopardizing the environment, Southeast Asian nations are likely to turn to nuclear power, but their ideal solution could also involve renewable power, writes Albert M. Ferrer, vice president for power consulting at Burns and Roe.

Albert M. Ferrer, Burns and Roe, USA

The intensifying global interest in nuclear power over the last few years has also reached Southeast Asia. Vietnam recently ordered two Russian nuclear power reactors while Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have all announced plans for nuclear power plants for 2020 and beyond.

With more than 400 nuclear power stations operating in the world today ” and more than 100 under construction, ordered or under development in countries such as China, Finland, France, Iran, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, the UAE and Vietnam ” nuclear power has become a low-cost, safe and reliable choice for countries with a current or anticipated lack of fossil fuel resources or a desire to lower their carbon footprint while maintaining energy competitiveness for economic and social development.

At the same time, technology advances have made renewable technologies an attractive choice for specific small-size applications throughout the world.

In most countries, government subsidies have driven implementation, although geothermal applications in the Philippines and Indonesia have been prompted by economics and advances in geothermal energy capture over the past 25 years. Biomass applications in most countries in Southeast Asia have similarly been driven by the availability of low-cost biomass waste-to-fuel power plants.

The region’s limits in renewables

However, geothermal power cannot generate the majority of the load in Indonesia or the Philippines because of various seismic and resource conditions. And biomass, once considered plentiful, has increased in value and lacks the necessary quantity to reliably provide Southeast Asian nations with most of their power requirements. Wind power has yet to develop substantially in Southeast Asia due to limited resource availability and reliability. Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is still not developed commercially and economically to supply reliable power, although at some point it could provide power generation in areas in the region with deep sea trenches.

Solar power has been more difficult to develop because of the wet climate. Government incentives have ” to some extent ” been essential in the countries where it has been implemented. In any event, solar power cannot at this time supply the large baseload necessary in Southeast Asian countries.

In general, the state of development of all renewable technologies is such that they cannot generate large amounts of electricity in Southeast Asia. They also cost more than the alternatives, although research in some countries promises to lower their cost to consumers over the next 40 to 50 years, and to lift reliance on government subsidies.

The capacity factor

But one undesirable characteristic is currently inherent to renewable technologies: their lack of reliability whenever power is called upon to be generated ” what engineers call the ‘capacity factor’. Solar is only available for a specific number of hours, and when it is not cloudy or rainy. Wind is highly available usually in the tropics when storms are brewing.

Biomass has proven to be unreliable in terms of resource availability and pricing; even if all its forests were levelled, Southeast Asia lacks the biomass to fuel its power plants. The capacity factors of all these renewables are generally below 20 per cent. When citizens/consumers need electricity, they want it immediately. Peak loads usually occur at busy times during the day such as midday to early evening when renewable technologies may not be available.

Westinghouse’s AP1000 is set to be a stalwart reactor in the global nuclear ‘renaissance’ Source: Westinghouse

That does not mean society should abandon renewable alternatives. Rather, we should couple them with other power generation technologies to make effective use of them, while research increases their efficiency and commercial availability over the next 50 years.

Are Southeast Asian countries going to stop or slow down their industrial and economic development or the improvement in their peoples’ standards of living because renewables cannot meet the necessary load demand? Obviously, no!

Let us consider then some of the baseload reliable power generation technologies available today in Southeast Asia: gas in simple or combined-cycle mode, coal, oil, hydro and nuclear power:

  • Hydro is just about exhausted in terms of available sites;
  • Oil is too expensive to use today or in the near future, and the world needs it for petrochemicals, heating fuel and transportation;
  • Gas is abundant in some countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, but these resources could become exhausted without additional and deeper exploration;
  • Coal is available in some countries in Southeast Asia and is a relatively economic fuel, but it needs air quality control systems to contain emissions and prevent pollution; and
  • Nuclear power is proven and reliable, with higher capital costs than simple and combined-cycle but with very low fuel costs, similar to hydro. With appropriate fuel contracting options from OEM supplier countries, no significant infrastructure is required for processing waste fuel to meet both International Atomic Energy Association and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requirements.à‚ 

The case for nuclear

Concern over climate change is likely to diminish use of fossil fuels, while the need for baseload reliable power currently supplied by fossil fuels will remain if Southeast Asian countries want to continue their economic, technological and social development.

In the above analysis, only nuclear power is currently placed to provide this baseload reliable generation at low cost to the consumer without releasing carbon dioxide into the environment.

While all Southeast Asian nations are encouraging the use of renewable technologies, not all provide subsidies. Implementing renewables has therefore been somewhat sporadic. Some countries such as Vietnam are proceeding to have a mix of native and imported coal fired generation, gas based generation and ” by the last part of the decade ” nuclear power. This positions Vietnam in the equation towards self-sufficient reliable baseload generation to fuel its economic development, while promoting renewables without impacting the cost to the consumer or to the nation via subsidies.

Others such as Malaysia have used coal and oil, and currently are heavily using gas, although consuming gas for power is cutting gas fields’ future resource availability for uses such as petrochemicals. Malaysia is now studying the possibility of using nuclear power and of prolonging the economic life of its gas fields.

Indonesia has plenty of gas and coal, and continues to encourage the use of geothermal power when it makes economic sense. The country recently studied implementing nuclear power, but has decided to delay this for some years. Given its low-cost fossil resources, Indonesia will probably continue to rely on them for some time.

Thailand is looking for a reliable alternative to coal and gas. The country already has a strong programme promoting gas cogeneration power plants, where steam is used by an industrial steam host, while excess heat is converted to electricity in an unquestionably efficient use of gas.

The political environment is also encouraging Thailand to attempt to rely less on gas supplies from Myanmar. Thailand recently announced a nuclear power programme with the goal of a first nuclear power plant by 2020. A successful programme already encourages the use of renewables.

Cambodia appears to be looking at its local coal resources in the short term as the means to generate cheap power to fuel its economic development. Laos is looking at coal and hydro, while Myanmar is looking at its own gas supplies for its economic development while exporting to China and Thailand.

Thus, it is clear that each country is evaluating where it is in the economic and social development scale, and determining its best choice for baseload generation while maintaining energy competitiveness for its industry.

Coupling green with nuclear

As all these countries proceed forward in their economic development, coupling nuclear power with renewables makes great sense given the movement in the world away from burning fossil fuels. This coupling can provide Southeast Asian nations with specific benefits:

1. Renewable power generation can still be built to supply power in communities isolated from main transmission lines as long as they prove economic choices versus the transportation of energy to the communities from suppliers.
2. Nuclear power can be used as the baseload in the system generation curve supplying the power to meet the full or partial load demand (depending how much nuclear power will be built) at all times of the day or night. It is not affected by weather or sunlight and is designed to meet seismic and tsunami requirements.
3. Once nuclear power generates most of the load demand, renewables could be used for peaking or polishing/trimming power. But it should be noted that if renewable power is too high in the generation mix, this could necessitate simple cycle power or hydro or energy storage on standby to meet unexpected load transients that the baseload generation cannot meet fast enough.
4. Renewable power could be used to improve the efficiency of heat cycles in existing coal plants and even new nuclear power plants by superheating steam, for example.

It should be noted that renewable power’s cost in US dollars per kW can be high, although it shares a very low fuel cost with nuclear. The lack of reliability and availability of renewable ‘fuel’ and the relatively small MW output size of renewable generation technologies also make them unfeasible for baseload generation of the 250 MW to 1300 MW size.

PRG Granary Company Limited’s 9.5 MW rice husk cogeneration power plant in Pathumthani, Thailand

The system needs additional capacity to back up renewable power to maintain reliability and availability of power to the grid system. When this cost is added, it increases the cost of power to the consumer tremendously.

A country with a demand load of 5000 MW to 20 000 MW over the next ten years could not physically and reliably meet most of this load with renewables. Nuclear power brings cheap baseload energy, employment and economic benefits, while upgrading industry through its strict requirements in quality and safety. But by combining renewables with a nuclear baseload, Southeast Asia can gain two sources of cheap fuel along with lower carbon emissions.

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