Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s “clean energy” standard requires that all electric generation comes from non-fossil fuels by 2035. While existing nuclear would count, nuclear plants throughout the country are being shuttered due to low cost natural gas and state mandates for renewable power. Two Indian Point reactors in New York have closed and the third will be shuttered in April 2021 at Governor Cuomo’s insistence. California’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant reactors—the last remaining nuclear power plant in the state—are expected to be shuttered by 2024 and 2025, for reactors 1 and 2, respectively. In Illinois—the state with the most nuclear power generation, Exelon Corporation announced that it will shutter two of its nuclear plants—the Byron and Dresden plants— by the end of 2021 because they are “uneconomic” due to “poorly conceived energy policies.” These policies refer to renewable energy mandates by the state, and other market interventions which have rendered the plants uneconomic. According to Exelon, two other nuclear plants in the state—LaSalle and Braidwood—are also at “high risk for premature closure.”
Despite the governors of these states telling the public that the power from shuttered nuclear plants will be replaced by renewable energy—mainly wind and solar power—in reality, it will mostly be replaced with natural gas generation. When nuclear plants in California, Vermont, and New York were closed, the bulk of their production was replaced by gas-fired generators. For example, new gas-fired power plants came online in Orange and Dutchess counties in New York to replace power from the shuttered Indian Point reactor, which for decades provided downstate New York with reliable energy. If Byron and Dresden—as well as LaSalle and Braidwood—are shuttered, they, too, will largely be replaced by natural gas-fired plants because consumers and businesses cannot rely on unreliable electricity supplies, which California has been experiencing with rolling black-outs recently.
In 2019, Byron and Dresden together produced about 35.2 terawatt-hours of electricity. Last year, Illinois wind-energy production was just 13.8 terawatt-hours and solar production was even lower at 0.3 terawatt-hours. That means that Byron and Dresden are producing more than twice as much electricity as all the wind turbines and solar panels in Illinois. Because wind and solar are intermittent technologies, with low capacity factors (generation per unit of capacity) compared to natural gas and nuclear power, they require far more capacity than the technology they are replacing to provide equivalent power. Even then, wind and solar power cannot be relied on 24/7 to meet demand because they are dependent on the wind and sun, which utility operators cannot control; so, their power is not reliable.
If Biden seriously intends to meet his “clean energy” standard by 2035, he will have to replace more than the 62 percent of the generation that we now primarily get from coal and natural gas with renewable energy, unless he can stop existing nuclear units from being shuttered. Further, the land requirements would be astronomical. Wind turbines require 360 times more land to generate the same amount of power as nuclear power. Roughly the same land requirement difference applies to coal and natural gas, as coal and natural gas land requirements are similar to that of nuclear power.
A nuclear energy facility has a small area footprint, requiring about 1.3 square miles per 1,000 megawatts of installed capacity. Nuclear plants have an average capacity factor of 90 percent, much higher than intermittent sources like wind and solar. Wind farm capacity factors range from 32 to 47 percent, depending on differences in wind resources and improvements in turbine technology. Solar PV capacity factors also vary based on location and technology, from 17 to 28 percent.
Taking these factors into account, a wind farm would need an installed capacity between 1,900 megawatts and 2,800 megawatts to generate the same amount of electricity in a year as a 1,000-megawatt nuclear energy facility. Such a facility would require between 260 square miles and 360 square miles of land. A solar PV facility would need an installed capacity of 3,300 megawatts and 5,400 megawatts to match a 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility’s output, requiring between 45 and 75 square miles.
If the United States were to meet its current electricity needs using wind power, according to a Harvard University study, it would require covering one-third of the nation’s land mass with wind turbines, a devastating proposition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 500,000 birds each year, including many protected and endangered species. Increasing wind power from its current 7 percent share of U.S. electricity production to just 35 percent would presumably increase bird and bat deaths five-fold; up to a million-plus bird kills and a million-plus bat kills each year and still not replace the fossil fuel generation in this country. Further, wind and solar power generation will make the United States dependent on China because China dominates rare earth and other materials needed for wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing, as well as for the expensive battery systems their intermittency make necessary.
The Biden quest for a “clean energy” standard is not an easy undertaking and will result in environmental devastation. Forest, grassland, and desert ecosystems would all be depleted by the enormous land mass requirements. The the killing of birds and bats as well as dependence on China for the materials needed to make wind turbines and solar panels darkens this scenario further. Now that the U.S. produces more energy than it consumes, it is not the time to shift our dependence to a country that is a strategic adversary and to jump into an environmental quagmire.