When it comes to providing a solution for the current climate issue, our environment deserves to get some attention, as there’s a deep connection between energy solutions and the environment. It just so happens that the three big issues regarding the environment have now become characters in an intricate triangular drama.
To successfully navigate a green transition and meet climate targets by 2050, we need three times more electricity. In order to meet this target, there needs to be substantial land resources for energy production. But as we know, clearing more forests and other wildlife habitats for land hands the ecosystem.
Then, how can we do something about this conflicting drama?
The need for more lands to address current energy issue
In collaboration with the Grenoble Institute of Technology, NTNU conducted a comprehensive study which systematically assess the land utilization of various energy solutions.
The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, observed 870 power plants from around the world, including solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy.
It’s findings challenge the well-known notion that solar electricity is the most energy-dense renewable source, because it suggests hydropower is the most land-efficient renewable energy globally.
This suggests that our current energy solutions around the world are heading to a less favorable direction, given the fact that solar electricity is expected to multiply six fold by 2050 in accordance to the International Energy Agency’s net-zero emissions scenario.
What we have now would make it difficult to address the climate catastrophe without severely aggravating the environmental situation. Per the research, to attain climate neutrality, the world’s electricity output for 2050 would require an area 1.5 times the size of India or the entire European Union.
Since human expansion already covers substantial portions of the planet, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) emphasizes the imperative of nature preservation to safeguard global biodiversity.
Forests, as we know, serve as carbon sinks and providers of clean air, play a pivotal role in this endeavor.
Sacrificing the environment for us
Up to this point, it’d be remiss to ignore the fact that transitions to renewable energy generate more energy within smaller areas. We know before that before, the forest, was sacrificed for sustenance and heat. Then humanity moved from wood to coal, then to oil and gas.
The industrial revolution era was an evident case of prioritizing humans instead of protecting the environment. Regrettably, today, humanity is replicating the same mistakes, degrading the environment and exacerbating problems albeit for better purposes.
According to the study, the optimal solution to address the climate, energy, and environmental trilemma is to continue pursuing the most energy-dense alternatives. The researchers believe that it’s good to follow the evidence.
The least effective renewable energy source is bioenergy, which includes forest burning. Onshore wind, offshore wind, wave power, solar power, and hydropower are next in line. Bioenergy is on the least effective list because of its extensive land use, with 878 square kilometers required to generate a single terawatt hour—making it impractical.
Then, onshore wind power, which has the reputation for being multifunctional, presents challenges due to limited wind resources in areas already allocated for various purposes. Moreover, such wind power doesn’t really restore damaged environments, not to mention the increased mortality rate for birds and bats in wind turbine farms.
The research indicates that even when considering only the footprint of wind turbine towers and access roads, onshore wind power’s spatial inefficiency could increase significantly. The need for materials and infrastructure to collect energy from wind turbines can indirectly affect wildlife and the environment, leaving a substantial footprint.
Where nuclear energy comes in
The researchers argue that in the perspective of energy density, nuclear power comes out as the undisputed winner. Nuclear power has the potential to supply the world with emission-free energy on an area equivalent to half of Norway’s Viken county or half of the U.S. state of Vermont.
In comparison with onshore wind power, nuclear power’s spatial footprint is 99.7% smaller, meaning that it’s 350 times less land usage.
Considering the looming environmental crisis by 2050, an energy transition which rely on nuclear power could reduce environmental damage by 99.75%, potentially undoing much of the existing harm we’ve unintentionally done to the environment.
Additionally, nuclear power, which currently falls outside the renewable energy definition, might eventually be deemed renewable. Uranium, its fuel source, can be sustainably obtained from the sea, and future advancements may let us reuse used uranium.
Space is becoming an increasingly crucial factor in energy source popularity, which has been made popular by the concept of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) renewable energy. Other recent studies suggest that nuclear power could actually be an attractive neighbor for many communities, offering supply security, business development, and job opportunities.
Since climate, energy, and nature are all interconnected and the crises have emerged together, the researchers argue that we should also address them all together.
Climate-smart solutions have received significant attention, but solutions for the environment have been overlooked. Conserving and restoring nature can play a vital role in mitigating climate effects, and we need a greater focus on land use efficiency.
Therefore, the researchers highlighted that nuclear power as a clear winner in this regard, as sooner other renewable energy sources are facing numerous land use challenges.
Japan continues to operate with nuclear plants
The country has passed a law which allows nuclear reactors to operate beyond 60 years as officials try to reinvigorate the sector to meet energy challenges and climate targets. A parliament spokesman said that the law means to “establish an electricity supply system that will achieve a carbon-free society.”
Technically, the plan is to operate the plants within 60 years, but exceptions are allowed for reactors that have had to pause operations for whatever challenges the country will face in the future.
The new rules allow operators to exclude periods of shutdown when calculating the total years of operation. However, they need approval from Japan’s nuclear safety watchdog for the exemption. And, the law makes sure that operators regularly check and apply safety measures at aging reactors.
According to Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry, the purpose of this law is to “ensure a stable supply of electricity while promoting the use of carbon-free electricity resources.”
This law came into fruition as Japan’s government looks to reinvigorate a nuclear sector that was taken offline after the 2011 Fukushima disaster caused by a deadly tsunami.
In Japan, most of its nuclear reactors remain out of action today. However, public views through debates and polls on nuclear power are softening as we’ve faced global energy crisis.