New Article about the Swedish Energy Scenarios published by SustainTrans Team (Authors; Martin Prieto Beaulieu, Karl-Henrik Robért and Henrik Ny) today in Miljö & utveckling here >>.
Full version in English below;
On Sunday there is an election in Sweden. Electricity prices, nuclear power and wind power are widely debated. The problem is that the bigpicture is missed. This is the opinion of researchers at Blekinge University of Technology who have carried out a strategic sustainability analysis of the energy system.
Today’s energy debate is characterized by concern about high electricity prices and in the background is the larger long-term climate crisis that more and more people realize that we have to deal with. Nuclear power and renewables are often pitted against each other. However, a climate of debate with a lack of source criticism and systematics has created unnecessary confusion and anxiety among the public.
We therefore now want to broaden the energy debate so that not only climate effects and societal costs are affected, but also other environmental and social consequences over time.
First, we ask ourselves where we are in relation to the desirable sustainable future. A number of major challenges must be solved in order for us to get ecologically, socially and economically sustainable energy systems. This includes:
- Greenhouse gases and other substances that are released faster than nature can handle them. According to the Paris Agreement the world’s greenhouse gas emissions will need to be halved every decade from the year 2020 to mkake it possible to save the climate. In line with this, Sweden has set the goal of becoming the world’s first climate-neutral welfare state and legislated that this should happen by 2045. At the same time, many regions and municipalities have adopted climate budgets that have even higher ambitions.
- Physical destruction of nature. Our society is expanding at the expense of nature, which endangers the ecosystem services we depend on for, among other things, fresh air, water and food. Very few seem to realize how great the pressure will be on natural surfaces when we have stopped using fossil fuel flows in the energy industry.
- Health effects, social injustices as well as conflicts and polarizations make cooperation and welfare development difficult.
- Resource depletion and other societal costs. In step with increased extraction, the time is approaching when the production of oil and gas and many metals hits the ceiling on a global level with sharply rising costs as a result.
All this means that it is very urgent to get started with a broad sustainability transition. At present, however, our dependence on fossil energy, ongoing wars and sky-high electricity prices contribute to all the sustainability challenges.
What future scenarios do we see then? We will need more electricity in the future to be able to electrify the transport sector and supply industry with emission-free electricity and hydrogen, not the least for continued Swedish steel production and to store energy. We have therefore made a scenario comparison between the two most often debated ways to solve this – new nuclear power and more efficiency and renewables. First of all – regardless of which scenario we choose to add more electricity production capacity – we must start by increasing efficiency as much as possible. This is usually the cheapest. Swedish researchers have also recently concluded that we have up to 40% efficiency potential in our buildings. Our starting point is the last few years’ electricity production level of approx. 160 TWh, of which approx. 130 TWh has been used within the country and 30 TWh has been exported.
In the nuclear power scenario, we start from a commonly occurring forecast of at least a doubling of electricity demand within approx. 15 years. We also assume that this need is met with 130 TWh of new nuclear power distributed over 10 reactors.
The sustainability effects of the nuclear power scenario can be summarized as:
- Greenhouse gas emissions are usually judged to be almost as small as for renewables, but it will require the addition of more renewable energy in nuclear power’s international value chain to get rid of the fossil fuels that are used there today. The risk of release of radioactive materials also requires extensive efforts to be managed along the entire value chain from uranium ore mining, fuel production, operation and waste management.
- Uranium ore mining in particular also has a large physical ‘footprint’ and takes up large natural areas.
- Social problems include the health effects of uranium mining, accidents, proliferation of nuclear weapons and security risks linked to terrorism and conflicts. Russia is now using nuclear power plants as pressure in its war of aggression against Ukraine.
- In terms of resources, nuclear power is also based on linear handling of uranium ore, which is available in limited quantities, and creates radioactive waste that is difficult to handle for the foreseeable future. In terms of costs, independent international assessors such as IEA, Lazard and Bloomberg say that new nuclear power is at least 3-10 times more expensive than renewables. In addition, this difference increases because nuclear power has to deal with an increased number of risks over time, while renewables become cheaper the more that are built due to the ‘learning curve’ and economies of scale. Trials and development are underway around so-called Small Modular Reactors (SMR) with the hope that they will be cheaper than large nuclear power plants. However, this is partly unproven and partly such reactors are still based on linear fuel handling. This is an uphill battle that condemns all conceivable nuclear power plants as more and more unprofitable in relation to the eternal flows that renewable energy is based on, and where no fuel is needed at all. In addition, there are studies that indicate that SMR will create even more waste than the larger nuclear power plants and this should rather drive up the costs. There are also ambitions to build fourth-generation nuclear power in the future, which will be able to partially process the nuclear waste so that it can be used again and produce a waste that becomes dangerous for a shorter period of time. At the same time, the higher electricity price of the nuclear power scenario may mean that the production of fossil-free steel will not be competitive in Sweden, but instead may end up in other countries. And then falls a large part of the reason for doubling electricity production in Sweden.
- In terms of time, all nuclear power technologies have a decisive disadvantage in that they arrive too late to be able to help deal with the climate challenge. Experience from the most recent real nuclear power constructions in the world indicates that regardless of the reactor type, it takes at best 15 years before new nuclear power can be in place (compare Finland, which will soon have been going for 20 years with Olkiluoto). Another important temporal point is that even the nuclear scenario will require a strong expansion of renewables. During nuclear power’s long construction period, the only thing we can do to give society more energy is to make it more efficient and to expand renewables. On the other hand, this means that nuclear power will become redundant once it is connected because we then already have the necessary electricity production capacity in place.
The nuclear power scenario thus has several serious sustainability risks, is expensive and takes too long to get in place to have time to help with climate change.
In the efficiency and renewables scenario, we also assume that electricity demand will increase. However, we assume that a major focus on efficiency can limit this increase to 85 TWh within 15 years. We also assume that this is primarily met with renewable solar, wind and wave power combined with energy storage and flexibility services.
The sustainability effects of the renewable scenario can be summarized as:
- Greenhouse gas emissions are very low for the renewable system and may become even lower as renewable energy is increasingly used in transportation, manufacturing and the construction sector.
- Even the mining for solar cells, wind turbines and storage solutions has a noticeable physical footprint. However, the problem is less than for nuclear power because no mining is needed for the actual operation in the renewable scenario. In addition, a high metal recovery rate is possible, which will save both virgin raw material and energy.
- Socially, local communities and self-governance can be strengthened by more and more private individuals being able to take control of their energy through e.g. solar cells on the roof. This scenario also provides potential health effects in mining and manufacturing but this will be on a smaller scale. There may also be conflicts over land use when solar and wind farms spread. One way to reduce these conflicts could be to let more of the renewable energy’s profits remain with the local communities. In addition, a new decentralized energy system with self-sustaining buildings that combine into self-sustaining neighborhoods and cities becomes more robust. The entire country becomes an energy system that neither storms, terrorist acts nor attacks from foreign powers can knock out.
- In terms of resources, there may be a temporary high demand for certain metals, but once the renewable systems and energy stores have been built, very little is consumed. In addition, there are great opportunities to close the loop and recycle more via new business models. In terms of costs, we now see that solar and wind all over the world – including in Sweden – have gone from being the most expensive to being the cheapest of all energy types in 10 years.
- In terms of time, the efficiency and renewables scenario has great advantages. Solar can be expanded immediately and if all suitable roofs are used, this could provide 40 TWh in a couple of years. The potential for offshore wind power is also great. The Energy Agency has proposed a planning target of approx. 90 TWh, but it will take a little longer to get in place due to greater technical challenges and complicated permit processes. New storage technologies are also being improved at a furious pace, which complements solar and wind power and provides good planability. At the same time, the electrified vehicle fleet will add a large battery capacity that can balance the electricity grid from one day to the next. The production of emission-free steel will similarly require the development of large hydrogen storage facilities that can handle seasonal variations between summer and winter.
In summary, the efficiency and renewables scenario thus provides much more limited and manageable sustainability risks, is significantly cheaper and can be implemented quickly enough to be relevant to the climate challenge.
So what do we need to do now? The potential in efficiency, renewables and flexibility services is apparently enormous and a powerful collective effort is now required to translate this into a rapid Swedish energy transition with associated export opportunities. Our call to the next government is therefore to:
- Bring together the parties and independent experts to formulate a new powerful broad energy agreement that can solve the more pressing problems in a way that at the same time lays a foundation for the next steps in the transition.
Use increased energy tax revenue for an investment fund for energy transition.
Require solar panels on all public buildings.
Strengthen the municipal energy advisors in an information campaign for transition that encourages behavioral changes.
Invest in education and further education for community planners, architects, engineers, installation technicians and others who are needed in efficiency and renewables.
Give all households and businesses support for transition with efficiency improvement, phase-out of direct electric heating, solar cell expansion and energy storage.
Simplify the permit processes for wind power establishment.
In summary, we see that we have all the technology we need and that the accelerating sustainability challenges mean that it will never be cheaper than today to start pushing for the transition. Every penny that may now be spent on new nuclear power must at the same time be taken from the expansion of cheaper, faster and more sustainable power. Let us now heed the warning that the electricity price shock has given us and invest ourselves out of fossil dependence once and for all.