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2016 could be a transformative year

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Michael Mariotte − President of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service

If 2015 was the year that the ongoing global energy transition away from nuclear power and fossil fuels and toward a clean energy system based on renewables gained public notice, then 2016 naturally should be the year that the transition takes visible and meaningful steps forward.

Two critical steps that occurred in December ensure that the coming year is indeed likely to be that kind of pivotal, transformative period.

The first was, of course, the international COP 21 climate agreement, which – despite its flaws – will cause a global acceleration of the transition. The second factor, here in the U.S., was the five-year extension (and eventual phase-out) of tax credits for solar and wind power deployment. Both will combine to enable 2016, and the years immediately following, to attain milestone after milestone in the development of a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system.

A third factor, by the way, also limited to the U.S. but related to the ability to achieve the COP 21 agreement, is President Obama's Clean Power Plan.

But you don't need to take my word for it; there are plenty of energy experts predicting the same–and also throwing out new ideas for how to make the transition even faster.

First, take a step back, to those long-ago almost-forgotten first days of the Obama Administration back in 2009. As E&E Publishing put it, "If you were a time traveler from 2009, you would not recognize the energy world of 2016."1 There is a lot of truth in that, as the article demonstrates, but there also have been a lot of changes the article doesn't address. For example, while the article does note in sort of sidestep fashion that solar and wind prices have fallen through the floor over the past seven years, it misses the fact that nuclear costs have not done the same – in fact they've increased even for paid-for operating reactors to the point where in many competitive markets, such reactors are no longer economically competitive with renewables, a gap that is only going to grow.

The World Future Council (WFC) does notice that point in its round-up of energy developments and projections for an exciting energy system quite unlike the 20th century model the dinosaur utilities are still striving to protect: "Fossil fuels and nuclear power are now bound to remain stranded assets not only because they are environmentally destructive or bad for the climate, but more importantly, because they have become a financially NOT viable option for the 21st century."2

WFC approvingly notes Germany's ongoing and increasingly successful Energiewende energy transition, and a new report from the German think-tank Agora Energiewende documents that success, which is becoming the de facto, if not necessarily publicly acknowledged, model for the rest of the world.3

Meanwhile, Utility Dive takes a look at the effect the five-year extension of the renewable tax credits will have on the rapidly growing clean energy technologies and predicts even faster deployment of such distributed energy resources than we've experienced to date.4

While last year's breakthrough developments in energy storage – the ability to save electricity generated by solar and wind during peak times and use it later, when wind dies down and the sun sets – continue to be a game-changer and will lead to more and more use of both technologies, some people at are thinking bigger.5 They envision a globally interconnected renewable energy system that can move around electrons as needed where needed. There are obviously a lot of roadblocks to establishment of such a system, not the least of which are political, but the idea merits consideration.

The COP 21 agreement and the Clean Power Plan both have their flaws, and both have been criticized for being under-ambitious and insufficient in their stated goals. The criticism is correct, at least in their currently-stated goals. But neither document is intended to be the last word on the subject; both, in fact, view their goals as first steps, not final ones. And, as this excellent article6 points out, if you're a utility executive making decisions now that will affect your company and the supply of electricity 30-40 years into the future – something that at least the smart utility execs do – then you have to plan to meet not only the stated goals of these documents for the relatively near future, but the extremely high likelihood that the goals are a moving target, and that they will continue to move away from dirty energy and toward a renewable energy future. In other words, deeper decarbonization is on the not-distant horizon.

Not that any of this happens without a fight of course, as we've pointed out many, many times. A renewable-powered future is by definition an existential threat to the nuclear and fossil fuel interests, and they're not going to slink quietly away on their own, as pointed out in this article: Can We Move Forward To The Future Of Electric Power?7

Still, as the title of that article indicates, the world is beginning to become impatient with climate deniers and with those standing in the way of a clean energy system. With any luck at all, 2016 will be the last U.S. presidential campaign featuring climate deniers at all. If that turns out to be the case, then 2016 will indeed turn out to be the kind of pivotal, transformative year it portends.

Michael Mariotte regularly writes at