The alternatives to coal: can gas, renewables, and nuclear work together?

As countries and citizens around the world look to consume cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy, “there is room for all forms of energy to be cooperating with each other,” according to Bader Al Lamki, the executive director of Masdar Clean Energy, a renewable energy company based in the United Arab Emirates.

As part of the Atlantic Council’s 2019 Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on January 12, energy experts on natural gas, renewables, and nuclear industries discussed whether these fuel sources can work together or are doomed to compete with one another as they look to displace coal as the world’s leading power source.

When asked by moderator David Goldwyn, chairman of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center’s Energy Advisory Group, if renewables can work alongside other energy sources, Fatima Al-Foora Al Shamsi, UAE’s assistant undersecretary for electricity and future energy affairs, said “there will be cooperation and there will be a competition—competition for selection… [but also] cooperation together to achieved the required reliability” in the energy sector.

Al Shamsi reported that the UAE is currently on track for its “Fifty at Fifty” goal, where by 2050 its energy portfolio will consist of 50 percent clean energy and 50 percent fossil fuels. Of this 38 percent will be gas, 12 percent will be clean coal, 44 percent will be renewable, and 6 percent will be from nuclear power.

Al Lamki said that renewables finally have a “cost and valuation that is provable,” which along with greater access to financial institutions and looser regulation is setting the industry up for significant growth in the future. Al Lamki pointed out that “renewables can go places where neither nuclear nor gas can go to—rural villages and islands… where electrification is done much faster and much easier.” Additionally, Al Lamki explained, renewables can play a role in helping other energy industries, such as “solar being used to produce stream to enhance oil recovery.”

Despite renewables’ growing strength, there are still key hurdles to overcome, namely missing storage capacity and problems with reliability. This is where natural gas can help fill in the gaps, according to Meg Gentle, president and CEO of Tellurian Inc., a US-based natural gas company. “Until we as an industry solve the storage cost and reliability that is needed to make the intermittency of renewables more reliable for the grid, gas is a complement to renewables for the next several decades,” Gentle said.

“I do think that we will have improvements in renewable technology and I am hopeful that we will one day crack the code on storage,” Gentle added. “But even when that happens, I believe that economies will continue to have a [diverse energy] portfolio so that they’re certain to have security and reliability in their energy base. We may get higher and higher percentage of renewables and lower percentage of gas, oil, and nuclear, but they will always play a part going forward.”

Gentle pointed out that liquefied natural gas has already bailed out countries that have run into shortfalls from their renewable industries, such as the United Kingdom and Spain. “As we install more and more renewables,” Gentle said, “we need to make sure that we install worldwide more natural gas fired capacity to provide that back up security so that there is energy security and reliability in the grid.”

Yongsoo Huh, president and CEO of GS Energy, a South Korean energy company, said nautral gas would play an outsized role in his country’s energy transition, because “Korea does not have really good quality of wind or solar like UAE—so it is a very hard to make [renewables] happen.” While most countries now agree on the need to switch away from coal, “every country has a different mixture target,” for their clean energy transition, Huh said.

Dan Poneman, a former US secretary of Energy and the president and CEO of Centrus Energy Corporation, said that a shift to renewables and natural gas would not be enough to combat climate change on its own. “If we are serious about climate change,” Poneman said, “I think there is really a strong incentive to get those innovations in the nuclear sector that are going to make it more competitive, seen to be safer, and enjoying public confidence.”

Problems with waste, cost, schedule, and public confidence continue to be massive obstacles for the nuclear energy industry, Poneman conceded, especially after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. Nuclear is also often left out of regulatory “renewable portfolio standards” as opposed to “clean energy standards,” which could put nuclear on the same level playing field as other carbon free energy sources.

Despite the challenges, the are “significant new builds going on in India and China,” with a potential for a “20 percent increase in overall nuclear if the projects that are now underway are completed in the next ten years, of which half comes from [Asia].”

The key, Poneman argued, will be technological change. “If the nuclear industry is not able to innovate I think it will have a real problem even surviving,” Poneman said. “We are going to have to look at the next generation of technologies,” to “shift the image of nuclear [and]. . . the reality of nuclear that is cleaner, safer, [and] more manageable.”

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Image: From left, UAE Assistant Undersecretary for Electricity and Future Energy Affairs Fatima Al-Foora Al Shamsi, Executive Director of Masdar Clean Energy Bader Al Lamki, President and CEO of Tellurian, Inc. Meg Gentle, President and CEO of Centrus Energy Corp. Dan Poneman, and President and CEO of GS Energy Yongsoo Huh speak at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on January 12, 2019.