Fossil fuels lose market share when electricity is done right

By Rod Adams, Managing Partner

Mined hydrocarbons, also known as fossil fuels, have been the foundation of modern industrial society for several centuries. But most parts of society don’t depend on the specific action of burning hydrocarbon fuels. People need and want the heat that the combustion reaction produces and the services provided using machinery designed to convert heat into motion.

The growing importance of electricity

Most energy use cases can be supplied by alternative sources of heat and mechanical motion, but non-emitting alternatives such as wind and solar have been constrained by temporal and geographic availability. By themselves, they are not as flexible or as deliverable as hydrocarbons. The electrical grid, however, enables a wide variety of non-fossil fuel alternatives (think wind, solar and nuclear) to deliver controllable heat and motion almost anywhere at almost any time.

When electricity is a) clean, b) abundant, c) reliable and d) cost competitive, it can often win in the markets for services provided by burning hydrocarbons. All four criteria are important. But electricity isn’t a fossil fuel replacement, and thus cleaner, if is produced using fossil fuel power.

Currently, 60% of U.S. electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels because they have generally been reasonably available and affordably priced. We are now producing most all of our own fossil fuels with enhanced U.S. production but we shouldn’t forget those worrying times when the lack of availability and high prices of fossil fuels have threatened the rest of the economy.

Using electricity to replace fossil fuels requires continued reductions in the use of fossil fuels in the electricity sector, and substantial increases in the total amount of electricity produced. Some calculate that electricity production needs to more than triple to enable an energy transition away from fossil fuel dependence.

Several power sources have proven their ability to take significant shares of electricity production from fossil fuels. These include hydropower, nuclear power (from fission) and wind and solar power. Hydro power (essentially falling water) is a well proven way to generate electricity, but due to geographic and environmental constraints it has not grown in the US since 1970. Its production fluctuates with varying precipitation but remains close to 6% of electricity supply. We shall consider the remaining options.

Fission

All nuclear power used today comes from the fission of atoms. When it was initially developed and booming, nuclear energy quickly captured about 20% of the electricity market. Initially discovered in late 1942, fission entered the commercial market in 1957 and grew to 2300 terrawatt hours per year (TWh/yr) of primary energy production by 2000.

Eventually, due to aggressive political opposition, poor project cost and schedule performance, growing regulatory uncertainties – from both state public utility commissions and federal safety regulators – and flat electricity market growth combined to reduce and then halt new nuclear power plant orders by 1978. This was bad enough but, during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a significant number of project cancellations after major expenses had already been incurred. The new nuclear plant construction industry atrophied, nevertheless, ongoing plant operations and services continued to improve, and nuclear capacity factors grew and resulted in upratings on plant generation capability.

Memories of financial losses and periodic abundance of low priced hydrocarbons have helped to delay or derail attempts to revive the nuclear plant construction industry until now.

Wind and solar

Stimulated by Renewable Portfolio Standards, federal production and/or investment tax credits, similar pieces of legislation at state and local levels and tens of billions of dollars in investments appropriated as part of the Recovery Act of 2009, wind and solar have grown rapidly since 2000 to capture about 15% of the US electricity market. Sustained investments and growing markets enabled the supplier (mostly Chinese) and installation industries to achieve economical scale and substantial manufacturing cost reductions. Advocates for wind and solar have lauded these price reductions and have argued that, because these costs are so low, wind and solar are going to be able to grow to replace all of fossil fuel demand.

Unfortunately, the evidence surrounding the growth of renewables show that they are growing rapidly but not even keeping up with the rate of growth of energy demand. Additionally, they are not replacing fossil fuels, which plants are also growing as a function of being needed to supplant the intermittency and low capacity factors of both wind and solar.

The energy transition that we need to achieve has a far greater chance of success in a future where nuclear and renewable energy sources both grow to their potential instead of the historical either-or growth pattern shown to the right.

That binary alternative energy history of growing either nuclear or wind and solar has given us a history of doing very little to reduce fossil fuel consumption or its inherently associated pollution and greenhouse gas production. The graph below shows U.S. historical energy usage and the shifting patterns of growth of coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar.

US historical energy production displaying coal, gas, nuclear, wind and solarThis graph leaves out oil because it provides only 1 percent of electricity generation (though it is largely used in sectors like transportation and heating that are not yet seeing much impact from competition with alternative sources delivered to end users via electricity). It also leaves out geothermal because its production is barely visible in the graph. What’s clear from this image is that wind and solar have helped enable the growth of natural gas, at the expense of coal usage but they have not caused a net decline in the total amount of fossil fuel use, just a marked shift in type.

Multiple tools needed

Transitioning our energy system from fossil fuel dominance to a system producing far less pollution while retaining the availability and abundance that provides prosperity is a difficult task requiring a full set of tools, including nuclear, wind and solar.

Using available tools to their fullest extent requires application of enabling policies, relying on experience of what has worked and what has failed to work. The undeniable success of the wind and solar build out offers lessons that can be applied to new nuclear as an energy source that is as clean and as safe as wind and solar.

Government policies

It is immensely encouraging to see that there is growing political support and action in this direction. Congresses over the last decade have managed to pass several major pieces of legislation supportive of nuclear energy with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. The parties have even engaged in positive competition boosting support to new nuclear energy. Most recently, the Biden Administrative launched the Nuclear Power Project Management and Delivery working group, an expert group empowered to accelerate the approval, construction and deployment of both traditional and advanced nuclear power. This is just the most recent initiative, yet it goes further than any prior administration, and reflects growing public support for the deployment of nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions and continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Internationally, the progress has been equally as impressive. At COP 28 in the UAE this past winter, the US joined with nearly every other nuclear-powered nation in a pledge to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050, even as the entire conference itself agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels.”

Investors and innovators

Along with the government enablers, private sector investors and innovators are applying lessons from the early rise (and then stagnation) of nuclear energy and from the accelerating rise of wind and solar. Nuclear energy sources, now both advanced fission and multiple approaches to fusion, are being developed in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and operating temperatures designed to fit the needs of a much larger universe of potential customers.

The term small modular reactor (SMR) has entered the lexicon and been the subject of much discussion within the small community of people that focus on energy. We like to think of the term as meaning smaller, manufactured reactors and believe it should be viewed as covering a market sector as broad and impactful as the terms PC or AI. We also assert that the world has successfully been using SMRs since the 1950s, but strategic and political considerations restricted their use to military applications, such as for powering submarines.

Some SMRs are designed to be small enough to be fully produced inside factories and delivered as complete units. These are often called micro or very small reactors. Many of these will be able to operate for a decade or more without needing new fuel, giving them capabilities that are unobtainable by fossil fuel generators.

Other SMRs are designed to allow various components and systems to be manufactured, fabricated and assembled in factories and then shipped to sites where the parts can be connected into a complete power plant. These are often being designed to reduce or avoid the mega-project risk that has plagued very large nuclear plants.

Some vendors are focusing on producing reactors as heat sources; letting others design and build systems that will either use the heat directly or as the driver for an energy conversion system that produces electricity. There are designs that focus on producing very high temperature heat and others that focus on improving the fuel cycle to make better use of the energy content of natural actinides like uranium and thorium.

Outside of reactor vendors there are emerging suppliers for waste handling, supportive IT and AI systems, improved displays and simulators, better ways to engage with communities and regulators and an emerging group of companies focused on developing nuclear projects. New business models are being developed to better fit a market that is no longer dominated by vertically integrated monopoly utilities.

The opportunities associated with renewed growth in nuclear are enormous and the variety of solutions is almost overwhelming. As someone who believes in the enormous prospects for nuclear power and as a managing partner in Nucleation Capital,, I spend my days focusing on understanding the teams, the improvements, the markets, the obstacles, the mitigations, the political situation and all of the other complexities associated with successfully deploy a new generation of advanced energy technologies to help change the direction of one of the largest segments of the world’s economy.  We are now in our third year of operations and continuing to assemble a portfolio of investments in companies in this sector with outsized growth potential.

Broadening Participation by Investors into Venture Capital

At Nucleation Capital, we believe a successful energy transition can only be accomplished when attacked with a complete range of the best available tools. This includes advanced nuclear. Plenty of other investors are focusing on wind and solar; we see new nuclear as an under-appreciated sector whose immense value is just beginning to be recognized, so we are focused on investing into this sector and providing access for more investors to participate.

Though some large, public companies will benefit from nuclear energy growth, most of them are widely diversified conglomerates whose nuclear divisions are a relatively small portion of the company. A number of them are working on SMRs of their own. These ventures can usually be accessed through the public markets. We focus our efforts on the younger, smaller and emerging ventures that are targeting nuclear energy innovations and which are raising venture capital to finance their development and growth. By targeting the energy buyers in various niches with products that can compete head-to-head with fossil fuels, they have enormous growth opportunities given the urgency with which the world needs to transition to carbon-free energy sources.

Nucleation Capital is an open-ended fund that has almost unlimited capacity to include new investors (at almost any capital level) that recognize the potential and want to gain investment exposure to this sector. We bring expertise to this sector to synthesize the complexities and make the investment choices for our investors. If this interests you, please make contact to find out how you might prosper with us.

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