Nuclear renaissance?

C&I Issue 10, 2023

Read time: 3 mins


Energy and climate change remain at the top of agendas around the world. The oven-like temperatures around the Mediterranean and resulting epidemic of wildfires and ruined holidays made the headlines over the summer, matched by calls to delay measures that might in some way curb the seemingly unstoppable march of climate change.

In the UK, for example, the Government has responded to calls to delay the ban the sale of new fossil-fueled cars from 2030, with car manufacturers highlighting the need for firm commitments to facilitate their forward planning in the transition to electric vehicles.

As regards energy, over the summer, Goa in India hosted a G20 Energy Ministers Meeting and a series of associated ministerial meetings with business leaders. As an outcome of these various gatherings, there were calls for an acceleration of clean energy transitions. The contradiction of flying delegations, together with all the associated ‘hangers-on’, from around the world when the focus is on reducing the use of fossil fuels was seemingly lost on all those involved.

As might be expected, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was prominent among attendees. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol once again underscored the need for countries to commit to doubling global progress on energy efficiency and tripling global renewable power capacity by 2030 to keep the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C within reach.

Birol’s focus is not just on the developed western world, where the situation is critical, but also on countries like India and whole continents like Africa.

All regions are expected to see solar PV buildout, as a major renewable energy source, achieve record levels during 2023, according to the latest Global Solar PV Market Outlook from consultant Wood Mackenzie. The forecast for new installations in 2023 suggests a record of almost 270GW, which is expected to increase to 330GW by 2032. This exceptional growth is attributed to the setting of ambitious targets and policy support around the world, as well as increased electrification, the phaseout of coal plants, energy security concerns and falling costs.

Looking at specific countries, the outlook reports that the US experienced its largest Q1 result on record in 2023. ‘The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) supported additions of more than 3GW to US development pipelines, a 25% year-on-year increase,’ notes the outlook. This was the largest first quarter on record with the IRA supporting additions of over 3GW.

In Europe, the UK is leading the growth for residential solar installations. Q1 2023 saw the best results for seven years, partly due to a contract backlog from 2022, when waiting times of up to a year were reported. ’If this pace continues, UK residential PV installed capacity will grow by at least 60% in 2023,’ says Wood Mackenzie.

Romania, meanwhile, has become the top distributed PV emerging market in Europe. It is expected to reach 6.5GW by 2027.

China’s share of the PV buildout is expected to fall to 30% by 2032 as a result of the US growth, but it will remain the leading PV manufacturer for at least the next five years. Wood Mackenzie believes, however, that there will be a shift in focus from PV modules to upstream cells and wafers.

There remains one area of renewable energy that is contentious – nuclear. At the company’s annual financial press conference, Lanxess CEO Matthias Zachert called on the German Government to investigate a reversal in its policy against nuclear electricity generation in response to the high energy costs the chemical industry is currently enduring. The Swedish Government is already looking to reverse its policy on nuclear energy to assist in doubling electrical generation by 2045. And the chemical industry across the world is also looking at the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) as a possible route to power facilities and provide energy security.

In the US, Dow has partnered with X-energy to develop its 80MW Xe-100 high-temperature gas-cooled SMR to power one of its former Union Carbide plants on the US Gulf Coast. So-called Generation IV reactors are best known for generating electricity but because they operate at 800°C, they can also be involved in the processing of chemicals, desalination of seawater and the production of green hydrogen.

Meanwhile in Europe, as part of plans to decarbonise the chemical sector by replacing coal-based electrical generation in Poland, as far back as 2020, Synthos Green Energy, part of the Synthos Group, which includes chemical production, began an assessment with Ultra Safe Nuclear for an SMR design to generate hydrogen, heat and power for Synthos chemical plants.

In the UK, Ineos has already held discussions with Rolls-Royce about the possibility of an SMR installation to power its plant at Grangemouth as part of its decarbonisation plans. The devolved Scottish Government has said, however, that it is opposed to nuclear energy and would block any such projects.