Nuclear vs. Renewable: Which is the way to go?

Nuclear vs. Renewable Which is the way to go

While the Duterte administration is resolved to go on a massive infrastructure program called Build Build Build, both government and the private sector face a huge challenge: where to get the energy needed to power such an undertaking?

There isn’t one type of energy source that produces enough power for Build Build Build. Experts estimate that some 43,000 MW are needed for the program—an amount that’s never been generated before. In 2016, the Philippines generated 21,423 MW—but the dependable capacity was only at 19, 097 MW.

The answer to this looming shortage of power is to create an energy mix—a combination of various energy sources ready to be tapped when needed. Having such a mix is good not only for Build Build Build but also for sustaining the country’s economic growth.

Coal accounted for 36.5 percent of the country’s dependable capacity for 2016. The remaining power needs may be addressed through both renewable energy sources and nuclear power.  


Nuclear potential

The Philippines does have a nuclear power source—but it’s been mothballed for the past 30 years because of protests due to environmental and safety concerns.

The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is a 620 megawatt (MW) power plant in Bataan that was constructed during the administration of then-president Ferdinand Marcos.

Just last year, the BNPP made news as the Duterte Administration considers reviving it in order to bring down power rates and address the country’s growing power demand.

According to PNRI director Carlo Arcilla, the rehabilitation of the nuclear plant is viable, but the decision should come from no other than President Duterte himself.

“The promotion of nuclear energy is an important decision. We cannot go all out into manufacturing because of high power costs, and the cheapest cost and has no emission is through nuclear,” Arcilla said in a report by the Philippine Star.

The BNPP, Napocor general manager Mauro Marcelo said, can supply 10 percent of the power requirements in the Luzon Grid. It can also bring down power costs in the Philippines.

“When we operate the nuclear power plant in the first 20 years, the cost of electricity (per kilowatt hour) is about P1. It will go to about P2 per kWh for the transmission cost. With coal, it can cost about P6,” Marcelo said.

According to opinion writer Elizabeth Angsioco in The Manila Standard, the nuclear plant is only refueled with 20 tons of fuel every 18 months, which can generate around 8.1 billion kilowatt-hours.

“That’s enough to light up more than 41.3 billion 15-watt light bulbs for eighteen months, 24 hours a day,” she wrote.

Firing up the BNPP, the Standard columnist said, will result in cheaper electricity. “This will make us more attractive to foreign investors. We will be less bypassed as an investment/manufacturing destination. Our costly electricity cost us dearly in terms of economic opportunity.”

However, activists say the BNPP is still tangled in various environmental issues. According to Greenpeace, the life cycle of a nuclear power plant has a significant contribution to climate change.

“Not only is nuclear power the most dangerous source of electricity, it is by far the most expensive option for power generation,” Greenpeace said.

The country has spent around $1.2 billion for the construction of the power plant alone. Reviving it would mean an expenditure of another $1 billion.

Just recently, Russia and the Philippines signed a memorandum of cooperation (MOC) that will audit and assess the BNPP, as well as the decision on its rehabilitation.

The two countries will also cooperate on nuclear infrastructure studies towards national energy policy development, and nuclear energy program implementation in the Philippines.


Subsidizing renewables

Meanwhile, renewable energy (RE) has always been abundant in the country. In 2016, renewable power sources accounted for 31.4 percent of the country’s dependable capacity.

The push for RE gained momentum following the Philippines commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The country hopes to reduce its carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030.

ASEAN Center for Energy executive director Sanjayan Velautham said two years ago that the country has great potential for clean and sustainable sources of electricity.

“The Philippines should look at these easier and mature technologies to be established and taken on. Solar and wind are relatively new so the learning curve is still to be built,” he said at the 2015 Asia Clean Energy Forum.

“The energy industry is shifting from dirty, 20th century fuels like coal to clean, cutting-edge RE technology,” Solar Philippines Power Project Holdings, Inc. president Leandro L. Leviste told the Inquirer.

According to Greenpeace, “Renewable energy has the technological potential to contribute more than 50% of the country’s energy by 2020 from geothermal (28.90%), hydro (22.97%), wind and solar (2.90%), and biomass (.73%)

The biggest advantage renewable energy has is that its sources will not run out, especially for solar, and wind. Another is that RE produces little to no carbon emissions, something that coal is always called out for.

Renewable energy projects would also open doors for new jobs. In a study by Greenpeace, 6.3 million jobs would be created by RE projects.

“Solar Entrepreneurs say that for each 10 MW plant in the country, they hire 1000 people during the construction for 6 months, and 100 people full time,” the group said.

However, for others, the problem with renewable energy is that it is a non-baseload kind of power source. RE can only generate power at certain times and conditions.


Controversy over FIT

In a report by Rappler, nuclear energy advocates hit the Feed – in – Tariff (FIT) scheme given to RE projects.

The FIT is a system set by the government meant to encourage renewable energy (RE) developments and investments in the country.

This system was designed to provide incentives to developers that utilize RE sources. This is through the FIT-ALL or Feed-In-Tariff Allowance. FIT-ALL is a fund that would supposedly help RE producers take on the huge costs of building RE facilities.

The downside for consumers is that they are the ones paying for FIT-ALL: to build and replenish its funds, consumers pay for additional charges reflected in their electricity bill.

“What people don’t talk about when they talk about renewable energy is the investment needed to back it up which means a double investment,” Mark Cojuangco told Rappler.

“They’re being subsidized under the law so that we make their inefficient technology economically viable by paying more. How does that make power cheaper? It doesn’t. And the non-base load of renewable energy makes our powerless reliable,” he stressed.

One thing’s for sure–whether they’re looking at fossil fuels like coal or oil, renewable energy, or nuclear energy–the government needs to come up with an ideal energy mix to sustain the country’s development.