The Case for a Diverse Energy Mix in Emerging Markets


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Nuclear energy combined with renewables can contribute to reducing carbon emissions.

Recently, Forum on Energy spotlighted a video that effectively outlines the necessity for and logic behind a diverse energy mix in the United States, with emphasis on the need for nuclear energy in addition to renewables. The argument for expanding nuclear power in conjunction with renewable technologies for a sustainable future does not, however, only stand in the U.S.

In emerging markets, the impetus behind sustainable development is arguably stronger. At global conventions such as COP21, debate is historically sustained and passionate around the best approach for electrifying the portions of the world that have yet to establish their grid.

On one hand, these countries often feel that they deserve the same opportunities for development that have been available to states that developed their economies long ago namely coal plants. Building an economy powered by coal is stable, reliable, and cheap, which are appealing attributes to nations aiming to establish their space in the global economy.

The counterargument, however, is that protracted use of coal to power global economies has already contributed greatly to the climate crisis, and allowing emerging markets to follow the same path could be catastrophic. Many advocate, therefore, supporting developing nations in their electrification by aiding financially and technologically to help them “leapfrog” traditional stepping-stones such as coal.

The Vision

Understandably, developing nations aspire to achieve reliable electricity that penetrates to their full population, as developed nations already enjoy. The problem is they must chart new territory if they are to avoid worsening the impact already felt from 150 years of industrialization through coal.

This is where the argument for diversification becomes key. Many developing nations are rich in certain natural resources, such as the potential for wind, solar, or hydropower. These are extremely promising technologies, but until further progress is made with battery storage capacity, cannot support the reliable electricity needs of an entire grid.

Nuclear energy can provide a key component to this equation in two potential scenarios. One possibility is to market conventional large light water reactors to emerging markets, as is already underway in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and several others.

The future envisioned by many in the nuclear energy industry, however, has shifted toward the potential of small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs. SMRs hold the potential to reshape the structure of electricity grids, bringing stable, reliable access to remote areas without needing to rely on unpredictable renewables or the development of a costly, inefficient centralized grid. SMRs, generating 300-700 MW of electricity, hold particular promise for remote villages, islands, and could even provide an on-site boost to existing generation at electro-intensive industrial sites.

With this potential, developing economies could achieve robust electricity penetration with a healthy, diverse market. Base-load power provided by SMRs could be complemented by meeting peak demand with renewables such as solar, hydro, and wind.

Once scaled up, many predict that SMRs would rapidly become cost-competitive, given the economies of scale of mass-production. Ultimately, diversifying emerging markets’ energy portfolios through nuclear power may not only provide carbon-free, reliable electricity, but increased siting flexibility with the placement of SMRs near centers of greatest demand, reducing transmission inefficiency and energy deserts.