Why developing countries need coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, not wind and solar

When it comes to electricity, Americans are spoiled.

In 1910, only 10 percent of American homes had electricity, according to a publication by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. By 1920, that number had surged to around 40 percent. By 1930, almost 70 percent of households had access to electricity, and by the late 1950s, nearly every household in America had access to electricity.

This means that the vast majority of Americans alive today have no recollection of what life was like before electricity was available at the flip of a switch in their homes, and this number is shrinking every single day.

It isn’t just electricity that Americans are accustomed to, either. By 1960 nearly every American household had a refrigerator, more than 90 percent of Americans had a color TV by 1980, nearly 90 percent of Americans had an air conditioner in 2000, and today, almost 90 percent of Americans have access to the internet.

Because we are so accustomed to universal access to electricity, many of us don’t even think about how the electricity we depend upon every single day is generated and transported to us. We simply expect it to be there.

This lack of familiarity with how the grid works allows us to entertain fantasies about how we should change the system, but Americans around the country are receiving a reality check on their aspirations to power the grid with wind turbines and solar panels. Rolling blackouts in California, Texas, and the 14 states comprising the Southwest Power Pool within the last six months show that these technologies are simply too unreliable to provide meaningful quantities of energy when it is needed most.

This begs the question, why would anyone in a developing country look at the events of the last six months and say, “That’s what I want!”?

People in developing countries don’t want electricity when the weather cooperates, they want it to be there 24/7, and they want it to be affordable. This is why many parts of the developing world are pursuing an increase in electricity generation from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, with some renewables sprinkled in on top.

The map below is from Our World in Data, and it shows the per capita electricity consumption for every country in the world in 2019. You’ll notice that Mexico, our neighbor to the South, uses 4.7 times less energy, on a per-capita basis, than people in the United States. Journalist Robert Bryce notes that his old refrigerator used nearly 950 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. This means there are 3.3 billion people around the world that use less electricity every year than Bryce’s old refrigerator.

These 3.3 billion people want access to more energy, and they deserve it. To electrify their homes, they are going to build the power plants that generate the best energy return on investment. In other words, they are going to prioritize energy sources that are dependable and resilient and can lift their populations out of poverty.

If some people in the United States don’t want people in the developing world to use coal or natural gas, they need to give them a better alternative, one that is more reliable and less expensive than these traditional sources of electricity. They need to provide a benefit that is so obvious that they would be foolish not to pursue it.

As we have seen over the last six months, wind and solar are not that alternative, but nuclear power can be.

Currently, nuclear power is more expensive than building a new natural gas plant, but if any type of power plant will ever be able to offer a superior service at a lower cost relative to fossil fuels, it will be nuclear power. This is because the amount of energy in a kilogram of uranium (about 2.2 pounds) is 3.1 million times higher than a kilogram of coal and 1.6 million times higher than a kilogram of gasoline.

The superior energy density of nuclear fuels relative to fossil fuels is the great opportunity for future generations. We want to produce more useful energy by consuming less fuel.

Unreliable energy sources like wind and solar may make people feel like they are doing the right thing for the planet and other people, but we aren’t going to make the world a better place by making electricity more expensive and less reliable. The only way to enact sustainable positive change is to produce a superior product and a better price. The longer we pretend that wind and solar are the future, the longer we wait for nuclear power, the true future of energy.