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Investing in the Clean Energy Transition

Financing and economic support for nuclear power

Shant Krikorian

Investing in the clean energy transition


Innovative financing and market policies are one way that investment in new build nuclear power plants is becoming more attractive, which may help to pave the way for a clean energy future.

Nuclear power — which produces no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during operation — has been widely recognized by many countries for its important role in reducing GHG emissions and mitigating climate change. Its flexible and continuous stream of energy can also supplement supplies when other energy sources, such as variable renewables like wind or solar are not available.

Despite these benefits, one of the biggest challenges with adopting nuclear power is economics. While the economics of nuclear power from today’s fleet remains competitive in many markets, financing a new plant has high up-front capital expenses and requires long-term investment.

“The energy market is changing and has become more unpredictable in many countries because they are diversifying their energy sources in order to decarbonize, which has led to more fluctuations in energy prices and supplies,” said Wei Huang, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Planning, Information and Knowledge Management. “This more volatile market is contributing to the uncertainty of committing to long-lived, capital-intensive technologies with large upfront costs, like nuclear power.”

Innovative approaches to financing and market policies in the nuclear industry can help mitigate uncertainty and counteract market fluctuations, said Maria G. Korsnick, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Advances in technology are also helping to make nuclear power a more cost-effective option (learn more here).

“For nuclear to achieve its full potential in a low carbon energy future, nuclear power plants must receive appropriate compensation for the clean energy attributes and other benefits that are inconsistently valued across electricity markets,” Korsnick said. “Policymakers should pursue approaches that build upon the growing consensus that including nuclear energy is the most cost-effective way to quickly transition to a clean electricity system. This means prioritizing the preservation of existing nuclear energy assets and creating a pathway for the construction of advanced nuclear energy facilities.”

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the world’s total, direct energy sector subsidies are estimated to have been at least US $634 billion in 2017. These were largely dominated by subsidies to fossil fuels and renewable power generation technologies.

Encouraging nuclear investments

Power purchase agreements (PPAs) have been used for a range of technologies for decades, but they are now gaining ground in nuclear power as the most widely used approach for decreasing uncertainty and securing long-term revenues from a new nuclear power plant project. These agreements are made between the project implementers and the purchasers of the nuclear power plant, with the aim of agreeing on a price for a specific amount of electricity for a specific, usually long period of time, which often covers the full cost of the project plus a margin. PPAs are also generally complemented by other forms of support through governments and vendors as well as innovative nuclear power financing schemes, such as ‘contracts for difference’ and ‘build, own, operate’, which are designed to reduce risk and attract investments.

The Akkuyu nuclear power plant project in Turkey, for example, has used PPAs as well as government and vendor financing and loan guarantees.

“The Akkuyu nuclear power plant combines a PPA covering the project cost with vendor financing from ‘Rosatom’, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, which will build, own and operate the plant. This gives all entities involved the stability and assurance in knowing the price of electricity and various investments are secure,” said Anton Dedusenko, Deputy Chairman at Akkuyu Nuclear’s Board of Directors. “The security provided by this PPA has opened the way for discussions with potential investors to take up to a 49% equity stake in the project. Such a large investment is usually attractive when there are reassurances and certainty about the plant’s future revenues, and that’s what the PPA is able to provide.”

Carbon pricing

With an eye on a clean energy future, government policies to support low carbon electricity generation have materialized as direct subsidies, feed-in tariffs, quota obligations and energy tax exemptions.

One of the approaches being widely adopted is carbon pricing, which aims to reduce emissions and incentivize the use of low carbon energy sources. This also helps to make these energy sources a more competitive and stable option against the low cost of fossil fuels.

Carbon pricing in its simplest form is a per-tonne levy on carbon dioxide emissions from, for example, electric power stations and industrial boilers. Under a carbon pricing scheme, a factory using fossil fuels and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide would pay more than a factory using low carbon energy sources and releasing fewer emissions.

“A carbon price is set based on the estimated cost of GHG emissions, such as the cost of damage to people’s health and the environment,” said Henri Paillere, Head of the IAEA’s Planning and Economic Studies Section. “The aim is to shift the burden of damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions back to the source responsible as a way to encourage the use of low carbon energy sources to ultimately reduce GHG emissions.”

In the case of nuclear power, a carbon price can also make it more competitive to operate than fossil fuels, especially in the long run, because of the savings on emissions. By stabilizing the price, some of the uncertainties of investing in nuclear power are also reduced.

“Low carbon technologies such as nuclear, but also hydro and variable renewables, require such a carbon price to remain competitive against fossil fuels, especially when the price of fossil fuels falls,” said Jan Horst Keppler, Senior Economic Advisor at the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD/NEA). “But over the long term, governments have to convince project developers and investors that they are serious about implementing stable or rising carbon prices.”

As countries explore financing and policy options, the IAEA’s activities in energy planning help them navigate this process. The IAEA carries out surveys of existing financing models, as well as organizes expert meetings and publishes comprehensive reports on the costs and benefits of nuclear power based on successfully completed projects.

“Ensuring the continued operation of existing nuclear power plants and accelerating the deployment of new ones can be challenging in a volatile energy market,” Paillere said. “Government institutions need to continue to recognize the role nuclear power plays as key to sustainable development and clean energy generation.”

September, 2020
Vol. 61-3

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