The Case for Solar and Other Renewables in Iran Instead of Nuclear Anything

With 300 sun-drenched days per year over 80 percent of the country, Iran has to be the envy of all countries entering the booming solar power age with its non-polluting, safe, recyclable and increasingly cheap electricity. It certainly has made go-getters, judging from all those listed on just one google search page for the global solar industry — Germany, South Korea, Denmark, India — even back in 2014 — racing after potential billions in sales of renewable energy goods and services to Iran’s public utility system. Today, it’s also additionally vigorously courted by others Italy, the UK, China, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden and Tunisia. Meanwhile, US solar firms remain blockaded and frustrated by Congressional enemies to join them for now.

Add to Iran’s energy mix — led by solar — 15 wind-power “farms” and their projection of 5,000-megawatt (MW) capacity by 2018, thanks to present air currents from the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. At least one study does note the decline of a major wind route over Esfahan province. Nevertheless, last September, a Swiss company agreed to build a $839,000,000 wind farm in the northern mountain passes.

Renewables in general are smashing energy records around the globe almost daily. Last year, 161 gigawatts (GW) was added to the world total, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Wind increased its total by 51 GW, but solar breezed past by 71 GW. By the end of 2016, Germany, with a population comparable to Iran, reported that 29 percent of its power came from renewables. But it was Denmark who stunned the energy world by a one-day record of 100 percent of its electricity from wind power.

Best of all, battery systems store daytime sun power during night and cloudy days. Moreover, all that silicon can be recycled when panels end their 20-year lifespans.

Putin Offers 20 Reactors

Yet comes now the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Iran involved an offer “to build 20 nuclear power reactors” in a country with only one operational nuclear plant and another under construction, both at the Gulf port at Bushehr. After all, Russia played a major role in the Bushehr plants: design, personnel training, materials, equipment, construction, operation and maintenance.

The first plant took 38 years to operate, beginning in September 2013, and was hampered by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake in April and several in May, which cracked the plant’s concrete in that quake-prone country.

Too, Bishehr just suffered a major flood in the province’s rural/urban areas, causing $45,000,000 in damages so far. Both the quakes and flood had to have reminded energy officials of what the tsunami did to Fukushima’s nuclear power plants.

The second plant — with two reactor units — is an estimated $10 billion project and could take the typical 10 years to build.

Learning about Putin’s reactor offer must have caused global head-scratching from those all too familiar with the cataclysmic meltdowns at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, plus nine others from “serious incidents.” Three-Mile-Island was only a year old despite the usual 30-40 year lifespan of nuclear plants.

Solar Plant Construction Takes Only Four Months

Construction time for a solar plant is also minuscule compared to a nuclear plant that requires large waterways to cool fuel. Nuclear plant construction time is generally from five to eight years. It’s four months for the average solar installation whether for others, such as the Dominican Republic’s 30 MW plant or China’s 850 MW installation.

Commercial sites such as Google‘s seven-building headquarters in Mountain View, California, could take a few weeks longer. That one took six months in 2007 before powering up its 1.6 MW solar system to save nearly $400,000 per year now in operations.

For Iran’s 80,726,291 potential consumers, a solar system can be installed andoperational in five days for a house. In the US, excess wattage is sold back to the electrical utility providing the grid. That’s entirely possible in Iran, of course.

Trouble lies dead ahead for nuclear power plants, as most user countries know only too well: old age and mandatory retirement.

It’s shown especially by prohibitive and increasing costs in maintenance and even greater expense for decommissioning cleanup and burial, as noted above.

Cleanups are decades-long propositions and can cost from $4,000,000,000 to $8,000,000,000 from plant decommissions — 31 so far from 92 in the US. Abroad, the decommissions are Britain, 15; France and Japan, 13; Germany, 11; Russia, 7; Canada, 4; and Italy, 3.

Nuclear Plant Construction Cancellations Are Increasing

Coupled with decommissions is an upsurge in construction cancellations.

Bloomberg summed up nuclear power’s overall situation in late March:

The atomic-power industry has shown signs of trouble for years. Germany’s Siemens AG abandoned its nuclear business in 2011, while Areva SA was this year bailed out by parties including the French government. Of 754 reactors worldwide, 90 have been abandoned at various stages of construction…

Russia did so four years ago in cancelling a 2,300 plant at Kaliningrad, partly for lack of financing, but mostly for lack of Baltic customers. The same is true in the US, where construction cancellations and planned installations are now widespread.

Some 120 reactor orders have been cancelled over the last few years. One source showed that of the 253 reactors originally ordered from 1953-2008, construction cancellations involved 38 states and 51 cancelled plans.

The latest seems to be the cancellation of two half-finished reactors in a “next-generation” $6,000,000,000 plant with a projected 1,256 MW capacity at Bellefonte, Alabama, for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) because of “shrinking power demand and rising nuclear construction costs.”

In view of so many plant phase-outs and only 10 groundbreakings since 2016, nothing says that Iran can’t cut its losses midway into construction of that second nuclear plant in Bushehr.

Nuclear’s Radioactive Waste Has Transportation, Storage Hazards

Above all, however, the most significant and highly dangerous aspect of nuclear power that solar doesn’t have is what to do with transport and storage of radioactive waste from decommissioning.

Waste, as Google’s long list of menu entries indicates, has become the greatest downside for this power source, judging from the continuing stream of negative reports and articles since the first plants began using its radioactive-generated electricity.

An attendant frightening problem involving humans and animals and the environment is transporting such deadly waste to those dumps, either by truck in bad weather conditions or by rail. Rail shipments are by far the most hazardous transit systems, judging from non-stop wrecks. The US had 13 in2016, and six so far this year; Britain had five last year; Iran, two.

Never mind how waste is packaged for removal. It’s the safe-storage factor that secretly has to terrify plant officials, nuclear experts and the knowledgeable millions of environmental activists.

The best repository is still deep burial, yet the life of most stored radioactive waste doesn’t peak for 300,000 years. Burial is especially high risk in earthquake regions, or certainly in Iran’s desert of swirling sands.

Of the 31 countries that have “gone nuclear,” only the US, UK, France, Sweden and Finland have begun work on underground waste dumps.

The critical and fast-creeping problem is what happens when storage facilities reach capacity like the US’s chief dump in Nevada’s Yucca Flats or Britain’s Sellafield off the Isle of Man. Shutdown worries about Yucca Flats limitations has meant spreading storage to 75 sites in 33 states. Yucca Flats’ cost was nearly $97,000,000,000, plus $8,000,000,000 for a site study and building the tunnel under Yucca Mountain.

Solar power has none of these death-dealing disadvantages. And Iran at least is inside the gate of the age of renewables in this respect with its constant sunshine, silica deposits and hundreds of locations for solar plants. After all, renewable power generation and capacity around the world last year was 55.3 percent, up from 5.2 percent in 2007. And Iran may soon be part of it.

President Hassan Rouhani has urged strong support for renewables. Iran has forward-looking leadership in its Energy Ministry and subdivision of Renewable Energy Organization of Iran (SUNA).

The only obstacles to a major effort have been lack of outside financial sources and Old Guard fears about risking a jump into the unknown, as if Fukushima and Chernobyl didn’t have risks to safety and investors’ money.

SUNA’s director Mohammad Sadeqzadeh was outspoken last fall about the principal roadblocks for renewables. As reported in Iran’s Financial Tribune:

Iran’s power industry is based mainly on fossil fuels, which explains why senior decision and policy-makers in the energy sector have paid very little attention to renewable technologies over the past for decades. Sadeqzadeh believes that the bloated bureaucracy and lack of economic incentives has indeed pushed “private enterprise farther away from investing in renewable energies.”

Iran Seeks $3 Billion to Finance Solar and Other Renewable Plants

Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian agrees. When US sanctions were partially lifted last year, he began pursuing $3,000,000,000, mostly from European sources to break ground for renewable power projects. The goal is 7,500 MW by 2030, he said, but all signs point to far more, given key current indicators.

One major indicator has been recent groundbreakings for a trio of solar installations. The largest is the 100 MW plant out in the desert city of Aran va Bidgol in famed Isfahan province south of Tehran. Built and to be owned by a South Korean company at a cost of $350,000,000, construction is expected to take only three months. It will revert to Iranian ownership after six years.

Two 7 MW solar plants, costing SUNA $17,000,000, went online in early February located in the western mountains and fertile fields of Hamadan province.

Another indicator that should help Iran is the rapid and astronomical drop in renewables expense. A report from the United Nations and Bloomberg New Energy Finance just noted a global 17 percent drop from 2015 in solar alone for 2016 — and without subsidies.

Add to this Minister of Energy Hamid Chitchian’s revelation that theHamadan plants’ low-voltage solar panels were made in Iran. And why not? Iran’s silica-sand is so pure that it’s prized by the world’s glass-making industry. The US Geological Survey also says Iran’s silica-sand is part of the world’s 1 percent supply. Many exporters are eager to sell this resource to foreign companies, thanks to what USGS said was “an extensive mineral and processing industry.”

Silica could cut production costs significantly, but especially if equipment for future plants could be largely assembled in Iran.

Consider, too, the country’s massive and available labor force for this potential power industry. Current unemployment is 12.7 percent, but for youth, it’s 30.2 percent. This appalling rate could be turned around by the renewables industry, particularly in solar. Look what it’s doing for job creation elsewhere: US solar companies currently employ 200,000. In China, it’s 3,500,000.

Iran could start with a crash apprentice program with the foreign crews building those three solar plants. Later, it could send the tech-smart, eager unemployed interested in pioneering the nation’s solar entrepreneurs to China or Germany to learn design, production, installation, maintenance — and sales skills for foreign trade.

A host of solar stations also could provide sufficient electricity to attract foreign industry.

“Going Solar” Will Stymie Warhawks’ Reasons for Attack

A major side benefit politically would be Iranian leaders able to point out to American warhawks that the country could mothball its two nuclear plants for solar-based electricity. That certainly would pull the Persian carpet out from under the perennial cover used by the global oil barons — with military back up — that the real objective all these years has been to seize Iran’s vast oil reserves and refineries, as was done in Iraq.

For now, a vital indicator for the future is that Iranian officials joining a pair of environmental groups — Malibu-based Green World and London’s Voice of Renewables — to stage the upcoming and mammoth Renewable Iran 2017 conference. It’s the first annual, free conference in Tehran. More than 150 exhibitors will show their wares and speakers will provide state-of-the-art information about advances in solar and wind power. The government’s energy directors are hoping it will draw financial parties and private renewables companies as well.

Ultimately, the immediate question for Iran’s energy decision-makers must make is whether solar and other renewables are preferable to nuclear-based electricity with all its drawbacks.

As President Rouhani has hinted: “The political will in Iran to realize success in this market is abundantly clear.” And all the indicators are that solar power undoubtedly may lead the way.