Even if the world keeps rolling out solar panels and wind farms at the current, record rate, the chance of meeting our climate change targets remains thin. That’s because China, India, and other parts of the developing world, while embracing renewables, are still building hundreds of coal plants to produce cheap, reliable power without having to depend on the variability of the sun and wind.
It is true that the developing world is also building dozens of nuclear power plants to provide carbon free electricity, but these are old, light water designs that typically cost more than coal. If nuclear power is to truly replace coal in the developing world, it will have to be cheaper.
That’s where advanced nuclear power comes in. At Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference, held this week in Carlsbad, Calif., a number of CEOs and investors gathered to discuss the outlook for fourth-generation nuclear power plants. What sets these plants apart is that they will be, according to their backers, cheaper and safer than our existing technology. Some, for instance, have modular designs or more simple cooling systems, which can reduce the cost. In some cases, advanced nuclear power plants will use 75% less construction material per megawatt produced, which will help make them more cost competitive with fossil fuels and renewables. “The image of nuclear has been stagnant for 30 years; they’re seen as big expensive projects,” said Jessica Lovering, director of energy research at the non-profit Breakthrough Institute. “There’s nothing intrinsically expensive about nuclear. It depends on the technology and the regulatory environment.”
The technologies vary. Terrestrial Energy is using a molten salt technology, which allows for a simpler and safer cooling system. Bill Gates' TerraPower is a traveling wave reactor that runs on spent fuel. Nuscale uses light water technology but its plants will be modular—think backyard nukes. Josh Freed, vice president of the clean energy program at the non-profit Third Way, said: “We already have $1 billion in private capital invested in 50 advanced nuclear companies.” Freed also pointed out that legislation is moving through Congress to help streamline the permitting process for the technology.
At least five different advanced nuclear companies including Nuscale, Terrestial Energy and TerraPower are planning to break ground on pilot plants starting around 2020. Eric Ingersoll, CEO of Energy Options Network, an industry trade group, argued that each of these five companies only needs about $2 billion to get their commercial pilot plants operating, or $10 billion in total. “If we can raise that,” he says, “we can solve climate change.” Or at least make a good start.