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Sustainability … or security?

This week Sweden has scrapped its target of reaching 100 per cent renewable electricity generation by 2045, with its centre-right government moving toward increasing its number of small nuclear reactors.

Finance Minister Elisabeth Svantesson said the move was motivated by a need for increased electricity production and a more stable energy system.

The Swedish government seems to be acknowledging the limits of wind and solar power, which despite being heavily promoted as an alternative to fossil-based electricity generation, bring their own issues.

The sun and the wind might be renewable resources, but as we all know, you can’t predict when they shine and blow.

There is implicit insecurity in letting the weather determine power’s price.

By contrast, you can predictably price electricity from a nuclear reactor.

No doubt the Swedish government was looking to the war in Ukraine and seeing nuclear power as a more attractive option than either volatile renewables or natural gas, the fossil fuel piped in from Putin’s Russia.

In 2021, Sweden ranked among 127 countries in the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index, which compares how nations balance energy security, equity, and sustainability.

New Zealand was ranked ninth – 80 per cent of our electricity is generated by renewable sources like hydro and geothermal, solar, and wind.

Our government has a policy to reach 100 per cent renewable electricity generation by 2030, just like Sweden had until this week.

We can’t keep burning fossil fuels – there is a scientific consensus that pumping huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will not end well.

More carbon in the atmosphere means a more acidic ocean and more extreme weather events, which will continue to wreak havoc on our planet.

But would we risk insecurity and volatile power prices by going all in on renewables?

Is that final 20 per cent of our electricity production, which we get from burning coal and gas, essential for our energy security?

In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, should our government be looking to mimic Sweden and start prioritising electricity stability over environmental goals?

Nuclear is a bad option – we have too many Earthquakes and other natural disasters just waiting to happen.

Continuing to burn coal and gas isn’t a good option either – we only have so much local production, and if they’re imported, they’re subject to global price volatility, not to mention the environmental cost.

Being subject to the weather, wind and solar are the more volatile forms of renewable energy.

With increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, who’s to say wind and solar energy production would meet demand when we need them?

New Zealand should look at expanding its hydro and geothermal capabilities, which have problems, but perhaps strike the best balance between stability and sustainability.

We’re already a world leader in geothermal, but that could be expanded.

Sweden is the world leader in moving away from fossil fuels in electricity generation, but even they acknowledge that avoiding volatile supply and prices is an important strategic goal.

It is such an important goal that they are willing to expand and build more nuclear reactors, even with the knowledge that the radioactive waste they bury will be toxic to anyone who digs there for millennia to come.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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