A recent New York Times article (“Windmill and Solar Panels, or Nuclear Reactors”, NY Times, 11/14/16) highlights what could be an interesting dilemma for both developing and industrialized nations seeking to de-carbonize in tandem with the Paris Accord.

The article describes the tension between the development of concentrated solar power (CSP) and the potential use of nuclear power—both types of generation, with no carbon dioxide emissions but higher costs than conventional natural gas-fired generation and de-centralized (rooftop and standard commercial scale photovoltaics) solar resources.

Referencing the commencement of generation from Abengoa’s Khi Solar One CSP facility in Upington, South Africa, the article poses the question of whether continued pursuit or renewable generation with its inherent intermittency is appropriate, or whether South Africa should pursue the development of three new nuclear-generating stations with their baseload benefits, but huge financial commitment.

Concentrated solar falls somewhere within the cost spectrum between nuclear and conventional solar, at least at Upington, with its intense solar resource. CSP’s ability to continue generating electricity for a period of time after sunset and the higher cost of CSP than standard PV-based solar resources, is the crux of the benefit/burden challenge. Still, nuclear’s baseload capability, lack of emissions and reliability, in contrast to South Africa’s historical reliance on coal-fired generation, has some attraction.

Whether CSP, nuclear, conventional fossil fuel-fired generation, wind or a decentralized system of rooftop solar (or all of the above) win out in South Africa may provide a learning opportunity for other nations seeking to overhaul their electric generation systems at a time of increased emphasis on electricity generation and its related fuel sources.

By Mark A. Davidson of Lewis Rocca Rothgerber Christie