Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources

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Comparisons of life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions attempt to calculate the global warming potential of an energy source per unit of energy generated over the full life of the source, from material & fuel mining, construction, to waste management. The IPCC in 2011 and again in 2014 aggregated and harmonized the Carbon dioxide equivalent(CO
e) emission findings of hundreds of papers published on the subject.[1]

It is important to note that for all technologies, advances in efficiency and therefore reductions in CO
e emissions since the time of publication have not been included. For example, the total life cycle emissions from wind power may have reduced since publication, similarly, due to the timescales over which the studies were conducted, Nuclear power Generation II reactor CO
emissions are stated, and not the emissions of Generation III reactors, which are presently under construction in the United States and China.

Global warming potential of selected electricity sources, IPCC 2014[edit]

Lifecycle CO2 equivalent (including albedo effect) from selected electricity supply technologies.[2][3] Arranged by decreasing median (gCO
eq/kWh) values.
Technology Min Median Max
Currently commercially available technologies
CoalPC 740 820 910
Biomass – cofiring with coal 620 740 890
Gascombined cycle 410 490 650
Biomass – dedicated 130 230 420
Solar PV – utility scale 18 48 180
Solar PV – rooftop 26 41 60
Geothermal 6.0 38 79
Concentrated solar power 8.8 27 63
Hydropower 1.0 24 2200
Wind offshore 8.0 12 35
Nuclear 3.7 12 110
Wind onshore 7.0 11 56
Pre‐commercial technologies
CCS – Coal – PC 190 220 250
CCS – Coal – IGCC 170 200 230
CCS – Gas – combined cycle 94 170 340
CCS – Coal – oxyfuel 100 160 200
Ocean[clarification needed] 5.6 17 28

2012 Yale University systematic review and harmonization of nuclear power data[edit]

A Yale University review published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology analyzing CO
life cycle assessment emissions from nuclear power determined that:[4]

"The collective LCA literature indicates that life cycle GHG emissions from nuclear power are only a fraction of traditional fossil sources and comparable to renewable technologies."

It went on to note that for the most common category of reactors, the Light water reactor:

"Harmonization decreased the median estimate for all LWR technology categories so that the medians of BWRs, PWRs, and all LWRs are similar, at approximately 12 g CO

The study noted that:

"the difference between nuclear power life cycle GHG emissions constructed in an electric system dominated by nuclear (or renewables) and a system dominated by coal can be fairly large (in the range of 4 to 22 g CO
-eq/kWh compared to 30 to 110 g CO
-eq/kWh, respectively)"

Although the paper primarily dealt with data from Generation II reactors, it did also summarize the Life Cycle Assessment literature of pre-commercial nuclear technology's.

FBRs [ Fast Breeder Reactors ] have been evaluated in the LCA literature. The limited literature that evaluates this potential future technology reports median life cycle GHG emissions ... similar to or lower than LWRs and purports to consume little or no uranium ore.

2011 IPCC aggregated results of the available literature[edit]

A literature review conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2011, of numerous energy sources CO
emissions per unit of electricity generated, found that the CO
emission value, that fell within the 50th percentile of all total life cycle emissions studies were as follows.[5]

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by electricity source.[5]
Technology Description 50th percentile
(g CO
Hydroelectric reservoir 4
Wind onshore 12
Nuclear various generation II reactor types 16
Biomass various 18
Solar thermal parabolic trough 22
Geothermal hot dry rock 45
Solar PV Polycrystaline silicon 46
Natural gas various combined cycle turbines without scrubbing 469
Coal various generator types without scrubbing 1001
Estimated Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of carbonaceous fuels when coupled with carbon capture and storage.[5]
Technology Description Minimum estimate
(g CO
Maximum estimate
(g CO
Natural gas with CCS 65 245
Coal with CCS 98 396

2008 Benjamin K. Sovacool survey of nuclear power.[edit]

A meta analysis of 103 nuclear power life-cycle studies by Benjamin K. Sovacool found that nuclear power plants produce electricity with a mean of 66 g equivalent life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions per kWh, compared to renewable power generators, which produce electricity with 9.5 to 38 g carbon dioxide per kWh and fossil-fuel power stations, which produce electricity with about 443 to 1,050 g equivalent lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions per kWh.[6][7][8]

Sovacool thus concludes that nuclear energy technologies are 7 to 16 times more effective than fossil fuel power plants on a per-kWh basis at fighting climate change, and renewable electricity technologies are "two to seven times more effective than nuclear power plants on a per kWh basis at fighting climate change." Sovacool has said that his estimates already include all conceivable emissions associated with the manufacturing, construction, installation and decommissioning of renewable power plants.[9]

On his nuclear power paper, Benjamin K. Sovacool has been criticized by his peers, as it was noted that his paper was overly based on data from Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen.[10] Beerten et al. state:

"Most recently, Sovacool(2008) calculated a mean value for the overall emissions by averaging the global results of 19 LCA [Life-Cycle Analysis] studies forming a subset of, as stated by the author, 'the most current, original and transparent studies' out of 103 studies. However, a critical assessment reveals that a majority of the studies representing the upper part of the spectrum are studies that can be traced back to the same input data and performed by the same author, namely Storm van Leeuwen. After careful analysis, it must be concluded that the mix of selected LCAs results in a skewed and distorted collection of different results available in the literature. Furthermore, since many studies use different energy mixes and other assumptions, averaging GHG emissions of those studies is no sound method to calculate an overall emission coefficient, as it gives no site specific information needed for policy makers to base their decisions."[10]

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emission estimates for electricity generators, according to Benjamin K. Sovacool's comparison.[6]
Technology Description Estimate
(g CO
Wind 2.5 MW offshore 9
Hydroelectric 3.1 MW reservoir 10
Wind 1.5 MW onshore 10
Biogas Anaerobic digestion 11
Hydroelectric 300 kW run-of-river 13
Solar thermal 80 MW parabolic trough 13
Biomass various 14-35
Solar PV Polycrystaline silicon 32
Geothermal 80 MW hot dry rock 38
Nuclear various reactor types 66
Natural gas various combined cycle turbines 443
Fuel Cell hydrogen from gas reforming 664
Diesel various generator and turbine types 778
Heavy oil various generator and turbine types 778
Coal various generator types with scrubbing 960
Coal various generator types without scrubbing 1050

Beerten et al. proceed to discuss reasons why LCA analysis for nuclear power plants can give such widely varying estimates. For example, life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of nuclear power depend on the enrichment method, the carbon intensity of the electricity used for enrichment, the efficiency of the plant, as well as on chosen mining technologies. Averages and means from multiple sources can be skewed by inharmonious data, clustering bias, by outliers and so on.[11]

GHG from Utility-Scale Wind power[edit]

High electric grid penetration by Intermittent power sources e.g wind power, sources which have low capacity factors due to the weather, either requires the construction of energy storage projects, which have their own emission intensity or it requires more frequent back up than the reserve requirements necessary to back up more dependable/baseload power sources, such as hydropower and nuclear energy. This higher dependence on back up/Load following power plants to ensure a steady power grid output has the knock on effect of more frequent inefficient(in CO
e g/kWh) throttling up and down of these other power sources in the grid to facilitate the intermittent power source's variable output. When one includes the intermittent sources total effect it has on other power sources in the grid system, that is, including these inefficient start up emissions of backup power sources to cater for wind energy, into wind energy's total system wide life cycle, this results in a higher real world wind energy emission intensity than the direct g/kWh value-which looks at the power source in isolation and excludes all down stream detrimental/inefficiency effects it has on the grid. In a 2012 paper that appeared in the Journal of Industrial Ecology it states.[12]

"The thermal efficiency of fossil-based power plants is reduced when operated at fluctuating and suboptimal loads to supplement wind power, which may degrade, to a certain extent, the GHG benefits resulting from the addition of wind to the grid. A study conducted by Pehnt and colleagues (2008) reports that a moderate level of [grid] wind penetration (12%) would result in efficiency penalties of 3% to 8%, depending on the type of conventional power plant considered. Gross and colleagues (2006) report similar results, with efficiency penalties ranging from nearly 0% to 7% for up to 20% [of grid] wind penetration. Pehnt and colleagues (2008) conclude that the results of adding offshore wind power in Germany on the background power systems maintaining a level supply to the grid and providing enough reserve capacity amount to adding between 20 and 80 g CO2-eq/kWh to the life cycle GHG emissions profile of wind power."'

Other studies[edit]

"Hydropower-Internalised Costs and Externalised Benefits"; Frans H. Koch; International Energy Agency (IEA)-Implementing Agreement for Hydropower Technologies and Programmes; 2000.

In terms of individual studies, a wide range of estimates are made for many fuel sources which arise from the different methodologies used. Those on the low end tend to leave parts of the life cycle out of their analyses, while those on the high end often make unrealistic assumptions about the amount of energy used in some parts of the life cycle.[13]

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that total life-cycle GHG emissions per unit of electricity produced from nuclear power are below 40 g CO
-eq/kWh (10 g C-eq/kWh), similar to those for renewable energy sources.[14]

The Vattenfall study found nuclear, hydro, and wind to have far less greenhouse emissions than other sources represented.

The Swedish utility Vattenfall did a study in 1999 of full life cycle emissions of nuclear, hydro, coal, gas, solar cell, peat and wind which the utility uses to produce electricity. The net result of the study was that nuclear power produced 3.3 grams of carbon dioxide per kW-hr of produced power. This compares to 400 for natural gas and 700 for coal (according to this study). The study also concluded that nuclear power produced the smallest amount of CO2 of any of their electricity sources.[15]

Another report, Life-Cycle Energy Balance and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Energy in Australia, conducted by the University of Sydney in 2008 produced the following results: nuclear = 60-65 g CO
/kWh; wind power = 20 g/kWh; solar PV = 106 g/kWh. The likely range of values from this study produced the following results: nuclear = 10-130 g CO
/kWh; wind power = 13-40 g CO
/kWh; solar PV = 53-217 g CO
/kWh. Furthermore, the study criticised the Vattenfall report : "it omits the energy and greenhouse gas impacts of many upstream[mining] contributions".[16]

In a study conducted in 2006 by the UK's Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which used figures from Torness Nuclear Power Station-an Advanced gas-cooled reactor,[17] nuclear power's life cycle was evaluated to emit the least amount of carbon dioxide (very close to wind power's life cycle emissions) when compared to the other alternatives (fossil fuel, coal, and some renewable energy including biomass and PV solar panels). [18]

A 2005 study,[19] issued by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, reported that carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power plants per kilowatt hour could range from 20% to 120% of those for natural gas-fired power stations depending on the availability of high grade ores.[19] Although the study was heavily criticized, the paper went on to be used by anti-nuclear organizations to claim that nuclear power is not suitable for a warming world.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nuclear Power Results – Life Cycle Assessment Harmonization, NREL Laboratory, Alliance For Sustainable Energy LLC website, U.S. Department Of Energy, last updated: January 24, 2013.
  2. ^ "IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex II I: Technology - specific cost and performance parameters". IPCC. 2014. p. 10. Retrieved 1 August 2014. 
  3. ^ "IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex II Metrics and Methodology. pg 37 to 40,41". 
  4. ^ Warner, Ethan S.; Heath, Garvin A. Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation: Systematic Review and Harmonization, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Yale University, published online April 17, 2012, doi: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00472.x.
  5. ^ a b c Moomaw, W., P. Burgherr, G. Heath, M. Lenzen, J. Nyboer, A. Verbruggen, 2011: Annex II: Methodology. In IPCC: Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (ref. page 10)
  6. ^ a b Benjamin K. Sovacool. Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey. Energy Policy, Vol. 36, 2008, p. 2950.
  7. ^ "Valuing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Nuclear Power"., retrieved 22 March 2012
  8. ^ Edited by Frank Barnaby, James Kemp (2006). "Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming". Oxford Research Group. Retrieved 2007-07-13. 
  9. ^ Benjamin K. Sovacool. A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2010, p. 386.
  10. ^ a b Beerten, Jef; Laes, Erik; D’haeseleer, William (December 2009). "Greenhouse gas emissions in the nuclear life cycle: A balanced appraisal". Energy Policy 37 (12): 5056–5068. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2009.06.073. Retrieved 2 Mar 2012. 
  11. ^ Dolan, Stacey L.; Heath, Garvin A. (April 2012). "Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Utility-Scale Wind Power". Journal of Industrial Ecology 16 (Supplement S1): S136–S154. doi:10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00464.x. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  12. ^ "Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Utility-Scale Wind Power Systematic Review and Harmonization Stacey L. Dolan and Garvin A. Heath Article first published online: 30 MAR 2012 DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00464.x". 
  13. ^ "Nuclear energy: assessing the emissions". Nature. September 2008. Retrieved 18 May 2010. 
  14. ^ IPCC (2007). "Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change". 
  15. ^ Greenhouse Emissions of Nuclear Power
  16. ^ Lenzen, M.; Frank Barnaby, James Kemp and others (2008). "Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review. Energy Conversion and Management 49, 2178-2199". University of Sydney. Retrieved 2007-07-13. 
  17. ^ AEA Technology environment (May 2005). "Environmental Product Declaration of Electricity from Torness Nuclear Power Station". Retrieved 31 January 2010. 
  18. ^ Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2006). "Carbon Footprint of Electricity Generation". Retrieved 2007-07-13. 
  19. ^ a b Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith (2003). "Nuclear Power — The Energy Balance". Retrieved 2006-11-10. 
  20. ^ David Fleming (April 2006). "Why Nuclear Power Cannot be a Major Energy Source". Retrieved 2009-12-06. 

External links[edit]