Urbanization and Nuclear Power

Brian Schimmoller   By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor

Let’s take a little quiz. Question #1: What’s the global population? Take your time…and I’ll give you half a billion slack on either side.

The estimate at the time I wrote this in mid-February was 7.2 billion. I’m guessing most of you were able to come within the half billion mark.

Question #2: How many cities in the world have a population greater than 10 million? This one’s not so easy, but I bet many of you could get within three or four of the right answer. The right answer is 22, according to the United Nations.

Now let’s look forward. How many cities will have populations greater than 10 million in 2040? Ten more? Twenty more?

Actually, 31 more based on current projections. And where will those cities be? Not surprisingly, predominantly in China, with nine, and India, with eight. As shown in the accompanying graphic, the world is becoming more urban. For example, whereas only about 25 percent of the people in China lived in urban areas in 1990, that figure grew to 50 percent in 2010, and is expected to reach 75 percent by 2040. India and Africa are following similar tracks.

So what does this have to do with nuclear power? Urbanization is closely associated with energy demand, and greater urbanization is projected to lead to greater electrification around the world, according to a study from ExxonMobil, The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040.

The link between urbanization and energy demand is tied to several factors:

  • The expansion of urban infrastructure creates demand for iron, steel, cement and other industrial goods that are energy intensive.
  • Urban income levels tend to be higher than in rural areas
  • Energy-intense manufacturing and other industries cluster around cities
  • The number of people per household is usually lower in urban settings, which leads to a higher number of actual households.

Urbanization results in sizable, “lumpy” demands for energy and electricity, which augur well for nuclear power. Urbanization tends to track to higher levels of air pollution, which should help nuclear power as well since it’s a carbon-free generation source. Developing economies like China recognize that excessive levels of pollution can impact quality of life and the strength of its economic engine. Steps to reduce adverse environmental impacts – through tighter controls on coal-fired generation and closing of smaller coal-fired plants – indirectly support nuclear growth.

Urbanization expands awareness of and interest in the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, many of which are tied to electricity, including larger homes, air conditioning, appliances, and electronic devices. Beyond China and India, ExxonMobil sees big gains in 10 key growth countries: Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, South Africa, Nigeria, Thailand, Egypt, Mexico and Turkey. By 2040, these 10 countries will have energy demand approaching the level of China. Several of these countries already have operating nuclear plants and several others are evaluating commercial nuclear power programs.

You’ll notice that there has been no discussion of the United States and other “mature” economies in this discussion. That’s because, for the most part, urbanization has played itself out there. Birth rates – which are one of the leading factors driving urbanization – are relatively low in these countries, so the lumpy slugs of electricity demand are likely all in the past…absent a tectonic shift in electrification, such as might accompany a system-wide move to electric vehicles, or a global commitment to carbon-free generation sources.

That doesn’t mean that nuclear power is finished as a generation option in advanced economies. It just means that the construction of 20 or 30 nuclear plants at one time will be limited to places like China and India.

Let’s end with another quiz question. How many people across the globe have no access to electricity? A whopping 1.3 billion. That’s a lot of power plants…nuclear or otherwise.

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