The Dirty Secret of Sustainable Energy

The quest for clean energy sustainability has been waged on a strategy that can be summarized as ‘subsidize the good stuff, and demonize the bad’.  This post is not about climate change risks, it is a focus on a condition precedent to a practicable achievement of emissions reduction goals—-baseload generation.

Climate change advocates do not want to talk about baseload because it requires consideration of coal or nuclear generation.  Renewable energy advocates do not want to talk about baseload because they perceive it reduces the need for wind or solar projects and raises their intermittency vulnerabilities. Utilities and merchant generators have avoided talking about baseload because it is not politically correct and it is much tougher to build than virtually anything else.

But the dirty little secret of sustainability is that we likely cannot significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions without a measured expansion of baseload generation from nuclear or clean coal technologies—unless we want to reduce energy consumption by as much as 40% to levels that crater the global economy.

Don’t take my word for this. This conclusion is from a recent EPRI report “The Power to Reduce CO2 Emissions: The Full Portfolio – 2009 Technical Report“.

The EPRI research used scenario analysis to project energy use and supply patterns to 2050.  They applied constraints to the modeling to develop portfolio options to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 output at the least cost/best fit integrated resource planning standard required of most investor owned utilities.  The scenarios included one that considers all options and another that excludes new nuclear power plants and clean coal technology using carbon capture and storage. The latter scenario excluding the nuclear and clean coal baseload options would only meet the CO2 emissions reduction goal if total power output is reduced by 40%.

Given the close correlation of energy consumption and GDP growth this study suggests that the only way to achieve such a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without new baseload generation as a key component is to do what no country is prepared to do—crater its economy.

So what?

Expanding the market share of wind and solar in the power supply mix is a good thing. The faster we get these resource options to mainstream levels and force them to compete in that same least cost, best fit standard of practice against other portfolio options the stronger and more sustainable they will become.  China is our friend in this goal to the extent its desire for export growth of market share in wind turbines and solar panels drives down production costs and speeds market penetration rates.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a desirable policy goal, but not if we must return to pre-industrial revolution global living standards to get there—it’s time to get real about what it will take and how much it will cost to achieve this goal.

There are two things that can make a material difference and both are practicable and cost effective. The first involves adopting energy efficiency standards that systematically improve energy performance during the normal course of life and work and travel.  The California example is constructive here.  California adopted energy efficiency standards on appliances and a wide range of products in the 1970’s and today has an energy intensity that is 50% of the US national average.

The other condition precedent to significant sustainable greenhouse gas emissions reduction is to build more clean energy baseload generation from nuclear power and clean coal technology using carbon capture and sequestration.

The current market share of nuclear power in the mix of about 20% is creeping up through life extensions and upratings, but only one new nuclear plant has been approved since Three Mile Island.  Meanwhile, the technology, manufacturing capacity and operating skills have fled the US and make us dependent on other countries for technology we pioneered.  We should change this by speeding up the certification of new nuclear standard designed, regulatory permitting and plant authorization.

Coal fired generation is not going away anytime soon, but we can make what we have cleaner and more efficient near term by adding scrubbers and long term by investing in clean coal technologies and developing the market potential for carbon capture and sequestration.  More R&D is needed to drive down the costs and perfect the technical standards but we need to do this to create a global market for cleaner coal technology to mitigate emissions growth in developing countries.  Why not get the benefit of it at home in the Saudi Arabia of coal.

America needs baseload generation to assure its energy reliability and building it is the only way to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve our sustainable clean energy goals.

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