BookWatch: This hated energy source is what the world needs to limit environmental damage from oil, coal and gas

Discussions of global warming often neglect an intersecting challenge that threatens to be equally difficult to accomplish: the mounting pressure from developing countries to boost their economies and improve their citizens’ lives. Holding mean annual temperatures below 2° C (3.6° F) will be difficult enough. We’ve already passed the one-degree mark. Third-World development will almost certainly delay and could defeat the crucial work of limiting global warming to a level the world can live with.

Some environmentalists believe countries should somehow rely on renewables alone to increase their energy supply. Renewables — primarily wind and solar — certainly have a place in the mix, especially locally and at small scale. But because larger-scale renewable sources are dispersed and dilute, they’re limited to favorable conditions, and since they’re intermittent, they require backup energy generation to fill in when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Which means the renewable system has to be supported by a supplemental load-following system, typically natural gas. “As more wind and solar generation capacity get added,” observes energy security specialist Jude Clemente, “even more natural gas capacity is added.” Clemente figures that “some 35 states will have natural gas as their main source of electricity by 2022.” Unfortunately, burning natural gas produces about half the volume of CO2 as coal burning, significantly reducing the effectiveness of renewables in limiting global warming.

Rather than choosing a favorite energy technology and trying to adapt societies to its quirks, it’s surely better to choose technologies that meet the demanding conditions both developed and developing countries will face as the world warms. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables is a red herring. The real and primary challenge is decarbonizing the energy supply. By that measure, natural gas emits less carbon than coal and oil. Low-carbon renewables are excellent where they fit: in developing-country regions lacking an electric grid and in open regions anywhere with abundant wind or sunshine.

Yet the prospect is dim of limiting global warming without nuclear power.

Nuclear power has a double advantage over these other sources: it’s both low-carbon and reliably baseload. What percentage of the time a power plant is actually generating electricity is called its capacity factor. Nuclear’s capacity factor in the U.S. stands at above 90%, the highest in the world. Compare U.S. wind and solar at 27%. Even U.S. fossil-fuel plants only manage a 41% capacity factor, which means they produce power less than half the time — which, considering their pollution, is actually a benefit.

In both the U.S. and Europe, the damage is done for nuclear.

But in both the U.S. and Europe, the damage is done for nuclear. Nuclear’s taint wasn’t its historic association with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor the accident at Three Mile Island, nor even the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters. It certainly wasn’t the purely political issue of waste disposal, a challenge present technology can easily meet. It was, paradoxically, nuclear’s promise of efficient clean energy production on a vast scale.

Instead, nuclear in the U.S. may well fail. Meanwhile, Germany is shutting down its nuclear power — 42% of its electricity now comes from coal, mostly highly polluting brown coal. It’s also actively pressuring the rest of Europe to follow its lead.

In contrast to Europe and the U.S., Asia is experiencing a wave of new nuclear power development. China, India and South Korea are all entering the nuclear business in a major way. India and China are driven primarily by the need to reduce their terrible levels of air pollution from coal burning, as well as to increase their energy supplies and profit from a currently leaderless world market.

“China is on course to lead the world in the deployment of nuclear power technology by 2030,” confirms US energy expert Mark Hibbs. South Korea looks to nuclear as a lucrative new international market in a decarbonizing world. China, Hibbs writes, has gone from three operating nuclear power reactors to 38 in less than 20 years, “with eighteen more plants under construction.” China intends to sell nuclear fuel and engineering services to the world market as well as power plants. In the meantime, and contrary to its commitments to reducing global warming, it’s selling abroad the coal it used to burn.

Author Richard Rhodes.

Knowledgeable observers believe U.S. nuclear needs a reboot. As a pioneer of nuclear-power technology, the U.S. made the mistakes that developing new technologies always encounter. In particular, US reactors were bespoke-built on site. Increasing their size to take advantage of scale economies took them beyond conservative margins of safety, requiring engineered safety systems that no amount of backup could guarantee.

The U.S. reboot currently under discussion favors small, modular, factory-built reactors with walkaway safety and less onerous capital investment requirements. Such a transition, if it breaks through the wall of U.S. anti-nuclear politics, might save an industry rapidly going moribund. President Donald Trump’s order in June to subsidize struggling nuclear and coal power plants on national security grounds, assuming his administration follows through, may at least delay a decline that presently appears irreversible.

In the meantime, the market is moving on, to light-water reactors from South Korea and Russia. The U.S. got into the commercial nuclear power business early, in the 1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, because the Soviet Union appeared to be stealing a march on the European market.

Now the U.S. has fallen behind, strangled by the one-way ratchet of increasing regulation on the one hand and the escalating cost of large reactors on the other. Regulation and scale complement each other destructively, making large nuclear plants slow to build — the U.S. averages more than 10 years compared to China’s five — and correspondingly expensive.

There is no prospect that alternative energy sources can substitute for traditional sources in time.

By 2050, writes U.S. Department of Energy consultant James Conca, “if we don’t cut fossil fuel emissions over 90%,” sea-level rise threatens to completely inundate “cities like Amsterdam, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Tunis, Washington D.C., Lisbon, London, Miami, New Orleans, Rome, Abu Dhabi, Oslo, Brussels, New York, Tel Aviv, Havana, Taipei, Dublin and many others.”

But in researching 400 years of energy challenges for my new book, “Energy: A Human History,” I encountered the fundamental truth that energy transitions take time. Across the past four centuries, as the world has transitioned from wood to coal, to oil, to natural gas and nuclear power, the average transition time from 1% to 50% market-penetration has been about 100 years. Enthusiasts who talk about the wonders of new energy sources often fail that lesson. A new energy source isn’t just a wind turbine or a solar field. It’s infrastructure and social learning as well.

The world today faces the largest of all energy crises historically: limiting global warming while simultaneously providing energy for a world population not only increasing in number but also advancing from subsistence to prosperity. And though environmentalists may wish it so, there is no prospect that alternative energy sources can substitute for traditional sources in time. These are today’s conditions. They cry out for decisions based not on politics or prejudice, but on the inescapable truth that energy is life.

Richard Rhodes is the author most recently of “Energy: A Human History.” (Simon & Schuster 2018).|

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