Bernie, Sweden, ‘The Three Amigos,’ and the Future of US Nuclear Power
What if Bernie Sanders is right that the U.S. should be more like Sweden? At a time when U.S. policymakers are surprisingly allowing several nuclear reactors to shut down, Sweden is experiencing a turnaround in nuclear energy.
This is not to suggest that Sen. Sanders is suddenly pro-nuclear. He is actually anti-nuclear — despite claiming to be an environmentalist. However, when I read this news, I thought that perhaps we should be more like Sweden — at least when it comes to how we look at energy.
As a starting point, I am passionate about the future of energy and the planet my grandchildren will inherit. Thus, the constant chatter — all talk, no action really — when it comes to reducing air pollution and lowering CO2 emissions is frustrating, which is why Sweden’s recent nuclear announcement was so heartening.
Like Sweden, the U.S. needs to start taking concrete policy steps toward achieving our emission goals. And, nuclear energy and hydroelectric are the only forms of energy that can provide the required base loads without carbon emissions.
We all know that the renewables sector is experiencing historic growth. Yet, despite solar power being the fastest-growing energy source, renewables presently account for just 2.8% of the world’s energy mix. Thus, even though intermittent energy sources are being helped along by government subsidies and innovation in storage, they simply can’t reliably power our advanced, dynamic — and energy intensive — economy alone.
Coal plants have continued to close as a result of the Clean Power Plan. However, where is the energy lost from coal going to come from, especially if the lights also go out on nuclear power plants? If the answer is more renewables, I’m afraid we’ll be disappointed.
Despite massive expenditures in wind and solar energy, Germany is showing us that renewables have their limits. Germany is experiencing grid instability, they are expected to badly miss their 2020 emission goals, and they are seeing rising air pollution and carbon emissions as they build new coal plants to back-up renewables.
Here in the U.S., most of the energy lost from coal plants shutting down is being replaced by more natural gas. And while we may be reducing emissions somewhat compared to coal, we can certainly do far better by retaining nuclear in the mix.
By prematurely closing nuclear reactors here in the U.S., including the last operational nuclear power plant in California, Diablo Canyon, President Obama’s pledges from 2009 and earlier this year to achieve 50% clean energy in the US, Canada, and Mexico by 2025 — through what is playfully being referred to as a “Three Amigos Summit” — already seems wholly unrealistic.
When California’s other nuclear power plant, San Onofre, closed in 2013, the power lost was replaced by natural gas, not renewables. Indeed, the energy lost as a result of San Onofre closing negated most of the progress made in renewable energy in California to that point, and the replacement electricity generated by natural gas now emits pollution equal to 2.1 million cars per year. When, and if, Diablo Canyon actually closes in 2025, California is likely to see a similar regression in achieving its clean energy targets.
According to Michael Schellenberger of Environmental Progress, Diablo Canyon produces twice as much electricity as all of California’s solar panels, 41 times more electricity than California’s largest solar plant (Ivanpah), and closing it will be the equivalent of adding 2 million cars to the road each year. Does that sound like progress to you?
My concerns are shared by our friends at The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) who cheered the “Three Amigos” clean energy goals, but also pointed out that if nuclear plants continue to close in the U.S., Obama’s praiseworthy goals will simply fail.
Here is an excerpt from the NEI’s CEO Marvin Fertel:
“The United States is adding five new nuclear plants that all will be on line by 2020, but any reduction in nuclear energy’s role — specifically the premature closure of nuclear plants due to unintended consequences of federal or state energy policies or flawed electricity markets — makes it impossible to achieve the 50 percent clean energy target by 2025.”
If we followed energy policies that kept nuclear capacity online, and expanded it using new generation reactors and technological innovation, then the war on air pollution could be fought more effectively.
Modeling U.S. energy policy more in the mold of Sweden may be a good idea, but there are major differences. Sweden has a much smaller population, and as a percentage of their energy mix, the Swedish generate more hydroelectric power than we do to handle the fluctuations pervasive to wind and solar (over 40% of Sweden’s energy comes from hydro versus 6% in the US).