Nuclear Power Advocates Claim Cheap Renewable Energy Is A Bad Thing
Nuclear power advocates are trying a new line of attack on solar and wind energy — it’s too darn cheap!
In the real world, however, the unexpectedly rapid drop in the price of cleantech, especially renewable power and batteries, is a doubly miraculous game-changer that is already cutting greenhouse gas emissions globally and dramatically increasing the chances we can avoid catastrophic climate change.
As I detailed on Monday, the New York Times in particular keeps running slanted articles talking up nuclear and talking down renewables — articles that totally miss the forest for the trees. That culminated in a truly absurd piece last week, “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course,” which is the exact opposite of reality, as Goldman Sachs has detailed in its recent reports on “The Low Carbon Economy.”
This post will focus primarily on the big picture, the forest. I will deal in later posts with a few of the more interesting trees, such as whether, the U.S. should consider give existing nukes some sort of short-term carbon credit so they are not shut down prematurely and replaced by natural gas.
The big picture reality of the clean energy revolution
The big picture reality is this: The world is finally starting to take some serious action to avoid catastrophic climate change, which means first the electric grid will decarbonize, and then the transportation system. That means global coal use peaks or plateaus first — and then oil does.
In fact, the nation and much of the world — including Europe and China — have already started with decarbonizing the grid, for various reasons. One reason grid decarbonization is coming first is that even big countries only have to begin replacing a few hundred (mostly coal) power plants to start decarbonizing the grid. Compare that to the transportation sector, which involves replacing tens of millions of vehicles and possibly building a vast new fueling infrastructure for a zero-carbon fuel.
Second, we have vastly more choices to slash CO2 emissions from the electric sector — efficiency, solar, wind, hydro, other renewables, nuclear, and (in the short term) replacing coal with natural gas. But, in truth, we’ve dawdled for so long, we really need to go as fast as possible to carbon-free power, so natural gas probably needs to be removed from this list. And countless studies have undermined the notion that natural gas provides a significant net greenhouse gas benefit (because of methane leaks and because gas inevitably displaces some true zero-carbon power alternatives, like nuclear and renewables. The window in which it makes sense to build new natural gas capacity and infrastructure for climate reasons is shutting rapidly and very possibly shut already.
Compare all this to the transportation sector, where the options for decarbonization are far more limited. In fact, until recently, efficiency — higher fuel economy — was the only decarbonization strategy that made economic sense and avoided the need for a new, expensive fueling infrastructure. That’s why every major country including ours has aggressively pursued tougher fuel economy standards. As for the alternative fuels, sorry corn ethanol and natural gas, but the transport sector needs to go to zero, and neither of you make the cut. Indeed, studies suggest natural gas is unlikely to have a net carbon benefit as an alternative fuel and could make things worse.
Really, the only two plausible options to fuel carbon-free vehicles are hydrogen and electricity — when both are made from carbon-free sources. And only electric vehicles can actually deliver carbon-free transport at lower lifecycle cost, and very possibly a lower first cost, than gasoline powered cars. That’s going to get even more obvious in the coming years, now that the sharp drop in battery costs have brought them well below the key price point needed for mass-market adoption.
So the future of transportation, especially urban transport, is electricity. And in fact, electric vehicle sales have exploded world-wide since 2010, with the very real possibility that within the decade they will have a comparable sale price to gasoline vehicles and a much lower operating and fuel cost, even running on carbon free power.
So that makes the rapid decarbonization of the grid even more important, so that the electric vehicles keep decarbonizing the transportation sector. Let’s take a deeper dive into the grid.
The transition to a carbon-free grid has begun and is unstoppable
Most people, including most opinion-makers and journalists covering energy and the environment, are not up-to-date on the “miraculous” and game-changing revolutions that have occurred just in the last couple of years with such core enabling climate solutions as solar power, wind power, LED lighting, batteries, and electric vehicles.
That’s why I launched my ongoing series “Almost Everything You Know About Climate Change Solutions Is Outdated.” As I wrote last week: If it surprises you that U.S. solar has jumped 100-fold in the last decade — and prices are now under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour…..