Being Dumb Cost-Effectively

Environmentalists, Progressives, climate change advocates and the Green New Deal Proponents are determined to back fossil energy out of the US energy budget. The Green New Deal would like us all to believe that the energy system can get to zero CO2 emissions by 2030 and rely on renewables, except hydropower and nuclear. A more realistic estimate comes from Professor Joshua Goldstein’s book, A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow which estimates that pursuing renewables at a pace matching Germany decarbonize “would take 150 years”.

Advocates show no concern that its cost has been estimated to be as high as $15 trillion nor do they give any consideration to cost-effective power generation. Further, since China, India, and developing countries, along with many others, are not making serious efforts to reduce their emissions, this radical program would have virtually no effect on atmospheric CO2. concentrations.

US CO2 emissions peaked in 2005 and have been going down since, although there was a spike in 2018. Technology is allowing us to use fossil energy more efficiency and an abundance of natural gas is leading to a shift from coal. The trend in decarbonization is not new and did not require government regulations or mandates. Jesse Ausabel of Rockefeller University has document that the U.S. economy decoupled from carbon during the 1940s, long before congressional hearings about it.

The pursuit of zero emissions is based on a hypothesis that CO2 emissions are having a detrimental climate effect even though empirical observational data makes that hypothesis questionable. None the less, state legislatures and Congress are pursuing a costly and questionable energy policy to substitute wind and solar for more reliable and less costly power generation.

Wind and solar in addition to being intermittent, take up tremendous amounts of land. Producing all of our electrical power with them would require the equivalent of several New England states.
EIA data on the levelized cost of electricity—LCOE—tells an important story. Solar depending on whether it is thermal or PV ranges in cost from $34-$188 per MWh and wind depending on whether it is onshore or off ranges from $30 per MWh to $168. In the case of both solar and wind, there is the need for back up for periods of cloudiness and no or low wind. Back up increases costs. Nuclear on the other hand ranges from $89 to $97 MWh.

The MIT Technology Review in an article on carbon free electricity included the following quote from Jesse Jenkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, “You don’t confront a crisis with a limited tool set…You throw everything you’ve got at it.” That means that nuclear has to be an option. Those who do not subscribe to the climate orthodoxy may see these options as a choice between dumb and dumber. At least with nuclear, there is a proven technology and R&D has continued to advance it. The two biggest hurdles are cost and public phobia.

Professor Goldstein points out that with over 60 of nuclear experience, the only nuclear related fatality was the Chernobyl accident which was the result of Russian incompetence. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima were hyped by nuclear opponents in ways that simply added to public fears.

Nuclear energy is a long way from being cost competitive with natural gas for power generation but progress is being made. The development of small and medium sized reactors might be one way to respond to nuclear’s high capital cost and public fears. But in the long run, nuclear is not going to be widely accepted until it can be convincingly demonstrated to be as safe or even more safe than alternatives.

One small reactor is called NuScale. It is designed to generate just 50 megawatts of power, a fraction of the power generated from installed reactors. But being small means that it contains much less fuel and could be operated with a much lower risk. As a modular unit it can be built in a factory and shipped by truck. Power plants could activate one reactor at a time to generate the revenue need to purchase the next one.

While the nuclear industry attempts to gain greater public acceptance, it also needs to find ways to lower costs and reduce construction time. It should look to South Korea which has developed a world class nuclear industry and demonstrated that it is possible to bring projects to completion on time and on budget. According to Professor Goldstein, South Korea “has built 10 of its reactors based on the same design, … (and) produces nuclear power at or below fossil-fuel prices.”

Nuclear can also serve as a critical link in the further decarbonization of energy. Jesse Ausabel points out this is the natural consequence of technological development. In a paper– Density –, Ausabel points out, that the shift “to natural gas and nuclear power …together with relentlessly rising efficiency and changing industry composition, will carry us to a low-carbon economy in another 50 years or so. … The global energy system has been evolving toward hydrogen but perhaps not fast enough, especially for those most anxious about climate change.” Nuclear plants in addition to generating electricity can make hydrogen on the scale needed to meet our electric power needs.


Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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