Coal: Fading in the U.S., But Not in the World
The recent NY Times article entitled, “As Coal Fades in the U.S., Natural Gas Becomes the Climate Battleground”, extends the ongoing debate around U.S. coal, natural gas and renewables under the rubric of climate change.
There’s little argument that coal consumption in the U.S. is declining as the U.S. electric power sector continues shifting from coal to inexpensive natural gas. While this shift, along with penetration of renewables, has resulted in decreased CO2 emissions from the U.S. power sector, some, as noted in the NY Times article, contend that the U.S. should be offsetting coal with renewables rather than natural gas—again, due to concerns about climate change. Rather than arguing against the belief in a 100% renewable energy portfolio, it’s worth noting the reality that the U.S. simply isn’t a climate island and cannot isolate itself from what’s happening in the rest of the world—particularly emerging markets where coal consumption continues to increase. While belief systems have a valuable place in our society, that place isn’t in the U.S. power grid.
The two graphs below, one with China and India included as emerging markets and the other with China and India excluded, illustrate that increases in coal consumption in emerging markets offset decreases in coal consumption in the U.S.
The point being that there’s a floor to the U.S. decline in coal consumption and, if coal consumption and CO2 emissions are the global issue, then global attention must turn toward decreasing coal consumption in emerging markets. Coal is in fact fading in the U.S., but it’s coming into full relief in emerging regions looking to stand up their economies on reliable energy resources. However, to do so, those countries need an alternative that’s both reliable and low- or zero-carbon.
And the zero-carbon alternative is nuclear.
U.S. Solar Capacity Factors
The U.S. EIA posted a nice brief today showing that, for the years 2014-17, the capacity factor for utility-scale solar was 24.7% Below are three additional figures I recently complied along these same lines. A summary point is that, on a generation and capacity factor basis, the solar resource is better utilized at the utility-scale.
Will the U.S. Lead?
Or Let China and Russia Dominate Nuclear Energy?
(Full Op-ed in The Hill)
The 21st century is undergoing fundamental geopolitical shifts as great power competition has re-emerged as a central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security with China and Russia seeking to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model. And, embedded in their geopolitical strategies are state-owned nuclear power enterprises leveraged as extensions of the state to establish long-term energy and technology dependencies in emerging economies. Theirs is a top-down nuclear ecology, focused on influence and dominance, not strictly economic development or multilateral cooperation alone. While the U.S. was the 20th century global leader in nuclear technology, it now lags China and Russia in new and planned nuclear construction and is at a financial disadvantage when competing with SOEs.
The issue isn’t whether the U.S. has the technological capability to compete and lead—that was proven in the 20th century. The issue is, America’s 20th century nuclear construct cannot compete with 21st century SOEs in China and Russia. Consequently, America’s 20th century nuclear enterprise requires a new ecology if it is to meet the geopolitical challenges of the globalized 21st century and renewed great power competition.
Washington State’s Clean Energy Bill
Washington’s state legislature has passed SB 5116 entitled, “Supporting Washington’s clean energy economy and transitioning to a clean, affordable, and reliable energy future”, which mandates that all electricity be generated by clean energy sources by 2045.
Not surprisingly, the bill is replete with references to renewable energy credits, hydropower, solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, wave, ocean, tidal, landfill gas, biomass, gas from sewage treatment facilities and biodiesel—provided that the biodiesel “is not derived from crops raised on land cleared from old growth or first-growth forests where the clearing occurred after December 7, 2006” (it must have taken some real research to get that date nailed down). Yet, in all the references to clean energy, not a single mention of nuclear—at least not in the posting of the bill as I read it here. Continue reading “Washington State’s Clean Energy Bill”
100% Renewable Energy Isn’t a Response to Climate Change–It’s a Retreat
(Full Op-ed in The Hill)
Recently, three more U.S. states pledged to decarbonize their grids, joining a growing list of cities and states with similar goals. While low-carbon is the right objective, a 100% renewables approach for the U.S., proposed by some, isn’t. Technical hurdles notwithstanding, it is misaligned with the realities of a world where fossil fuel consumption is increasing and energy technology needs in emerging economies are growing, and it will marginalize, if not isolate, the U.S. from global energy technology markets moving in a direction opposite that of 100% renewables, leaving America exposed to climate change and national security risks. This misalignment has economic and geostrategic implications that warrant the attention of the National Governor’s Association.
A 100% renewable energy policy is not a response to climate change—it’s a U.S. retreat from the global stage and the energy realities of the world as it is.
The Green New Deal:
Isolationist in Scope and Blind to Geopolitical Reality
(Full Op-ed in The Hill)
The issue of climate change is now being compared to one of the most sobering, consequential eras in U.S. history — the challenges, sacrifices and accomplishments of America’s Greatest Generation. California Gov. Jerry Brown compared the climate battle to fighting Nazis, others have suggested a Marshall Plan for climate change, and now there’s a resolution “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal” (GND).
“The heart of the GND is about social justice”. Thus, it is fundamentally a populist resolution proffered as global climate policy, yet, with no global reach as to climate or nuclear national security. Rather than motivate serious deliberations, the Green New Deal is likely to further polarize policymakers, sow confusion into the public discourse and distract America from the serious efforts needed for developing comprehensive and strategic policy.
America cannot battle global climate change nor compete with China and Russia for global leadership in civilian nuclear power under isolationist policies such as the Green New Deal. In fact, it defies all tactical and strategic logic for the U.S. to marginalize, or retreat from, nuclear power — the only technology with the proven capacity to stand up to the challenge of global climate change while strengthening U.S. national security.
America needs sober, strategic energy and climate policy. And that sober strategic policy should center on U.S. nuclear power, not the Green New Deal.
Change in Global CO2 Emissions (2000-2017)
With respect to CO2 emissions and climate change, the greatest concern is in the Asia-Pacific where economies have developed on fossil fuels for the past twenty years and coal plants remain in their forward planning. From 2000-2017, global CO2 emissions increased 9,821 mmtons, with 8,643 mmtons (88% of global total) derived from Asia-Pacific countries. Of this, China emitted 5,883 mmtons and India 1,381 mmtons. During this same period, U.S. CO2 emissions decreased 639 mmtons. The issue is global climate, yet the GND scope is limited to the U.S. This isn’t an issue of right vs. wrong or which country is to be blamed—it’s a pragmatic matter of policy focus.
Eisenhower’s Nuclear Legacy Holds Steady At Vogtle
(Full Op-ed is in the Augusta Chronicle)
America’s nuclear power enterprise, arguably the best in the world in the 20th century, wasn’t the result of a natural course of laissez-faire U.S. innovation, even though America certainly had the science and engineering expertise to do so. Rather, the development of a nuclear power program of this magnitude and scale required a public-private partnership whereby the inherent risks of research and development would be shared to reach a strategic objective–a national security objective. The rationale being, nuclear energy was of such national security importance that it couldn’t be left to market forces alone since markets couldn’t recognize national security value. Both the Republican and Democratic parties understood that U.S. leadership in nuclear science, engineering and technology was a matter of national security, as evidenced by their respective 1956 party platforms where both sought the mantle of U.S. nuclear champion.
America needs to regain that innovative, bipartisan vision from the days of President Eisenhower and shore up its nuclear science, engineering and technology enterprise to be competitive in the 21st century.
Currently, that vision is holding steady in Georgia, at Plant Vogtle Units 3&4.
The Role of U.S. Nuclear Power in the 21st Century
This policy paper on the role of U.S. nuclear power in the 21st century is co-authored by me and my colleagues, Josh Darnell and Josh Massey, both of whom are with the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. It’s due out in the December issue of The Electricity Journal. Here’s a link to the In-Press version. What follows in this blog post is a summary of our conclusions and policy recommendations.
In the paper, we propose one broad question:
“Should the U.S. nuclear power sector be left to market forces alone to dictate the fate of nuclear energy in the U.S., or is the U.S. nuclear power sector of such vital national interest that the U.S. should develop a comprehensive and strategic nuclear policy that ensures a robust civilian nuclear power enterprise?”
Our contention is that a strategic nuclear power policy is a national security imperative. We base this on the original principles of nuclear power policy makers who comprehended the reality that nuclear energy is not merely another energy commodity, such as coal, natural gas, solar and wind. Rather, these policymakers recognized that nuclear energy is a fundamentally different energy resource with implications that extend far beyond the geographic borders of the U.S. and are capable of reshaping the geopolitical contours of the world order. As such, we contend in the paper that U.S. policymakers must develop a strategic U.S. policy for nuclear science, engineering and technology that:
- Acknowledges the U.S. civilian nuclear power sector as a vital national security interest whose future should be governed by U.S. policy and not by market forces alone;
- Leverages market forces and competition as a means for developing the most advanced and cost-efficient nuclear technologies;
- Maintains and extends (where feasible) the life span of the current U.S. nuclear fleet;
- Establishes a robust, politically-resilient public-private partnership that can be sustained across election cycles in order to stand up a long-term nuclear research and development program around advanced light-water reactors, small modular reactors, fast reactors, molten salt reactors, fuel reprocessing and advanced fuels such as thorium and high-assay low-enriched uranium; and
- Seeks to re-establish U.S. competitiveness in international nuclear development partnerships as a means of responding to the challenge of Chinese and Russian state-owned nuclear enterprises.
In general, we contend that the U.S. nuclear power sector is of such vital national security interest that it is too strategic to be allowed to fail due to market forces alone (Gattie, 2018a). While competing nations such as China and Russia are standing up their own nuclear enterprises with strategic nuclear policies, the approach to nuclear power in the U.S. is largely transactional in nature and lacks a strategic purview. We further contend that markets are not policy and cannot substitute for policy as pertains to nuclear energy. We further contend that modern-day nuclear policy must embody original nuclear policy principles established in the 1940s and 1950s—principles that stipulated the U.S. would be engaged as global experts in the international control of the nuclear supply chain and that the U.S. would maintain a robust, world-class nuclear research and development program. Moreover, U.S. policy should be comprehensive such that it broadens nuclear research and development to include molten salt reactors, fast reactors, advanced fuels and technologies for closing the nuclear fuel cycle. To accomplish this, a public-private partnership should be developed as the means to establish a vibrant nuclear research and development enterprise, to respond to the global competition of China and Russia and to balance their geopolitical aspirations in Asia and the Middle East (Gattie, 2018b).
The history and legacy of U.S. leadership in nuclear power and nuclear power policy, a legacy that was earned and established in the 20th century, continues to be of vital U.S. interest today. As such, early policy principles should be understood and integrated into U.S. deliberations today. Otherwise, the stature and influence of the U.S. in the 21st century global cycle of nuclear science, engineering and technology won’t be what it was in the 20th century.