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Nuclear Up, Emissions Down: The EIA Outlook

The U.S. Energy Information Administration sees incremental growth in nuclear energy capacity through 2035 in its Annual Energy Outlook 2012 (AEO 2012) reference case, which has just been released.

Nuclear generating capacity in the reference case increases from 101 gigawatts in 2011 to 112 gigawatts in 2035, with 10 gigawatts of new capacity due to 5 new plants, 7 gigawatts of uprates at existing plants and 6 gigawatts of retirements, according to the report. This is one gigawatt more than projected in the AEO 2011 reference case.

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At the same time, it forecasts CO2 emissions rising 0.2 percent per year during this period, or about 4.9 percent in total. While the rise in nuclear capacity is good news, the news about carbon emissions is a little disturbing, at least at first glance. A forecast – and there are a bunch of them, though this is the most prominent for U.S. policy makers - can be a little confusing the first time you tackle it.

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That’s because, as these charts show, the Energy Outlook is not as useful in any given year as it is in aggregation. Seen as one in a series, the reports show the year-to-year variations in whatever metric you want to follow.

The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer expresses it this way:

Carbon-dioxide emissions plummeted after the financial crisis in 2008, and the EIA expects that greenhouse-gas pollution from the energy sector won’t recover back to 2005 levels anytime soon, as the chart [above] shows. The reasons? New vehicle fuel-economy standards; cheap natural gas that’s displacing dirtier coal-fired places; state-level laws that mandate renewable energy; and new environmental regulations on power plants from the EPA.

That’s about right, though EIA doesn’t use terms like “dirtier coal-fired plants” and it really doesn’t “expect” anything. The EIA, in its reference scenario, is interested only in taking account of legislation and regulation that has been passed and/or implemented, so it “expects,” if anything, that there will be no more legislation and regulation going forward and this is how things will look as a result. But of course, there will be more and that will be reflected in the 2013 forecast – and so on into the future. The EIA isn’t Nostradamus (heck, Nostradamus wasn’t all that good a Nostradamus.)

So if you look at a series of the forecasts, you can see whether some metrics are pointing upwards over time (in our case, nuclear energy capacity, of course, and renewables) and whether some are pointing downwards (carbon emissions, coal capacity). If they are – and, let me hasten to add, they indeed are – then we’re going in the right direction. How speedily we’re going in the right direction is something else again.

For example, though the report (and the above chart) shows CO2 emissions in the electric sector growing by 0.2 percent per year from 2010 to 2035, this is less than in previous years. The AEO 2011 reference case forecasts CO2 emissions rising by an average of 0.3 percent per year between 2010 and 2035. So the rise has been cut by a third by policy making, the activity of industry and other factors over the last year. That’s a significant number, especially in light of a recovering economy and concomitant recovering electricity market.

Are improvements in a given set of metrics moving too slowly over time or not getting us where we want to go 25 years hence? Maybe, maybe not, but if you think it is, it argues for more aggressive policies to encourage nuclear and renewable energy and discourage carbon emissions. And that’s usually the result of the EIA’s AEO. It provides information that can be used to show  - well, a number of things – that can sharpen arguments for, say, new nuclear energy capacity.

Perhaps increasing nuclear capacity will bend that carbon emission curve downward and more quickly than the 2012 forecast shows – perhaps nuclear energy can do a quicker job on that curve than its renewable cousins can do – and so on. Pick your favorite energy source, poke through a few EIA reports to see if they support your view, then go to town. It’s a gold mine for energy wonks.

The full EIA report, due in April, will include a number of scenarios that do take account of potential policy changes and what they will mean for carbon emission reduction. So consider this a sneak preview.

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