Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

The Washington Post celebrates Earth Day as it might, with an editorial about the failure to make a cap-and-trade regime work in the European Union. Let’s let that slide off the side a bit, though, and focus on this paragraph:

Germany is irrationally shutting its nuclear power plants — which produce lots of steady, reliable electricity and no carbon dioxide emissions — and promising that renewables will somehow pick up the slack. Perversely, that approach has led power companies to ramp up coal burning, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in a country that has also lavished its public money on the solar industry. Spain, too, has over-invested in expensive renewables. To its credit, France hasn’t decided to shutter its nuclear plants, but it is one of many countries that refuse to open up natural gas reserves, a resource that could help wean the continent off coal.

This is actually pretty rough on renewable energy, more so than one usually sees from the Post. It’s also correct, especially as regards Germany. Irrational doesn’t begin to say it.

The gist of the editorial is that the United States, which seemed a few years ago way behind Europe on the issue of climate changes, is now way ahead. The ramped-up use of natural gas gets a lot of the credit for that, but the Post doesn’t ignore that nuclear energy also helps in the effort to displace carbon emissions. One can reasonably expect this displacement to accelerate after V.C. Summer and Plant Vogtle open two new reactors each over the next eight years or so.

Only a few years ago, it would have been outrageous to claim that the United States would ever be on a better emissions trajectory than Europe. Yet it is now burning less coal even as Europe burns more. That partially reflects the fact that the United States is only now taking steps mandating greater fuel efficiency for cars. But it is also the result of a practical embrace of natural gas and the continued use of nuclear power.

If electric/hybrid cars take off, the sky, so to speak, is the limit. More nuclear energy to power them wouldn’t go amiss either.


The Heritage Foundation’s Jack Spencer also takes a crack at Earth Day by reminding us that the nuclear project is embedded quite deeply in the principles that motivate those that want a cleaner plant.

More so than any other energy source, nuclear technology makes possible the production of massive amounts of clean, reliable and affordable power. In fact, nuclear power — which now provides 20 percent of our nation’s energy — does more to preserve Senator Nelson’s prized environmental resources (land, water and air) than any other energy source, “green” or otherwise.

The Nelson mentioned is not Sen. Ben Nelson (R-Neb.), by the way, but Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), who helped found Earth Day in the U.S. in 1970, rooted in a UNESCO effort to create an Earth Day on the first day of Spring. Nelson won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for this and it serves as his primary legacy. You can watch the Senator speak on the first Earth Day here. Nelson died in 2005.

Spencer gets into some more specific points that are startling when put so plainly:

A traditional nuclear power plant takes up only a few hundred acres. New reactor technologies are even less land-intensive. The power produced by a single nuclear reactor is often enough to keep the lights on for millions of people. Wind and solar, on the other hand, can take thousands or tens of thousands of acres to produce the same amounts of energy. For instance, in order to generate the same amount of power as a single nuclear reactor, wind turbines would have to cover the entire area of the Great Smoky Mountains — that’s over 900 miles.

Also add in that wind energy still has a challenging capacity factor issue compared to nuclear energy (or any baseload energy) – it can deliver about 40 to 50 percent of its total potential capacity while nuclear energy is around 90 to 95 percent (over 100 percent if you count uprates). So make that two Great Smoky Mountains.

Now, let’s concede that energy choices are more complex than either Spencer – or I – are allowing. Capacity factor and land use are important but not necessarily determinative. Wind farms are less expensive than nuclear energy facilities and benefit from the approval of the environmental movement, which gives them a exceptionally benign profile. That may not give enough of the whole story, though, which is what Spencer is demonstrating – and doing an exceptionally good job of it – reminding everyone that Earth Day achieves some of its goals via nuclear energy.

In conclusion, Happy Earth Day. There are a lot of sites out there to help you with ideas of how you can make your segment of the planet earthier, but why not start with the Earth Day Network and work outward from there.


Anonymous said...

The people in Vermont are beginning to realize that wind farms don't have a benign profile. They're suddenly horrified to see many of their picturesque ridgelines and mountaintops lopped off to make room for the industrial-sized wind turbines. All that for an energy source that has maybe a 30% capacity factor. Yet they seemingly go after an utterly benign energy source that uses a few hundred acres nestled nearly out of sight, with a 90+% capacity factor (Vermont Yankee).

Andrea Jennetta said...

Nicely done, NEI! Keep up these great blog posts.