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Low Carbon Emissions? Look to Nuclear, Hydro

Ceres has produced a new report called Benchmarking Air Emissions, which shows that the electric generating business has done a significant job in reducing a variety of greenhouse gases, notably nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy does not weigh heavily into the report because new nuclear power is still a few years away, so only uprates can have contributed to the report’s profile. Still:

Among the top 100 power producers, Exelon had the eighth lowest CO2 emissions rate in 2011, largely due to its large nuclear and renewable energy fleet, as well as its investments in nuclear uprates.  Even with a low level of emissions, Exelon reduced its total CO2 emissions by 32 percent and its CO2 emission rate by 40 percent between 2000 and 2011.

It’s the “even with a low level of emissions” bit I want to focus on here, because it recognizes that nuclear energy has made a significant contribution.

Southern Company reduced total SO2 emissions by 63 percent while increasing overall generation by 8 percent between 2000 and 2011 by bringing online approximately 14,000 megawatts of natural gas-fired capacity during the same period.

Those numbers will become even more impressive when the two reactors at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia go online.

This struck me as interesting, although not in the least counterintuitive:

Based on the latest available data, the report also reveals that Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, and North Dakota had the highest CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour of power produced, while Idaho, Vermont, Washington, Oregon, and Maine had the lowest CO2 emissions rates.

Of the five with the lowest emissions, Vermont and Washington have nuclear energy facilities, the others do not. Maine, Idaho and Oregon are three of the highest users of renewable energy at about 52 percent, 80 percent and 80.6 percent respectively. (Think hydro here, with wind and/or solar helping out.)

I may have expected nuclear to be a bit more determinative in these rankings, but it’s silly not to realize the prevalence of hydro in some states and regions, notably the Pacific Northwest. Call it an unattractive blind spot. Still, the results are what you want and the great thing about nuclear and hydro both is that they are “elder” technologies, doing the good they do for many years (many, many years in the case of hydro.)

The highest emitters – well, they do not need too much explication. Let give the devil his due, though, and allow that Kentucky, at least, is willing to consider nuclear energy more seriously.

The report itself (you have to provide your email to get it, so caveat emptor) is written in layman’s language and it’s fairly brief at 50 pages.

Here’s how Ceres describes itself:

Ceres is an advocate for sustainability leadership. Ceres mobilizes a powerful network of investors, companies and public interest groups to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy.

Not the most provocative report, but fair and free of cant – even the light nuclear pickup seems right in this context. Ceres performed a good service for its constituency.

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