Renewable energy and fossil fuel advocates have one thing in common – an unhealthy tendency to fall in love with a particular energy technology. Will nuclear power solve the world’s problems? Are solar and wind the answer to everything? Can natural gas save the day? What about biomass or clean coal?
Each of these technologies has a cadre of vocal advocates, but they are a bit myopic. The problem is that picking winners and losers based on such biases sells the country short . Technologies should be judged based on their ability to power the economy in a clean, safe, reliable, and affordable manner. Choices that ignore one of these core goals fail that basic duty.
No Single Energy Technology Is A Panacea Or Silver Bullet
Every technology has advantages and downsides. Nuclear power, for example, offers tremendous energy density, and carbon-free, 24-hour power. But any honest assessment of nuclear power will also show profound problems—cost, siting, waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear power’s future will only come about if these four issues are dealt with. A number of design ideas can help with each issue but none have been tested, much less deployed, at a reasonable cost. So the proper role for a nuclear advocate is being a genuine problem-solver, rather than a one-note advocate.
Cooling towers emit steam at the Exelon Corp. Three Mile Island nuclear power plant with decommissioned cooling towers, at right, in this aerial photo taken in Middletown, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Friday, March 18, 2011. U.S. nuclear regulators will meet in public next week to discuss the reactor crisis in Japan as President Barack Obama seeks a review of safety at domestic atomic plants. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Different challenges arise with solar and wind. These clean energy technologies now provide the cheapest electricity ever offered. But they face issues with siting, variability, energy density, transmission, and more. Sound solutions exist to solve all these problems, and each has been demonstrated somewhere, but no one has combined them all into 100% renewable energy grid. Policymakers must listen to solar and wind advocates, but also demand tractable solutions to these challenges.
Natural gas is plentiful and cheap, and in the U.S., remarkably accessible for heating, electricity production, and chemicals. But densely located fracking wells threaten environmental destruction, and if more than 3% of gas leaks anywhere in the system—from extraction and compression, to distribution and use—gas is worse than coal for the climate. And even if gas leakage fell to zero, it still creates about half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal—not enough to protect the climate.
Coal is perhaps the most hotly contested energy technology today, benefiting from a centuries-old system that was quite literally built around the energy source. A coal plant can run 24/7, and the capital stock is already mostly in place. Calculations suggest enough coal reserves exist to power the world’s energy systems for many decades to come—but coal generates the most carbon emissions of any generation technology, and is increasingly being beaten in the markets by natural gas and renewables.
Other energy technologies similarly face biases, both in their favor and against. The key is to focus on public amenity: Energy must be reliable, affordable, and clean – then see what stacks up.
Antelope coexist with wind turbines on the rolling plains a few miles west of Cheyenne, Wyo., Friday Sept. 30, 2011. Wyoming officials say California utility customers could save billions by relying more on Wyoming wind power to meet their state’s goal of getting a third of its power from renewable sources by 2020. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver)
In Wyoming for example, home to 42% of American coal output, billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns conservative-leaning newspapers and has donated millions to Republican politicians, is building America’s largest wind farm. This project will sell electricity to California via a new 700-mile transmission line, generate $8 billion in new investment, create hundreds of new construction jobs to replace lost coal mining jobs, and could herald a new economic boom for the state.
But a prejudice against wind almost prevented this economic boom. Wyoming proposed a steep tax on wind power, seeking wind tax hikes from $1 per megawatt-hour to $5 (no other state taxes wind). “We don’t want more wind,” one state legislator reportedly said to a developer. “We want you to burn more coal.” Luckily, both the developer and Wyoming’s Republican governor understand that a good job is a good job, and if it comes from clean, cheap electricity production, so much the better .