Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Straight Scoop on Clean vs. Renewable vs. Carbon-Free Energy

“CLEAN is in the Eye of the Beholder” or

“The Laws of Nature Can’t be Legislated”

Listen to the Podcast here

This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid let it be known that
congress plans to tackle climate change by imposing federal standards that will require utilities to generate a percentage of their electricity from “renewable” energy sources. On the surface this may sound like a good idea, but Reid’s careful selection of words betrays his intent. He emphasized he would push “renewable” energy, not “low-carbon” or “clean” energy standards. This distinction makes all the difference in the world. It’s curious, too, because if they are in fact trying to reduce CO2 emissions as Reid states, then why wouldn’t he be promoting CO2-free energy? In truth, Harry Reid has another agenda in mind and is using the climate change soapbox to further his cause.

This week I’ll share the true intent of Harry Reid’s plan, and I’ll demonstrate that “renewable” energy standards will do little to reduce CO2 emissions. On the other hand, a regulatory framework that penalizes CO2 emissions and rewards low carbon generation would have an immediate and dramatic effect on reducing global warming gasses.

First, let’s discuss the difference between the phrases “clean energy” , “renewable energy” , and “low-carbon energy.

“Renewable” Energy

The government has defined “renewable” energy as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, waste to energy, and biofuels. Even though uranium and thorium supplies will last for hundreds or thousands of years, nuclear energy is not considered “renewable.” The phrase “renewable portfolio standards” or RPS refers to government mandates that require utilities to purchase a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources, regardless of price. This equates to a hidden tax and renewable energy subsidy because it forces the electricity rate payers to buy energy that could otherwise not compete in the market place. An RPS subsidizes renewable energy providers using inflated energy bills. About 25 states have some sort of RPS, and the Obama administration has started talking about implementing renewable portfolio standards on a national level. This would be a very bad idea but more on that later.

“Clean” Energy

“Clean Energy” is perhaps the most misused phrase in the energy business. Everyone claims to be clean! We’ve all heard industry trade association claims about “clean coal” and “clean natural gas.” There’s even a company out there called Clean Energy that is in the business of promoting natural gas as a transportation fuel. Clean Coal refers to coal power plants with mechanisms to remove a large percentage of the chemicals and particulate from the exhaust, but “clean coal” still has all the CO2 of “dirty coal.” Clean or not, burning coal releases about 2 pounds of CO2 for every kW-hr of electricity generated. A typical 1000 MW “clean” coal plant releases an astronomical 2 MILLION pounds of CO2 per hour! Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels with fewer chemicals and particulates in its exhaust. However, burning natural gas still dumps huge qualities of CO2 into the atmosphere. For every one kW-hr of electricity generated, natural gas produces 1.3 pounds of CO2, only about 1.3 MILLION pounds of CO2 per hour for a 1000 MW plant!

Biofuels claim to be clean, but their production is resulting in the deforestation of the Amazon jungle in Brazil, and farm equipment uses diesel fuel which emits CO2 and other pollutants. Hydro power is certainly clean unless you are concerned with the thousands of square miles flooded and natural habitats lost. Solar energy is a huge consumer of land; about 35 square miles for the same output as a large coal plant but without the reliability. At their end of life used solar panels are hazardous waste. The environmental web site “” reports that solar panels contain “extremely toxic materials with unknown health and environmental risks.” Interestingly, unlike used nuclear fuels these toxins never decay, yet the people opposed to nuclear energy don’t see the irony in their bias.

Wind has its own dirty problems. No one is talking about who will pay to decommission and remove old wind turbines when they break down and their owners go out of business. Thousands of broken down and abandoned windmills scattered around the country could hardly be called “clean.” Many environmentalists are concerned about the thousands of migratory birds and bats that are killed by wind turbine blades every year. Its not just animals that are at risk; I read a report this week that says
41 workers and 16 members of the public have been killed in the last several years from wind turbine accidents , blade failures, and other related hazards. Again, the irony escapes those who call nuclear plants unsafe – not a single worker or member of the public has ever been killed from radiation at a US nuclear plant. Once again, “clean” is in the eye of the beholder.

Nuclear energy has "clean" issues, too. The industry needs to maintain control of its used fuel until reprocessing begins in a few years. Once that happens the long term used fuel issue will be virtually eliminated because the remaining material will be even smaller. On the positive side, the current amount of material that needs to be controlled is miniscule and can very easily and safely stored. Nuclear energy is the only energy source that is 100% accountable for the physical plant and all by-products for the life of the plant and though decommissioning. Other power plants do not have to set money aside to pay for returning the plant site to a green field.

By contrast, coal plants are free to release their gaseous waste into the air and dump their solid waste into ponds and landfills. One such coal waste pond at a power plant in Tennessee failed on December 23
rd and flooded 400 acres with 12 feet of toxic muck containing lead, arsenic, and uranium. Fifteen homes were damaged or destroyed.

[This paragraph edited on 3/26/09] Another bit of irony is this: that coal slurry spill in Kingston, Tennessee released about 20,000 curies of radioactive uranium that was naturally present in the original coal, but concentrated in the coal ash. The enormous volume of the coal sludge means the event was most likely the largest “spill” of radioactive material in history, yet we didn’t hear a sound from the anti-nuclear establishment! The same groups that go ballistic at when nuclear plants release minute quantities of tritium had absolutely nothing to say! By the way, tritium is a mildly radioactive form of hydrogen that decays relatively quickly. The Union of Concerned Scientists and Nuclear Policy Research Institute were strangely silent on this single largest uncontrolled release of radioactive waste in the history of the USA.

Do you think the coal industry will be forced to spend billions of dollars to install redundant safety systems at all their coal sludge ponds? Now, honestly, that amount of radioactive material poses absolutely no threat to anyone, but this serves to illustrate the bias that exists in the media and in our energy policies.

The bottom line is this: the definition of “clean energy” depends on who you are hearing it from. If the goal is reducing CO2 emissions, then the term “clean energy” when used by the coal and natural gas industries is completely meaningless. The only exception might be research and development into carbon capture and sequestration technologies, but that is still completely unproven and has many serious safety and cost hurdles to overcome. It will be many, many years before we see carbon capture from coal or gas plants on an industrial scale.

“Emissions-Free” Energy

The terms “Low-Carbon” or “emissions free” energy are pretty straight forward. They refer to sources of energy that have very low CO2 emissions. This includes wind, nuclear, solar, hydro, and other renewables. By far the largest source of low carbon energy is nuclear. In fact, nuclear energy accounts for more than 70% of the USA’s emission free electricity generation.

So now we have discussed the differences between “clean energy”, “renewable energy” and “emission-free energy.” If the goal is reducing green-house gasses, then the focus should be on “emissions free” energy. If congress really wants to reduce CO2 emissions then they should create a financial and regulatory framework that taxes CO2 emissions and rewards emissions free producers, then stand back and let the market decide which technologies can do it most quickly and cheaply. Playing favorites with any one or two technologies is a sure way to fail.

“Hey Nuclear, Don’t Bother to Apply”

On a level playing field nuclear energy would continue as the emissions-free leader because it is a proven technology and the lowest cost provider of reliable carbon-free electricity. Unfortunately, it is not a level playing field. Harry Reid is calling the shots and he is doing everything he can to block the expansion of nuclear energy. He did exactly that during the final hours of negotiation on the stimulus bill when he removed a provision that would have allowed companies to access government loan guarantees for new nuclear construction projects. The original text of the stimulus bill stated “renewable and clean” energy projects were eligible for the guarantees, but Harry made sure the final version said only “renewable energy” could apply.

A Focus on Solar and Wind Means More Fossil Fuel Burning, Not Less

Because wind and solar are intermittent, for every MW of wind or solar capacity that is built, another MW of natural gas powered generation must be located nearby. Since the wind only blows about 32% of the time, and solar panels operate at only about 19%, those gas turbines will be running (and emitting CO2) between 68% and 81% of the time. This is why investing in solar and wind will only prolong our dependence on fossil fuels. Every year that we waste trying to supply our energy grid with wind and solar power is another year fossil fuels will continue dominating the energy supply. On the other hand, every new nuclear plant that is built steals market share from coal and gas plants. A current example is the two reactors that Progress Energy plans to build in Florida. The company has already stated publically they plan to shut down a large coal plant when the new nuclear plant comes on line. I’m sure the coal industry didn’t like hearing that story!

Harry Reid is promoting wind and solar projects that will end up in desert states like his home state of Nevada. What he is really doing is grabbing a lion’s share of government funds for Nevada while limiting the competition for those funds. The wind and solar projects he is pouring money into are not in the nation’s best interests because they are hugely expensive and will not provide reliable energy. All the money and government mandates in the world can not change the laws of nature. They can not turn an intermittent power source into a stable one. The state of California tried to do exactly that when they created renewal portfolio standards and they wound up in a horrible mess. Remember the California energy crises? Their electricity prices went through the roof, blackouts became routine, and they nearly bankrupt every utility in the state.

Pay Attention and Hold Your Elected Officials Accountable

In the coming week and months please listen to the news about climate change legislation. The USA is going to end up with some variation of either a national renewable portfolio standard or some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned in this show, we should oppose a renewable portfolio standard and support a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. Pay attention and let your congressmen and senators know how you feel. There is no question the price of electricity is going to go up to pay for mitigating climate change. If that is destined to happen then we need to make sure we get something for the money we spend. The best way to make that happen is to support the construction of new nuclear plants.


John Wheeler

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