The pressure is on to replace CO2 emitting coal as an electric power fuel, as the PUC tells Xcel to study retiring two units at Xcel’s big Sherco coal plant. A new paper released by James Hansen and a cadre of co-authors reports that even 2 degrees of warming is too much for the earth, and would “subject young people, future generations and nature to irreparable harm.”
It is clear that our country, and the world, needs to get serious about planning future sources of energy. Currently, coal is the largest worldwide source of electricity which is essential for modern society. However, it is also clear that heavy use of coal leads to environmental pollution and climate change.
The first step to reduce our climate impact is to use energy more wisely. By reducing waste in our grid, and our households, it is possible to significantly reduce our emissions and our monthly bills. Families that make decisions to purchase high-efficiency appliances and turn off devices when not in use will see real impacts in their monthly use.
But conservation cannot solve the entire problem. So what are options for generating clean and reliable sources? Many people think of wind and solar power as the next generation power sources. We have observed a massive increase in grid-level wind power in Minnesota which is transforming our urban and rural landscapes. Solar power is become more common on buildings and residences throughout the state. Both solar and wind power are aided by legislative actions that encourage an increasing share of statewide electricity generated from renewables.
But even conservation and variable output renewable energy cannot solve our electricity problem. There is, and will always be, a need for significant and stable base load power; a base load that only coal, natural gas, or nuclear can provide. Among these, natural gas emits significantly less pollution and greenhouse gases than coal, provided that it is obtained in carefully maintained operations that have minimal leak of methane or other pollution. Natural gas plants can also vary their output to balance rapid changes in output from renewables. Power generated from nuclear plants is almost completely free of pollution, after the construction. Nuclear power, which is reliable and powerful, can provide the stable base load our electric grid needs.
The journal Science noted in an issue: “The electrical grid demands exquisite balance. At every instant, the supply of electricity throughout the system — thousands of power plants, substations and transmission lines — must equal demand. If not, wires overheat, voltage drops and circuit breakers snap open to protect parts of the grid.”
A stable low emissions power grid could consist of roughly equal parts of base load nuclear, wind and solar renewables, and natural gas which will balance the variable renewables. Where available, hydroelectric can provide both base load and variable load following power. Coal burning would not be needed.
Of course, nuclear power isn’t without its detractors who point to the issues of security and waste management. But these are solvable problems. Furthermore, next generation nuclear technology can produce energy with far less waste material; the U.S. has been virtually absent in this research and development area. The French reprocess their spent nuclear fuel, vitrifying the dangerously radioactive 5% in glass cylinders for long term storage, and recycling the remaining 95% into new fuel.
Of course there are concerns of safety. As Fukushima and Chernobyl have shown us, nuclear reactors can be damaged and leak dangerous radiation. But it is clear from our experience the risk of climate change is a significant threat. That should motivate us to work tirelessly to make nuclear even safer than the good overall record experienced by the world’s more than 450 nuclear power reactors. The U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered vessels operate reliably and safely as they patrol the world’s oceans. Those naval power reactors were the prototypes for two thirds of the larger scale reactors that provide 20 percent of U.S. electric demand.
We cannot ignore the potential of nuclear energy because of our fear or ignorance. If we are serious about exploring a clean and reliable source of energy to complement our conservation and wind/solar initiatives, nuclear must be considered as a leading contender along with increasing use of renewables.
Rolf E. Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He teaches classes onenergy subjects for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.