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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where will the clean energy come from?

Last week, the president proposed a new push to reduce GHG. It’s not clear how (or if) the Congress will go along, or how much can be legally accomplished without legislative support.

One of the major targets is, as expected, coal generating electricity plants. Obviously the coal miners and the coal-intensive electric companies would try to push back, but again, it’s unknown how successful they will be. It’s also not entirely clear what the point of reducing US coal consumption is, if the entire US consumption is about a billion tons while Chinese demand has risen from 3 to 4 billion tons in only 5 years and India is also increasing coal generation.

That said, if the plan (or some other approach) succeeds in getting rid of US coal plants, where will the replacement electric generating capacity come from?

Hydro is maxed out, and wind and solar can only ramp so quickly. The remaining no-CO2 option is nuclear, but it’s becoming increasingly uneconomic. As the WSJ reported last week:
Nuclear power produces two-thirds of the nation's emission-free electricity, but that industry is in the doldrums now because of slack power prices in deregulated markets and generally low demand for power. The plants also suffer from high fixed costs.

Dominion Resources Inc., D +0.60% a big owner of nuclear plants and utilities, shut down its Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin last month because it can't operate it profitably in the current energy environment. "Longer term, nuclear has to be a major part of the solution," said Tom Farrell, chief executive of Dominion, which is based in Richmond, Va.
Nuclear is plagued by high capital and other fixed costs, despite low variable costs. With natural gas prices plummeting, it’s hard to see how it will ever be cost-competitive again.

Natural gas generates half the carbon emissions of coal plants, but that’s still more than zero. Fixed costs (and nuclear waste) aside, nuclear would be a better GHG solution but one that seems increasingly out of reach.

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