Not too many years ago, coal and nuclear power competed fiercely against each other in the energy arena. But now natural gas, cheap and abundant, is superseding both in the production of electricity.
Although a political cloud hangs over both and environmentalists are causing headaches, coal and nuclear power are here to stay. Together, they provide a large share of the base-load electricity that drives our nation’s economy, without which cities would go dark and industries would shut down.
But it’s clear that President Obama and his circle of energy advisers don’t really care about coal or nuclear power. In his proposed budget for 2016, Obama earmarked no funds for two critically important energy projects. One is FutureGen, a project slated for Illinois, which was going to be the first full-scale demonstration of a process to capture carbon dioxide from a coal plant and bury it underground. Because coal supplies almost two-thirds of the world’s electricity, and is especially important in fast-growing economies like China and India, carbon sequestration is the key to meeting international climate goals.
The other project is the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada. We need a facility to hold the nation’s radioactive waste from electricity production and the weapons program, which is stored at 121 reactor sites in 39 states. The technology for waste disposal is well-studied, understood and regulated. Political interference has been the problem.
Congress needs to address the energy situation, and it should provide funding for both projects. Unless work resumes on a waste repository and the demonstration of technology for carbon capture-and-storage, it is unrealistic to expect that countries, especially developing ones, will accede to any demand to produce power in a higher-cost manner merely to reduce carbon dioxide.
Coal is carbon rich, and somewhat more expensive than natural gas in many regions. But coal is far less prone to price jumps, and during the winter looks like a bargain. Indeed, the U.S. coal fleet’s value has never been more apparent. During the Polar Vortex last winter, when temperatures plummeted, only the availability and operation of coal units now scheduled for early retirement enabled the power sector to meet demand for electricity. In fact, coal-fired generation provided 92 percent of the increased power that was needed to get some regions through the cold snap.
One lesson learned from that episode is that the power grid is less resilient than was previously thought. The shutdown of scores of coal plants due to environmental regulations is placing the security of America’s electric supply system at risk. No less troubling was the premature retirement last year of two safe and efficient zero-carbon nuclear plants — Vermont Yankee and Kewaunee in Wisconsin — due to competition from cheap natural gas. Several other nuclear plants may also be shuttered.
New England is planning to rely on natural gas and non-hydro renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power for about 80 percent of its electricity. Three key states — Florida, California and Texas — already depend on natural gas for 75 percent of their power. More than 130 million Americans now rely on natural gas to provide more than 50 percent of their electricity and the number is growing. If gas prices spike, the impact would have nationwide consequences, cost thousands of jobs and overwhelm family budgets, pushing more households to seek government aid to pay electric bills and heat their homes.
Those who think renewable energy sources can save the day should think again. Wind represents less than 5 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and solar less than 1 percent. Both are of little value on days when the weather isn’t cooperating, whereas coal units on average supply power about 70 percent of the time and nuclear reactors nearly 93 percent of the time.
Obviously we don’t need energy miracles. We have coal and nuclear power. Both are safe, reliable and affordable. They’re not the problem; rather, they’re part of the solution.
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