A range of tools, including state action and power market changes, are needed to ensure that existing nuclear power plants help keep the United States on track to meeting its climate goals. That was the consensus of experts C2ES convened this week at the National Press Club to discuss nuclear’s role as a zero-carbon energy source.
In a new brief, Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power, C2ES laid out some of the factors that led to the premature retirement of five nuclear reactors. Nuclear power provides more than 60 percent of zero-carbon emission electricity in the United States. So further closures will make it harder to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
C2ES assembled a group of experts, including Peter Lyons, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Carol Browner, Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow and former EPA Administrator; and Bill Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, to suggest potential remedies for preserving the existing nuclear fleet.
Notably, not all of the 100 operating nuclear reactors are at risk, only the 46 that operate as “merchant” generators and compete in wholesale power markets. Pressures they face include low natural gas prices, renewables policy, a slowdown in demand for electricity, unfavorable power market structures, and the absence of a price on carbon.
From late 2012 through the summer of 2013, four power companies announced the early retirement of five nuclear reactors. In early 2014, the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power plants announced that it, too, is considering early retirements for some of its Midwest reactors.
In a new brief, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) looks at what’s behind these recent announcements, and how a continued loss of nuclear power – a zero-carbon energy source -- could make it harder for the United States to meet its climate goals.
Since 1990, nuclear power has consistently supplied about one-fifth of U.S. electricity. More importantly from a climate perspective, it has represented the lion’s share -- 60 to 70 percent -- of all zero-carbon electricity.
The increased availability of natural gas is leading to its expanded use worldwide. Substituting natural gas for coal as a fuel for generating electricity helps reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change because burning natural gas emits only about half as much carbon as burning coal.
But half isn’t zero.
That’s why it’s important to note the recent announcement in the United Kingdom of the next step in building the first full-scale commercial natural gas power plant using carbon capture and storage (CCS).
In the Peterhead CCS project, international oil company Shell and British utility Scottish and Southern Energy Company are teaming up to retrofit a 385 MW natural gas power plant to capture post-combustion carbon dioxide (CO2). Pipelines will take the CO2 to permanent storage in a depleted hydrocarbon reservoir two kilometers under the North Sea. When the project, which received U.K. government incentives, comes online in 2018, it will be able to capture and store 1 million tons of CO2 each year for 10 years.
Last week, Hubei Province became the sixth jurisdiction in China to launch a pilot carbon emissions trading program, joining Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Guangdong Province. In the coming months, two additional programs will be introduced in Chongqing and Qingdao. In total, the eight pilot programs will cover an estimated one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (MTCO2), second only to the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. The pilot trading programs are part of the strategy laid out in China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) to reduce carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) by 40-45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
As the world’s largest energy consumer and emitter of carbon dioxide, China’s efforts to rein in emissions are significant at both the global and national level. In addition to the carbon trading pilots, China recently announced measures to limit coal to 65 percent of primary domestic energy consumption by 2017, down from 69 percent in 2011, while also banning new coal generation in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
Clean energy and energy efficiency can save wear and tear on the environment and climate, but sometimes it takes money to take action. And in a time of tight government budgets, where will that money come from?
A new and growing solution to this energy finance problem is called the “green bank” or “clean energy bank” -- government-created institutions that help facilitate private sector financing for clean technology projects. States have used a variety of tools and incentives over the years to promote technology deployment. Green banks put many of the tools used to encourage private investment in one place.
Connecticut was the first state to open a green bank in 2011, and the idea is catching. New York opened a green bank in February. California state Sen. Kevin De Leon has proposed creating a green bank in his state. And U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) plans to introduce legislation to establish a federal green bank.
Green or clean energy banks can leverage a small amount of public money to significantly increase private investment in clean technologies. This leads to accelerated deployment of solar power, energy efficiency upgrades, and other clean technologies without creating a large burden on public budgets.