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Thursday, May 16, 2013
To hear environmental leaders tell it, the way forward on energy policy is clear. The United States should be more aggressive in moving to phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power in electricity generation and use renewable sources instead.
To do this, environmentalists say, we must challenge old ways of thinking rooted in the notion that coal, natural gas and nuclear power are needed to meet increased demand for electricity, and we must embrace new clean energy sources like solar and wind power.
For all their exhortations, what green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club ignore is this: Without increases in electricity generated from fossil fuels and nuclear power, the country will be hard pressed to meet the increased demand for electricity, which is estimated to increase about one-third by 2040.
Notwithstanding all the talk about replacing these major energy sources with renewables, the facts tell a different story. Despite the availability of tax credits and state renewable energy mandates, wind accounts for about 5 percent of the nation’s electricity generating capacity and solar less than one-half percent.
By contrast, in April, coal and natural gas each contributed 32 percent to the electricity mix and nuclear power 19 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
If environmentalists and some of their clean-energy supporters in the Obama administration and Congress were to get their way, and fossil fuels and nuclear energy were severely curtailed, our fragile national economy would be further damaged by significantly higher costs for electricity. Residential, commercial and industrial uses would all feel the impact.
The United States needs a national energy policy that recognizes the value of developing our own energy resources, understands the fundamental changes in our economy and electricity’s increasingly important role, assures that power plant emissions regulations are tough but realistic, and invests significantly in research.
One of the federal government’s most effective roles is basic research whose aim is acquiring the knowledge that is necessary for advances in technology and innovation.
For any policy to succeed — and it’s especially true of those designed to reduce carbon emissions — it must work with the market, not in spite of it. There is no reason that technologies that improve the generation of electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear power should not be as much the focus as are solar, wind and other alternative energy sources.
Because coal is relatively cheap and abundant in the United States and globally, it is a major source of power generation. Environmental concerns that drive current efforts to eliminate coal from the mix could be addressed by economical technologies for the capture and storage of carbon emissions.
To date, no carbon capture and storage-equipped coal-fired power plants have been built on a commercial scale because any electricity generated by such plants would be much more expensive than electricity produced by conventional coal-burning plants.
Focused research and incentives for the deployment of CCS on a commercial scale would do much to advance environmental objectives while at the same time allowing the marketplace to be the judge of what works best rather than government diktat. Coal should not be yesterday’s fuel but tomorrow’s as well.
Nuclear power could benefit greatly from innovative designs like the advanced boiling water reactor that Dominion is considering for its North Anna site in Louisa County.
Other reactor designs with promise are small modular reactors a fifth the size of large plants that could be built in factories.
The Department of Energy has an ambitious project to develop two small modular reactors that will be built in Virginia and transported for use in Tennessee. Additional modular reactors, some using different reactor technologies, need to be demonstrated in other states.
Programs designed to increase nuclear’s role in electricity generation would help to assure a diversity and reliability of supply, especially if future regulations impose greater restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
Coal, natural gas and nuclear technologies are needed for the benefit of all Americans. As our energy mainstays, they provide reliable power at affordable cost and contribute to our nation’s energy independence and a livable environment, even while the role of renewables advances.
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