Much as we dislike military metaphors, which tend to overhype everything, there actually is a war going on in the energy space. Two wars, actually.
The first is a war to halt the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because they are increasing temperatures on Earth and in its oceans, already with awful consequences. The preponderance of evidence has supported a growing commitment by governments at all levels, businesses, and individuals to take a variety of actions to halt GHG emissions.
It’s a serious war, made much more difficult by the fact that it’s largely invisible. The loss of hundreds of species hasn’t grabbed much attention, nor has the prospect of losing vast agricultural lands and food. Sea rise and ocean warming threaten coastal cities, property and residents, but even that’s not widely seen as endemic—and worsening. Thus, committed climate change warriors are reduced to warning that our children and grandchildren will suffer unless we do more. But not us?
Then there’s the second war: a needless one. It pits two non-carbon-emitting resources—renewables and nuclear—against each other on Twitter, in debates, at conferences, and most recently in Pacific Gas & Electric’s decision not to seek relicensing for its two-unit Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. PG&E’s reasons for its decision are well covered in its joint proposal—backed by two leading environmental groups, its principal labor union, and others—to meet customers’ needs with energy efficiency, wind, solar, and storage. The plan, now before the California Public Utilities Commission, has inflamed some pro-nuclear opponents. They claim that Diablo Canyon will be surely replaced by carbon-emitting natural gas generation and can’t possibly be replaced by clean energy as the proposal claims. In other words, it’ll be a bait-and-switch.
Well, this is a year when one of the major party candidates for president says that if he loses it means the election was rigged. I suppose it shouldn’t strain belief that an advocate in a CPUC proceeding like the joint proposal concerning the future of Diablo Canyon thinks the skids are greased.
It’s not hard to understand nuclear advocates’ frustration. More than a dozen nuclear plants have closed, or are planning to close, or are at risk of closure due to economic pressures. If they do close, the CO2-emission-free electricity they produce should be replaced by other carbon-free generation, or we’ll be moving backward. Contrary to what the TV ads proclaim, natural gas generation is not “clean energy” or CO2 emission-free; in fact, natural gas generation releases over half the GHGs that we associate with coal. It’s important to do the math. Calling gas “a bridge to the future” gives it too much credit. It’s better than coal, but its CO2 emissions add to our carbon debt, as do emissions from the entire gas cycle, which leaks methane.
Renewables have their own burdens to bear. Concentrating solar plants fry birds. Wind turbines tend to slice or dice them. And while a host of new studies show that we can secure all or near all the clean energy we need from strategically planned and well interconnected wind and solar generation, it hasn’t been done at anything close to scale and there will be opposition to such projects, just as there are foes of more modest efforts now. There is no free lunch.
Finally, nuclear. As we have pursued it, nuclear power has been hugely expensive, as most plants have come in vastly over budget and behind schedule. That’s true even of current nuclear efforts, in Georgia, South Carolina, France, and Finland. Lately there is a new and important concern: nuclear power plants lack the operating flexibility that’s desirable in the competitive markets that today supply over half the nation’s electricity. Having said that, we are reluctant to close the file on what should have been—and could yet be—the promising technology many see: modular, inherently safe, affordable.