California passed two major greenhouse gas laws last year. One mandates reducing CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — perhaps as much as a 40% cut. The other prohibits the renewal of electricity contracts from traditional coal-fired plants. Together, these laws threaten to increase the cost of all forms of energy, making the Golden State less competitive and throwing thousands of Californians out of work.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The electrical sector can lead the way, if it is allowed to. We have at hand the technology needed to reduce the power industry’s share of the approximately 20% of CO2- equivalent emissions it produces in California. This can be done while also asking electricity to shoulder the burden for much of the CO2 emitted by the transportation sector through expanded use of electric cars, buses and trains and with hydrogen.
The solution is simple: Expand the use of nuclear power in California by lifting the state’s 31-year effective ban on the construction of new, safe, clean and reliable nuclear power plants.
California gets 13% of its power from nuclear energy today. But calculating CO2 emissions on a lifecycle basis, accounting for fuel mining and processing, plant construction, operation and decommissioning, nuclear power only contributes 0.5% of the electrical sector’s greenhouse gases. In contrast, the 16% of power California gets from coal contributes 36% of its greenhouse gases from electricity while the 42% of power from natural gas contributes 53% of greenhouse gases.
Natural gas has the added problem of having to be imported from other states and from overseas — the latter from nations that do not much like America. Further, California’s environmental lobby has effectively blocked the approval of the coastal liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals needed to meet increased demand. The looming natural gas shortage will soon hit working-class Californians in the pocketbook.
California’s electrical industry is laced with myriad laws and regulations — many of them working at cross purposes. For example, the California grid has three main mandates: reliability, affordability and to derive 20% of its power from “renewables” by 2017. Pick any two.
Wind power is cheap, but especially capricious in California’s rugged terrain and varied climate. Wind turbines spinning like mad during a cool summer’s night do little for California’s electricity needs while motionless turbine blades on a hot day require the firing up of massive natural gas “peaker” plants that make up for the lack of wind power at a huge cost in fuel and CO2 emissions. And for all of wind’s supposed “green” advantages, it takes about 10 times the steel and cement for wind to produce the equivalent amount of power as nuclear does 24/7, even on a calm day.
Solar power, in any form, is costly and eats up large amounts of real estate. Solar photovoltaics (PV) use toxic materials and wear out after about 20 years — well before any rooftop investor would recover his financial cost. Solar is useful for providing peaking power on a hot summer day and, as such, can replace to a certain degree “peaker” natural gas plants. Because all of those mirrors and panels are energy-intensive to produce and labor intensive to maintain, solar’s lifecycle CO2 emissions, while about a quarter that of natural gas, are still triple that of wind and almost eight times that of nuclear. For a number of economic reasons, the amount of solar power pouring into California’s grid has actually declined by 29% in the past four years, from 0.3% of the total in 2002 to 0.2% in 2006.
Geothermal power contributes almost 5% of California’s power, down slightly in real terms from four years ago. For a variety of environmental and policy reasons, geothermal has not taken off as a major renewable power source.
Biomass generation has been flat, hampered, in part, by the state’s stringent air quality rules and environmental restrictions on clearing fuel wood from forests.
Small hydroelectric plants are somehow defined as “renewable” while large dams are not. Whether or not the fish can tell the difference, California regulators remain hostile to both. Small hydro contributes only 2% to the grid. Further, recent studies have cast doubt on the CO2 emissions savings from hydro power anyway, as dams displace trees which impound CO2 while the rotting vegetation behind dams releases large amounts of methane and CO2. To add additional environmental insult to injury, dams use up large amounts of cement, a major CO2 culprit.
Assuming no increase in the use of nuclear power, California could reach its 20% “renewables” mandate by 2017 while cutting coal use almost in half. This scenario would see power costs increase by almost 60% and would still fall more than 47 million metric tons of lifecycle CO2 emissions short of compliance with California’s aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals—in fact, greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generation would actually have to increase 6% to meet California’s growing needs.
Alternatively, California could lift its 1976 ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants, as proposed in the initiative for the June 2008 ballot filed last week with the attorney general’s office titled the “California Energy Independence and Zero Carbon Dioxide Emission Electrical Generation Act of 2008." By building just four 1,600-megawatt nuclear reactors, California could phase out all coal usage by 2020 while holding flat the use of costly natural gas to turn power generators. Just this one change in California policy would allow the electrical sector to reach its carbon footprint goals. Power costs would still increase about 50%, 10% less than in the zero-nuclear growth scenario, due mainly to increased costs for natural gas and greater reliance on costly solar power as part of the 20% “renewables” mandate.
Really thinking out of the box, if California were to add eight 1,600-megawatt nuclear reactors, we could zero-out coal, cut our natural gas usage by more than a third, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 27 million metric tons below 1990 levels and see electrical costs rise by less than half of what they would without any new nuclear power plants. This bold plan would allow California to lead the nation in electrifying its transportation system as well as increasing its use of clean, electrically produced hydrogen to power vehicles. It also reduces our dependence on fossil fuels imported from the Middle East.
Arrayed against this plan are the usual forces of fear and uninformed dread. Some have already cited the recent earthquake damage of a nuclear power plant in Japan as a reason not to increase the use of nuclear power in California. The ballot initiative has seismic safety land use guidelines that aim to prevent what happened at an old Japanese nuclear facility. Even so, the level of radioactivity that leaked into the Sea of Japan was equivalent to that naturally occurring in a dozen people — far, far less than the radioactivity in one wind turbine pylon.