Below is the second of two posts by Robert Petroski and Brian Marrs about the future of nuclear energy (link to Part I). Petroski is a nuclear engineer, with a degree from MIT, and Marrs is a Power Markets Specialist, with a degree from Yale. They are colleagues of mine from the Atlantic Council’s “Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environmental Policy,” a Transatlantic Network of professionals in the energy field. In this post, they argue that the nuclear debate we are having today should reflect how much technology has changed and will change in the coming decades. They end by arguing that we have to remember, the real enemy is carbon; I couldn’t agree more!
Also, be sure to check out the podcast of our conversation over at the American Security Project, here.
The Innovation Imperative
The majority of today’s nuclear fleet will complete their tenure within the coming decades. As it does so, categorically dismissing nuclear energy technology means abandoning 50 years of collective experience, just as the world’s demand for energy has never been greater – and coal-based. We believe that nuclear technologies are currently evolving in the direction of increased simplicity and safety, and by doing so nuclear energy has the potential to overcome traditional shortfalls of highly uncertain costs and unknown risks.
The uneven history of nuclear energy, especially in the United States, has been due in large part to the growing pains of a new industry combined with those of a new nuclear regulator. The development and maturation of nuclear regulatory requirements led to design changes in nuclear plants, which were often conceived and implemented “on the fly”, because they occurred after construction of a plant had already begun. These design changes commonly took the form of increased numbers and types of backup systems, increasing the complexity of nuclear power plants. The result of these growing pains was an immense escalation in nuclear costs and construction schedules, which was further compounded by an attempt to build larger and larger plants to generate economies of scale.
Below is the first of two posts by Robert Petroski and Brian Marrs about the future of nuclear energy. Petroski is a nuclear engineer, with a degree from MIT, and Marrs is a Power Markets Specialist, with a degree from Yale. They are colleagues of mine from the Atlantic Council’s “Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environmental Policy,” a Transatlantic Network of professionals in the energy field. In this post, they argue against hyperbole about nuclear power from both opponents and proponents.
Reasonable discussion about nuclear power is hard to find. Sifting through the post-Fukishima rhetoric about nuclear power is difficult whether you are an energy markets professional or even a nuclear engineer. Depending on what you read, nuclear power is either an antiquated technology far too dangerous and too costly for society, or on the verge of a technological renaissance which promises clean, safe, proliferation-free power the world round. The energy industry is no stranger to broken promises or unanticipated breakthroughs. The punditry and associated polarization surrounding nuclear power comes at a time when regulators and investors must make critical decisions about funding nuclear innovation and renewing the global nuclear fleet, particularly that in the United States, the country on which this article most focuses.
It is time to set the hyperbole aside about nuclear power – then and only then can we begin to evaluate the potential and limitations of new nuclear energy technologies. However worthy, objections about the legacy of nuclear energy should not eliminate funding and market deployment for future innovations. All energy sources come with trade-offs. None of today’s (and likely tomorrow’s) energy technologies – nuclear included – offers a panacea for the security, environmental, and economic development challenges facing the 21st century. Nuclear power will either adapt to new concerns, perceptions of risk, and market conditions, or justly become obsolete.
This week, the EPA announced that it was adjusting the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) in order to reflect market realities. As originally proposed earlier this year, the rule called for 14 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, but the final rule sets a requirement for 6 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year.
However, as all the news stories focus on how the EPA has “backed down”, what goes overlooked is that there is finally a cellulosic biofuel industry in which commercial production has started.
KiOR’s biorefinery in Columbus, Mississippi started commercial production in March using wood chips to produce cellulosic fuels, and Ineos just announced on July 31 that their Indian River BioEnergy plant in Florida has begun operations to make biofuels from plant waste. Both of these are now operating at full commercial scale. Whether they’re making money yet, we don’t know, but the fact that they’re producing large volumes of cellulosic biofuels may be a historic turning point. These developments are important steps towards developing a real advanced biofuel industry that can help move us toward a point where we have other options for how to fuel our cars and trucks.
An article I wrote was published yesterday, Why a Global Shale Gas Boom is Key to Combating Climate Change. Because I had actually written the article a week ago, I didn’t know that it would come out at the same time as the release of the President’s big speech on climate change. As I demonstrated in the post, the U.S. has been the most successful country over the last decade in reducing its emissions; most of that is due to fuel switching from coal to natural gas. Natural gas generates more than 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, not even including the many harmful particulate pollutants coal emits. To achieve similar benefits around the world, we need to replicate America’s shale gas revolution around the world.
While most of the news about the speech will be about how Obama is planning to accelerate renewable energy, I believe the biggest area of near-term action on reducing emissions will come from some underreported sections that will encourage the replacement of coal with natural gas for energy generation, both in the U.S. and globally.
Reduction in Energy-Related CO2 Emissions
The United States has seen a remarkable run in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions over the last five years, reducing energy-related CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2012 by 12%, from six billion tons to 5.29 billion tons. While part of this reduction in emissions is attributable to a reduction in energy demand due to the economic downturn, another reason for this huge reduction is an increase in the use of natural gas for electricity.
In a story that is now familiar to most readers, the shale gas revolution in the United States has dramatically reduced the cost of natural gas. From a peak of $10.54 per million btu (mbtu) in July 2008, the spot price of gas at the well-head had fallen to less than $2/mbtu by April 2012.
Because utilities respond to price incentives, this caused fuel-switching of baseload electricity production from coal to natural gas, leading to a time in April 2012 when natural gas equaled coal as an energy source for the first time. This switch has partially been undone, with coal now producing 40% of electricity and natural gas 26% as gas prices have bounced back to $3.85/mbtu. Because burning natural gas for electricity produces half as much carbon emissions as coal, fuel switching is one of the main causes in the U.S. reduction in emissions.
From late 2007 through 2008, the global price of food saw an unprecedented upwards spike in prices, measured by the UN’s food price index, a broad measure of food prices. That spike was followed by another one in 2010 through early 2011 (see chart).
Here in the United States, we hardly felt the pinch at all. Food prices for the average American in the grocery store have almost no link to world food prices – as marketing, transportation, and processing can account for up to 80% of the total cost of food in the grocery store. However, major grain importing countries are sorely affected by these price spikes. For instance, as the Egyptian government continues to negotiate a new IMF loan, a sticking point is that over 9% of its total budget outlay is devoted to subsidizing food.
The military has been a leader in the development of biofuels – for good reason. As I’ve written before, the military’s single-source dependence on petroleum for fuel is a strategic vulnerability. Oil has a monopoly on energy supply for 80% of our military’s energy needs, including virtually all of the non-nuclear transportation. To simply accept that oil is going to remain as the sole source of liquid fuel that the US military relies on for its transportation, operations, and training is to say that we should accept the long-term strategic risks of price volatility and dependence upon uncertain foreign countries.
We should remember that, even if the military uses oil solely from the United States and its allies, the price that the Defense Logistics Agency pays for oil is largely set by global market conditions – and saying that those are highly vulnerable to conflict and unrest in the Middle East is an understatement.
Last year, in an attempt to address this threat, the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy were authorized under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to support the development of an alternative source of fuel. The funding agreed in a joint memorandum, and appropriated by Congress, each agency will invest $170 million over three years in helping to build a domestic biofuel industry (read more about the DoD’s biofuels policy here). This funding will be matched by investment from the private sector. Over the past several months, the agencies have been deliberating over which companies will partner with the government.
The U.S. is experiencing a boom in the production of oil. Only since the beginning of 2011, oil production in the U.S. has gone up by 30%, from 5.5 million barrels per day (mbd) to 7.2 mbd. Just this week, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that the amount of technically recoverable oil in North Dakota was tripled from a previous estimate – so this boom is unlikely to fall away in the short term.
At the same time, U.S. and European demand for petroleum products are declining. The economic troubles in the Euro zone have dampened economic activity (and petroleum demand), while in America, economic growth has returned, but the consumption of petroleum products are down as consumers change habits and lifestyles to drive less. At the same time, the low price of natural gas, particularly in the United States due to the boom in shale gas production, has some analysts predicting that gas will increasingly act as a substitute for oil whenever possible.
Given all this – an increase in production of oil coupled with a decline in demand – an elementary Economics 101 class would say that prices should be in a steep decline. Over the past several months, there have been a slew of articles predicting that oil prices are bound to drop.
Joint Statement on ‘Dangers’ of Climate Change
A few weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry went to Beijing to meet with the leadership of the Chinese government. This meeting was mostly noted in the press as an effort to defuse tensions in the ongoing crisis over North Korea – and clearly that was important; there has been a notable ratcheting down of tensions since then.
However, over the long term, there was an agreement that came out of the meeting that could be much more important to the world’s future stability and security – a joint U.S. – China Statement on Climate Change. It was so overlooked in the press, that I missed it for the last two weeks. The statement indicated that the U.S. and China recognize the “dangers presented by climate change” and that a “more focused and urgent initiative” is needed.
This statement is invariably true – and these two countries are in a position to have an impact. Together, China and the United States are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, with 29% and 16% of global emissions, respectively. Like Willie Sutton and the Banks, if you want to affect greenhouse gas emissions, start where the emissions actually are.
Mutual Concern About Present Day Impacts
Importantly, the statement notes that the reasons for each country’s mutual concerns about climate change come from the impacts that are already being seen. The statement lists ocean acidification, Arctic sea ice loss, and the “striking incidence of extreme weather events” as reasons for concern about climate. Climate change has moved from being a hypothetical worry in world politics (this will harm us) to an actual threat (this is harming us).
This agreement is important because it will catalyze action by each country at the national level, it will open up areas of cooperation between the two, and it could act as a signal to international negotiations, leading to an ambitious UN agreement.
Formally, the agreement will create a new Climate Change Working Group in the annual U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The S&ED was the brainchild of then-Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, with the first one taking place in September, 2006. Over the last six years, the S&EDs have successfully brought together the highest levels of both governments to meet and discuss important areas of the bilateral relationship. Mostly, however, the discussions have focused on economic and trade issues.
Creating a Climate Change Working Group will ensure that the highest levels of government are forced to deal with the problems of climate change.
Forcing Entrenched Bureaucracies to Collaborate
One of the key reasons why this agreement is important is not even the potential areas of cooperation between the countries – it is the action it will generate within each country’s government. In the United States government (I can’t speak with any familiarity about the Chinese government), it will force entrenched bureaucracies to deal with one another on climate and environmental issues. There is often a tendency in government for issues to become ‘stovepiped’ – and on climate, which is pegged as an environmental issue, but is actually a cross-cutting issue of energy, trade, economics, national security, and more, the stovepipes have not worked.
I work on energy policy for a national security think tank, so I am often asked to talk about energy security. Last week, I participated in a conference in which we were asked to comment on “U.S. Energy Security: How Do We Get There?” As I listened to the presenters at the conference, I realized that how you viewed the problem of ‘Energy Security’ depends on how you identify it. We all seem to have determined that energy security is a problem, but we each had different understandings of what the term ‘energy security’ actually means! Of course, that means there were very different prescriptions for how to ‘solve’ the problems of ‘energy security.’
In the absence of a definition, everyone defines energy security differently –both speakers and listeners. It is something like the late Margaret Thatcher said about the politics of consensus: “it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” Along those lines, I believe that ‘energy security’ has devolved into simply a buzzword: a phrase that everyone favors, but defines differently. Pundits, politicians, lobbyists, industry, and campaigners from across the political spectrum cry ‘energy security’ because it polls better than their preferred policies. I have done it as well. Listeners, then, are misled because, really, who could actually be against ‘energy security?’ It is like being against mom, America, and apple pie.