One thing that is becoming increasingly clear in regards to climate change is that the fight will be long, difficult, and victory is very far from assured. Addressing carbon emissions requires not only changing the behavior of rich developed nations like the U.S., but also changing the behavior of poor countries with short life expectancies for the population and a hunger for what U.S. citizens consider basic amenities like a car or electricity. Places like India and Africa are not going to sacrifice economic development for the sake of reducing carbon emissions or avoiding climate change.
Given that reality, environmentalists and clean energy advocates need every tool in their tool chest to have any chance of averting climate change. Yet, one form of clean power is perhaps even more reviled than “dirty” power like coal; nuclear power. That mindset is what led to a recent deal to close California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. Diablo Canyon prevents 6.8 million tons of carbon emissions annually and produces less high level radioactive waste than would fit in a typical midsized car. The deal to close Diablo Canyon then is potentially a step backwards in the fight against climate change.
In theory Diablo Canyon’s energy production will be fully offset by renewable sources of energy. The reality remains to be seen of course. Yet even if Diablo Canyon is completely offset by renewable energy, the agreement does nothing to affect the nearly 600 coal fired power plants in operation across the rest of the U.S. to say nothing of the hundreds more natural gas power plants. In fact, the resources being used to construct clean power to offset Diablo Canyon could actually have been used to displace multiple coal plants (nuclear plants producer significantly more power than coal plants do on average).
Coal power use is declining in the U.S., but holding its own internationally. Coal provides more than 40 percent of electricity around the globe and there are more than 1,000 new coal plants in various stages of construction around the world. Related: Oil Prices Could Spike As Analysts See Venezuela Losing 500,000 bpd
The aversion to nuclear power on the part of environmentalists is a bit confusing in some respects. Outside of Chernobyl, there had never been any serious nuclear power plant pollution until the Fukushima disaster which was the result of both a tsunami and an earthquake. And even in the case of Fukushima, the cost of the disaster was small in comparison to some of the theorized costs of a planet that is warmer by even a few degrees.
In a very meaningful way then, the choice of using renewables comes down to preventing climate change or closing nuclear plants. It’s probably not realistic to do both. Environmentalists and others advocating on the future of electrical grid generation technology have to choose between whether to allow climate change to continue or allow nuclear power to continue. Both cannot be stopped simultaneously. The electrical needs of the population are simply too great and the ability to construct new renewables is too slow and too limited to cover both coal power and nuclear power (again to say nothing of natural gas). Building the existing electrical infrastructure of the country took more than a century. Climate change progress has to be completed in much less time than that, all while contending against a rising tide of 5 billion people around the world striving to reach first world living conditions.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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