Nuclear vs. Coal: A False Choice?
24 Sep, 2007 03:59 pm
Anybody that has recently watched television discussions about electricity policy or read popular newspaper articles in the U.S. may be convinced that the true contest in American energy policy is between nuclear technologies and traditional fossil-fuel generators.
Such a narrow comparison between nuclear and fossil fuel systems, however, is both dangerous and counterproductive. It threatens to obscure two sets of more effective supply-side solutions to America’s energy problems: renewable energy systems and small-scale non-renewable distributed generation technologies. Contrary to the commentary produced by the media and energy lobbyists, renewable and distributed energy technologies have four advantages over both fossil fueled and nuclear systems: they have lower lifetime costs, promote environmental equity, improve the efficiency of electricity transmission and distribution networks, and contribute positively to energy security.
In terms of the first point, cost, data from the California Energy Commission and Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research have shown that wind turbines and landfill gas generators offered the cheapest forms of electricity for country at large in 2005. Their analyses included comparing wind and biogas facilities to all other generators including advanced coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants, and focused on the costs over the entire lifetime of a given generator.
On the second point, environmental equity, almost every phase of the process that converts conventional fuel into electricity ss extremely damaging to the environment. Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants are the nation’s second largest user of water, consuming around 48.2 trillion gallons of water per year to produce steam to turn turbines. In addition, the country’s 600 coal and oil-fired power plants produce more than one hundred million tons of sludge waste. Abandoned uranium mines can pose radioactive risks for as long as 250,000 years after closure. And despite three decades of “clean air” legislation in the United States, air pollution continues to pose a serious threat to human and ecosystem health. In 2001, the U.S. electric utility industry was responsible for approximately 72 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions; 40 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions; one third of particulate matter emissions; one fourth of mercury emissions; and almost one half of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, renewable technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, biomass generators, small-scale hydroelectric plants, and geothermal facilities do not rely on fuels that need to be mined, transported, or stored, and they each produce little to no air pollution.
On the third point, transmission and distribution efficiency, distributed and renewable energy systems can better enable utilities and system operators to stabilize the grid and improve reliability. Because distributed technologies can be produced at smaller scale, they can be located (or situated) almost anywhere, and their modularity means that generators can be deployed to precisely match smaller increments of demand. Distributed generators, in contrast to centralized plants, help displace electricity normally produced by a large coal- or natural-gas fired turbine, backed up by a spinning reserve, and delivered through the power grid to the same location.
Finally, moving to the last point about energy security, distributed and renewable energy sources can help meet rising demand in a way less risky and more easily for communities to control. Large coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities are extremely capital intensive and take years to build. A typical 1,100 megawatt light water reactor plant costs between $2 and $3 billion for licensing and construction. The capital intensity of such projects complicates the process of balancing capacity with demand, meaning plants tend to overproduce electricity. In contrast, smaller distributed technologies limit financial risk and capital exposure. Smaller units with shorter lead times reduce the risk of purchasing a technology that becomes obsolete before it is installed, and quick installations can better exploit rapid learning, as many generations of product development can be compressed into the time it would take to build one giant plant.
To conclude, the wisest energy strategy for the United States—in terms of cost, environmental benefits, and potential—is not a forced choice between coal and nuclear plants. It is instead promoting the use of smaller, decentralized and renewable energy technologies that are quicker to construct, less fuel intensive, and more modular. It is these miniature generators—not gargantuan and capital-intensive nuclear and fossil fuel plants—that offer the best strategy for responding to the needs of American electricity consumers.
Sovacool BK (2007). Coal and nuclear technologies: creating a false dichotomy for American energy policy. Policy Sciences; 40:101-122