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Home / Articles / Views / Danish Plan /  Obama goes nuclear -- will carbon caps follow?
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Thursday, February 25,2010

Obama goes nuclear -- will carbon caps follow?

By Paul Danish

According to a recent Reuters article, the U.S. Senate is about to take up climate change/capand-trade/energy legislation again, which, politically, is like taking up serpents.

Still, there’s reason to believe that something might actually pass, (assuming the Democrats aren’t overly troubled by the prospect of losing control of Congress, of course).

One might reasonably believe this thanks to President Obama’s announcement last week of $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear power plants. Obama previously (in his State of the Union Speech) called on Congress to up the amount of money available for guaranteeing such loans from $18.5 billion to $54.5 billion. In other words, the president is getting behind the nuclear renaissance. Reuters sees this as important because expanding the nuclear power industry is a top Republican priority, but there is far more to it than that. Never mind the partisan politics. In the world of real things, cap-and-trade is a nonstarter without nuclear power.

Under a cap-and-trade program for controlling CO emissions, companies 2 that burn fossil fuels, like electric utilities, would be assigned an annual limit (which would decline over time) for how much CO they could emit. 2 That’s the cap. If they wanted to emit more, they would have to buy emission permits from companies that had not exceeded their quotas.

That’s the trade part. The assumption is that this would give utilities that are presently burning a lot of coal a strong incentive to find other ways to generate electricity.

That’s where the nuclear power plants come in.

If the government seriously intends to phase out the use of coal to generate base-load electricity, there has to be a non-CO 2 -producing alternative available to phase in — and it has to be commercially available from the day the bill is passed.

Inconveniently, the main sources of green electricity, wind and solar, don’t measure up yet. Wind and solar — but wind, especially — can produce electricity in utility-scale quantities, but they still can’t do it reliably and predictably enough to handle base-load electric power generation. In a decade (optimistically) or a generation (pessimistically), that is apt to change. But the guys who have to keep the lights on can’t wait for it to happen if they have to perform within CO 2 limits in the here and now.

Which is why nuclear power — waste, warts and all — is a necessary condition for the success of a cap-andtrade program.

Beyond that, passage of any meaningful legislation to cut CO 2 emissions and reduce oil imports — both goals are part of the climate change/energy bills — all but guarantees there will be a staggering increase in the demand for electric power in the United States over the next two decades. In order to slash oil imports and the CO 2 that burning oil produces, the country will have to run its automobile fleet, which currently consumes about 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year, wholly or in large part on electricity.

Producing enough electricity to displace 140 billion gallons of gasoline would require burning the equivalent of an additional 600 million tons of coal over and above the 1 billion tons of coal that’s currently burned in power plants.

Or it would require building about 150 additional nuclear power plants over and above whatever number might be built as replacements for existing coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration, a bit belatedly perhaps, seems to have figured all this out. Its embrace of nuclear power means it is prepared to deal seriously with the long-term consequences of the low-carbon energy policies it wants Congress to pass, which improves their chances of passage.

But what about the short term?

Nuclear power plants aren’t put up overnight — getting them approved and built is apt to take a decade or more — so in the meantime, how is a utility supposed to play the game of cap-and-trade, especially after it has maxed out on windmills and compact florescent bulbs?

By substituting natural gas for coal, of course, which would cut its CO 2 emissions in half and keep them well under its carbon caps for years to come.

Thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of gas-bearing shales, the country has at least a 50-year supply of natural gas, even if consumption doubles. And the necessary infrastructure for supplying natural gas to utilities is largely in place.

If utilities started burning it instead of coal, the result really would be a swift and major drop in CO 2 emissions from the utility sector.

And a long, grinding rise in electricity prices, even if utilities stay within their cap and trade limits. As of last week, a ton of coal mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin sold for $10.95 on the spot market. It takes about 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas to equal the energy in a ton of Powder River Basin coal. As of last October, the most recent month for which figures were available, the average price paid by electric utilities for natural gas was $5.02 per thousand cubic feet. That’s $85.34 worth of gas to replace a ton of $10.95 coal.

Whether Congress is prepared to swallow the implications of that bit of arithmetic remains to be seen.

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