In the power system marketing wars, both nuclear fission and natural gas are currently labeled as “low carbon” sources of electricity. Even though nuclear fission reactors can be clean enough to run inside sealed submarines, the forces who oppose nuclear energy insist that there is enough CO2 produced in the fuel cycle and in the plant construction processes to prevent the use of the term “zero carbon” in any marketing literature.
They are so adamant that they go to the Better Business Bureau with a false advertising claim if they see any hint that the nuclear industry is attempting to attract support by touting its incredibly low carbon emissions. The industry has not fought back very hard and has adopted the suggested term of “low carbon.”
In a flash of brilliance enabled by my fourth night in a row of waking myself up in a fit of allergy-induced coughing, I decided that it is time to take a page from the American Petroleum Institute (API). Nuclear advocates should develop a branding standard for CO2 that is almost exactly analogous to the standard set for sulfur content of diesel fuel. (We might be joined here by wind and solar proponents, since their systems may also qualify.)
According to the API standard, diesel fuel that contains less than 500 parts of sulfur per million parts of fuel qualifies as “low sulfur” and qualifies for many off road uses. As of 2007, however, the vehicle fuel supply system was required to adjust to a new, much tighter standard. Diesel fuel designed for road use is now required to contain no more than 15 ppm sulfur. All automobiles sold after 2007 have been required to be designed with additional emission control systems that do not work reliably using fuel with any higher than 15 ppm sulfur.
Like the excellent marketers they are, the API has turned a regulatory requirement into a sales pitch and into increased revenue. Not only do fuel suppliers now tout their “ultra low sulfur diesel”, but they have also permanently increased the price of diesel fuel so that it is now in the same range as premium gasoline instead of selling for a bit less than regular gasoline for 9 months out of the year.
Aside: Before the introduction of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel, diesel prices followed a different pattern than gasoline, at least in the mid Atlantic region of the United States. Diesel fuel tended to hit a seasonal high point in late fall to early winter because of the effect of filling heating oil fuel tanks. (Diesel and heating oil are chemically interchangeable, but legally separate so that highway taxes can be assessed on one and not on the other.)
During the spring and throughout “the summer driving season” diesel fuel would be priced at about 10% less than the price of regular gasoline. After ULSD was introduced, diesel prices have remained stubbornly in a range near or above the price of premium gasoline.
Some new readers might wonder how I know so much about the diesel fuel market. I’ve been tuned into diesel fuel prices and trends since purchasing my first VW Jetta TDI in May 2001. I clearly remember the buying experience; I had been driving a 1991 Ford Aerostar (extended version) with four wheel drive. That tan mini van carried some terrific memories of family vacations and was a very comfortable ride for 7 full sized people with luggage. However, it burned a gallon of gas for every 15-18 miles. When I received orders that changed my work location from 4 miles from home to 44 miles from home, I knew I needed a new ride.
According to the US military permanent change of station rules, any transfer of less than 50 miles is not eligible for a paid move. My choice was to remain in place and commute or spend thousands of dollars out of my own pocket to move from Annapolis to someplace closer to the Washington Navy Yard. I loved living in Annapolis; I had lots of friends and excellent access to necessary amenities of life (water and boats.)
That was the impetus for me to go car shopping. When I explained my commuting situation to the salesman, he asked me – in a heavy German accent – if I would consider a diesel powered car. He said that he had some vehicles on the lot that were rated for 45 miles per gallon, but they could achieve better than 50 miles per gallon on the highway.
He told me that diesel engines were very popular in Europe, but he was having trouble moving them in the United States. At the time, diesel fuel was about 5-10 cents per gallon cheaper than regular unleaded. Both fuels were selling for close to $1 per gallon in May of 2001. After an extensive test drive, I was sold – perhaps a better word would be “hooked”.
I recently bought my third Jetta TDI in a row; the second one lasted from 2002 through 2012 and provided me with 222,222 reliable miles. At about the mid-point of ownership, the US transitioned from low sulfur diesel (defined to be less than 500 parts per million sulfur) to ultra low sulfur diesel, defined as less than 15 parts per million sulfur. That fuel is sometimes abbreviated as ULSD among insiders, but NEVER abbreviated by the markers who like reminding people how “ultra” clean the fuel is.
It is clean, and I feel less guilty about contributing to SOx concentrations, but I do wish that the petroleum companies could figure out how to put some of the energy density back into the fuel. The process of getting rid of the sulfur apparently reduced the energy in each gallon by just under 10%; my average milage dropped from 48 to 44 miles per gallon. End Aside.
Anyway, enough personal digression. The point is that it is deceptive to call both natural gas, which produces a minimum of 400 grams of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of electricity, and nuclear which has life cycle CO2 emissions of about 17 grams per kilowatt hour “low carbon”. If the natural gas industry wants to claim the “low carbon” label, there is not much that the nuclear industry can do, but we can establish a new standard and a new brand.
My proposal: Any electricity source that can prove that its lifecycle emissions are less than 20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour should be able to claim that it is “ultra low carbon” electricity. The exact limit for the brand can be negotiated, but the point is that an order of magnitude difference in CO2 emissions must be used as a positive marketing message.
Establishing the “ultra low carbon” brand for nuclear just might help people understand one of the reasons that it might cost a little more for premium electricity than it does to buy electricity produced by burning inferior, dirtier fuel sources.