The recent climate summit at the UN offers an opportunity to contrast an understated, but effective approach to making a real difference in reducing the production of greenhouse gases and the approach taken by most of the countries in the world of producing a lot of hot air about climate change while working hard to make sure that they tilt the playing field in a direction that gives them economic advantages.
While my own country’s president provided a long list of actions that are supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, none of the stated actions has a hope of making any real reductions. In fact, they are really nothing different from what Jimmy Carter proposed and partially implemented after the rapid increase in oil prices following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Based on President Obama’s speech at the UN on September 22, one might think that wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, fuel economy standards, home insulation, off shore wind turbines, and carbon capture and storage are the primary actions that we are taking inside the United States.
Without having carefully followed the speeches and actions of his Secretary of Energy over the past eight months, one might get the impression that his only plan is to pursue those scattered innovations and then to magnanimously share what we learn on those activities with others. I could not help but think about a different energy related speech made to the UN on December 8, 1953 when President Eisenhower shared his Atoms for Peace vision.
In contrast to the unreliable energy sources mentioned by President Obama and most of the other world leaders at the UN Climate Summit, President Hu Jintao of China listed some of the same actions, but added a key component by mentioning that his country will also “vigorously” expand its nuclear electricity production. He did not provide many details inside his speech, but the reality of that investment and the clean power that it will reliably produce should not be ignored. China’s current, near term plan (within the next 20 years) is to build at least 130 GW of new nuclear power generating capacity that should operate nearly 24 x 365. China is not just talking about expanding nuclear generating capacity; by the end of this year that rapidly developing country is going to have at least 20 units under construction.
Note: It is important to put the Chinese nuclear construction goal into context. In 2007, the United States burned 1,045,141,000 tons of coal to produce 2,016,456,000 megawatt hours of electricity according to the appropriate tables on the Energy Information Agency’s web site. If Chinese nuclear plants operate with a capacity factor of 70% (they are still learning how to improve this to the US average of 90+%) they will produce 800,000,000 megawatt hours per year. If their coal burning efficiency is equal to that of the US, that would be roughly equal to 415,000,000 tons of coal. Every ton of coal burned releases about 3.67 tons of CO2, so that nuclear investment would be replacing 1,500,000,000 tons of CO2. (For emphasis, and because so many decision makers appear to be challenged by the difference between millions, billions and trillions, I used whole numbers with the actual number of zeros.)
Please do not misunderstand my admiration for the Chinese nuclear construction actions and projections. I am not a fan of centrally planned economies, but I am a fan of good engineering, realistic evaluation of the available options, and hard, creative, problem solving work that enables successful pursuit of important projects.
The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital Blog published a thought provoking commentary on the contrast between President Obama’s speech and Hu Jintao’s titled What Was Missing from Obama’s Climate Speech? Nuclear Power. As is often the case, I had to add my thoughts to the mix and since I am too lazy to recreate the same thoughts here, I will simply paste in a copy:
Going back to the original post, there is a “small” inaccuracy that should be corrected. China may have “said it hopes to build as many as 60 gigawatts of new nuclear power plants as part of its bid to reduce electricity-sector emissions”, but that was a couple of years ago. More recently, it has stated a near term (before 2030) goal of building approximately 130 GW of new nuclear power plants and plans to have more than 20 GW under construction by 2010 – coming up in just a few months.
The prospect of China efficiently building that much low marginal cost power generating capability should fire up the competitive juices in America. There is a vast difference between capacity increases in traditional renewable energy systems and those in nuclear energy systems; the nuclear capacities are generally pretty close to the overall production levels. As several people, including Obama’s Secretary of Energy, have recently pointed out, nuclear power plants generally pull far more than their own weight. In the US, nuclear plants represent a bit less than 10% of our electrical generating CAPACITY, yet they PRODUCE very close to 20% of our electricity at an average cost of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour. That compares rather favorably to the average US selling price of more than 9 cents per kilowatt hour.
As a former manufacturer who used to compete in several markets against Chinese imports, it is difficult to imagine the challenge of competing against organizations that have access to favorable government laws, low interest rate capital, low cost power, low cost labor, and a newly freed up internal rail transportation system that has to move a lot less coal. The fact that the air is going to get noticeably cleaner, allowing those workers to be even more productive, is also a long term benefit.
Since I have no desire to move to China, my only response is to continue to advocate for my country to do what it does best – get inspired to be creative and use our current advantages in terms of trained operators, skilled engineers, and skilled tradesmen to efficiently build a new base of clean, low marginal cost power generation capability of our own.
Most of the barriers to the use of nuclear power have been erected by humans trying to protect their own wealth and power; those barriers to entry are nothing like the very real physical barriers that have slowed the development of unreliable, weather dependent power systems like wind, solar and biomass or geographically limited systems like geothermal power generation.
Like the Sputnik inspired outpouring of creativity that defined education and manufacturing in the 1960s and led to the computer revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, I would love it if we looked to the Chinese construction of our own AP1000 power plants as an inspirational event that leads to a new focus on hard sciences, mathematics and engineering in our educational systems.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast