Susan McGinnis of Clean Skies News interviewed Bruce Nilles, National Coal Campaign Director from the Sierra Club, about coal plant emissions.
Nilles: We do not actually think you should build any new coal plants. Coal is the largest contributor to global warming. It is the largest source of industrial mercury there is a whole suit of reasons why coal is not the energy future.
McGinnis: So over what period of time do you think we can phase out old coal plants and the newer ones?
Nilles: If you look at what the science says, Dr. Jim Hansen and the folks at NASA, they say we have about two decades to end coal’s contribution to global warming. So that essentially says that over the next two decades we can systematically replace coal with all the clean energy sources out there. That’s about 15,000 MW of coal take it off line each year and replaced by a whole suite of clean energy choices that can create more jobs and have no pollution consequences.
McGinnis: Like what? What do you see the future bridge thing?
Nilles: The mix is obviously much more we can do about energy efficiency, help people save electricity. Wind, solar, biomass. Geothermal in some places and obviously natural gas to help back up the intermittent fuels.
The reason that is so important is that Dr. Jim Hansen, and many scientists and engineers who understand energy production do not limit themselves to the list of energy alternatives that the Sierra Club does. Here is an excerpt from Jim Hansen’s open letter to President Obama about his concerns regarding the continued emissions from burning fossil fuels:
Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and a “smart grid” deserve first priority in our effort to reduce carbon emissions. With a rising carbon price, renewable energy can perhaps handle all of our needs. However, most experts believe that making such presumption probably would leave us in 25 years with still a large contingent of coal-fired power plants worldwide. Such a result would be disastrous for the planet, humanity, and nature.
Fourth generation nuclear power (4th GNP) and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at present are the best candidates to provide large baseload nearly carbon-free power (in case renewable energies cannot do the entire job). Predictable criticism of 4th GNP (and CCS) is: “it cannot be ready before 2030.” However, the time needed could be much abbreviated with a Presidential initiative and Congressional support.
Moreover, improved (3rd generation) light water reactors are available for near-term needs. In our opinion, 4th GNP deserves your strong support, because it has the potential to help solve past problems with nuclear power: nuclear waste, the need to mine for nuclear fuel, and release of radioactive material. Potential proliferation of nuclear material will always demand vigilance, but that will be true in any case, and our safety is best secured if the United States is involved in the technologies and helps define standards. Existing nuclear reactors use less than 1% of the energy in uranium, leaving more than 99% in long-lived nuclear waste. 4th GNP can “burn” that waste, leaving a small volume of waste with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years. Thus 4th GNP could help solve the nuclear waste problem, which must be dealt with in any case.
Because of this, a portion of the $25B that has been collected from utilities to deal with nuclear waste justifiably could be used to develop 4th generation reactors. The principal issue with nuclear power, and other energy sources, is cost. Thus an R&D objective must be a modularized reactor design that is cost competitive with coal. Without such capability, it may be difficult to wean China and India from coal. But all developing countries have great incentives for clean energy and stable climate, and they will welcome technical cooperation aimed at rapid development of a reproducible safe nuclear reactor. Potential for cooperation with developing countries is implied by interest South Korea has expressed in General Electric’s design for a small scale 4th GNP reactor. I do not have the expertise to advocate any specific project, and there are alternative approaches for 4th GNP (see enclosure).
I am only suggesting that the assertion that 4th GNP technology cannot be ready until 2030 is not necessarily valid. Indeed, with a Presidential directive for the Nuclear Regulator Commission to give priority to the review process, it is possible that a prototype reactor could be constructed rapidly in the United States. CCS also deserves R&D support. There is no such thing as clean coal at this time, and it is doubtful that we will ever be able to fully eliminate emissions of mercury, other heavy metals, and radioactive material in the mining and burning of coal. However, because of the enormous number of dirty coal-fired power plants in existence, the abundance of the fuel, and the fact that CCS technology could be used at biofuel-fired power plants to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide, the technology deserves strong R&D support.
Dr. Jim Hansen is a credible source of information and caution, but the Sierra Club needs to listen to him a little more carefully. Limiting energy choices to the short list that they prefer would leave the United States and the world in a situation where there is not enough reliable energy to go around. I fear the consequences of that state of affairs; people have a history of fighting over scarce resources that are needed for both basic existence (heat, food, clean water, basic transportation) and abundant living (air travel, comfortable homes, electronic gadgets).
It is a good thing for the world that many countries like India, China, South Korea, the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Brazil have already determined that nuclear energy is going to be a big part of their energy future and that those countries are unlikely to be influenced by organizations like the Sierra Club. However, the United States and Europe burn a lot of coal as well; our environmentally concerned citizens should take the time to understand the science and engineering of energy production and recognize that clean, reliable energy can never come from attempting to capture the weather dependent, diffuse energy from the wind and sun.