One of the frustrating parts of discussing energy choices is that there are plenty of people with opinions who will not recognize facts. In the case of power supply choices, they WANT to believe that there is an easy – or, in the word used by Amory Lovins, “soft” – way to ensure a sufficient supply.
According to the people who have hope as their strategy, they fervently BELIEVE that somehow “free”, “natural” source like the wind, sun, and geothermal will be able to combine with a few high effort choices like biomass and “clean natural gas” to provide all the energy we need – as long as we ALL change our lifestyles to reduce our demand to a level that can fit into the capabilities of these sources.
That “plan” rests on far too many unproven assumptions for my tastes. The weather is notoriously fickle, people are tending to make choices that increase, not decrease their use of power to make their lives richer and more comfortable, and there is simply not enough “clean natural gas” (I put that phrase in quotes because I see it as a pure marketing term that hides a lot of evils) to supply all of the remaining needs.
Of course, the natural gas industry would be happy to try; the inevitable price increases will produce massive profits and perhaps a little more supply from the already heavily tapped production areas. (Search this blog for my article about Chesapeake Energy if you want more information about the published strategy of at least one natural gas supply company.)
What that leaves us is a straight choice for the majority of the electrical power market – you can build and operate large nuclear power plants, or you can build and operate large coal fired power plants. There really is no other choice that can be made for most of the power generating utilities. (Actually there is a third choice – you can build and operate large numbers of smaller nuclear plants.)
There may be a few places where there is still hydroelectric potential, but that is a geographically limited option that is simply not available in places where there are already hydroelectric dams, where there is insufficient water at a reasonable elevation, or where there are too many people already living in the potential reservoir.
If you read electric power industry news sources, you will find story after story about power companies that are making the choice between coal and nuclear. The most recent one that I found was titled Taiwan to favor coal-fired plants in power project license bids.
The article provides plenty of reasons why imported coal is not such a great choice, but it also describes a very tight natural gas supply market. There is little discussion of why nuclear power is off the table other than a mention of a human imposed law. In contrast, the challenges faced by coal, solar, wind, natural gas and geothermal are real and based on physical laws that cannot be changed.
Unlike some of my friends in the pro-nuclear world, I do not have a real aversion to the use of coal; I think it beats the heck out of not having enough power at all. However, atomic fission is a much better choice for power generation. There are also ways to use the carbon in coal to produce the liquid fuels that we need for transportation markets that cannot be supplied directly by electrical power.
It is time to take off the gloves; atomic fission supporters need to take on the competition and win some of the market battles. We need to keep working to convince our natural allies in the environmental organizations that their effort to impose wind, solar, geothermal and biomass as politically favored choices is putting us on a path that is almost guaranteed to result in more coal burning unless they also recognize the benefits of atomic fission.
Since there is no such thing as large scale carbon capture available in the foreseeable future, that coal burning WILL result in continued increases in the environmental release of CO2, SOx, NOx, particulate fly ash, mercury, selenium, and uranium that are the natural result of burning coal directly with air in a large power plant.