Iowa Solar, Wind & Natural Gas, Time for a Realistic View

Supporters of solar, wind and other renewable energy and nuclear power are at a crossroads today. They can fight turf wars or they can take the bold steps needed to curb climate change. One thing is certain, though: Without an effective strategy to spur the use of carbon-free energy, there remains the potential for disasters that could dwarf this summer’s brutal heat wave, drought and wildfires, with even more far-reaching consequences.

If America have learned anything from recent events, it is that energy use and climate change are inextricably linked. Tackling climate change is the smartest thing we can do for both our public health and our private sector. Reducing carbon emissions from power plants, cars and factories cleans the air, saves a lot of money in health and pollution costs, and it creates jobs.

The good news is that U.S. carbon emissions are at their lowest level in 20 years, due in large part to the retirement of coal plants. That’s remarkable, considering that the nation’s economy is 60 percent larger than it was two decades ago. Yet we’re emitting fewer greenhouse gases.

Electric utilities are burning substantially more natural gas, which has less than half the carbon content of coal. Credit goes to the use of innovative technologies like horizontal drilling and seismic imaging that have led to a revolution in natural gas production.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. A problem with the shift to natural gas is that methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, can leak during shale-gas drilling and from gas storage tanks and pipelines. And groundwater supplies from shale-gas production are shrinking in some parts of the country, tempering the enthusiasm for natural gas.

Thanks to new production techniques developed in China, real progress has been made in lowering the cost of solar panels and onshore wind turbines. Solar power has posted a 42 percent annual growth rate over the past decade, and wind power has grown at a 27 percent rate.

The United States is on pace to install as much solar power this year as it did in the 10-year period from 2000 to 2010: at least 2,500 megawatts, the equivalent of more than two nuclear power plants. But that’s only a small part of the reason for the reduction in emissions.

Because of its scale, nuclear power is still playing a decisive role in the battle against climate change, accounting for 70 percent of U.S. carbon-free energy. Consider the dramatically improved performance of nuclear plants over the past two decades. To take just one example, the Duane Arnold plant near Palo has produced electricity in recent years more than 90 percent of the time, compared with 70 percent for natural gas and even less for wind and solar energy.

The greatly improved reliability of nuclear plants, along with increased output from reactor “uprates” and the restart of the Browns Ferry Unit 1 reactor in Alabama, enabled the nuclear industry to add the equivalent of 29 new 1,000-megawatt nuclear plants since 1990.

In the energy sector, carbon mitigation is an immense economic opportunity. Even with continuing improvements in demand-side management and more energy-efficient technologies, the U.S. demand for electricity is projected to grow 22 percent by 2035. To meet the increasing need for energy, the United States will require additional electrical generating capacity equal to 225 large power plants.

Beyond that, more emission-free plants will be needed to replace scores of coal plants that are expected to close in the next few years.

Even if it remains cheaper, utilities do not want to wind up with an over-reliance on natural gas, which has its own pollution problems. Nuclear power, along with solar and wind, ought to supply most of the clean energy. With the climate warming, we need to be brutally realistic about what kinds of energy sources we should be using for the foreseeable future.

Source: Des Moines Register