18 February 2010: Obama builds bridges through technology

In November 2009, 3% of OECD electricity was generated by renewables other than hydro. 14% came from hydro (see IEA: Monthly Electricity Statistics: November 2009). And this was only 17% of what electricity is currently used for, not total energy used. Most OECD heating comes from gas, and almost all transport fuel is oil. Both heating and transport will, and should, increasingly use electricity, which means that however well is done on energy efficiency there will be a substantial increase in the global demand for electricity. Therefore, it is not enough to say that renewables are ‘best’. The global economy cannot be 100% reliant on renewables for many decades, so other low-carbon bridge technologies must be used to avoid destroying the climate while we get there.

No way of generating electricity is completely carbon free, given the materials used in construction. However, electricity from nuclear and CCS is much lower in carbon than electricity from coal or gas without CCS. Compared to ‘conventional’ (that is, without CCS) coal, gas without CCS emits 42% as much carbon, nuclear 12.5% and coal with CCS 9.5% (see How low-carbon are different generating technologies?).

Could we choose CCS or nuclear power as a bridge technology? This is a plausible route – certainly more plausible than rejecting both CCS and nuclear. CCS is proven at small scale and at all the stages of the process (capture, transport, storage), but not at large scales or integrated throughout the process. There is no clear reason why it should not work, but it needs to be demonstrated. Until that has been done, it is too risky to reject nuclear power, . However, we cannot afford to wait the five or six years until CCS has been adequately demonstrated before beginning a nuclear programme.  Nuclear power stations are not quick to construct

A common worry about nuclear power is that governments which support nuclear will then neglect renewables. This ‘crowding out’ effect is a legitimate concern, given the lack of public money in all relevant economies, because neither nuclear nor renewables are cheap. (Nuclear never will be; renewables will be one day, but require expensive grid reinforcements and extensions.) Therefore, it is reassuring that President Obama has given support – and money – to nuclear, CCS and renewables. In January 2010, he said in the State of the Union speech that the US should build new nuclear power stations. This week he has announced $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees to build two new reactors in Georgia. This comes on top of billions of dollars for energy efficiency, renewables and CCS  (See http://climateanswers.info/2010/01/obamas-first-year/.)  Obama and Energy Secretary Chu have even made progress on preventing damaging biofuels:

The primary measure is the change in the RFS program, required by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates that biofuels production will grow from last year’s 11.1 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons in 2022. The 2022 goal includes 21 billion gallons to come from advanced biofuels, defined as those that cut lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% and that are not derived from cornstarch. For the first time, all renewable fuels must also achieve lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions of 20%, compared to the gasoline and diesel fuels they displace, in order to be counted towards compliance with volume standards. Most existing biofuel plants are exempt from the GHG standard, but new plants will need to meet it. In establishing the final rule, the EPA continued to include indirect GHG emissions caused by land-use changes, but the agency used updated data on ethanol production to conclude that most new ethanol plants will produce fuel with a lower GHG impact than gasoline, thereby allowing corn ethanol to count toward the volume standards.

(From a Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy newsletter – to subscribe, email: eere-network-news@ee.doe.gov).

Whether the EPA’s figures on total greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, including indirect effects, are accurate is of course open to debate. The Obama Administration is not perfect, and must not be above criticism. However, the President is clearly serious about promoting clean energy and energy efficiency, and deserves considerable credit.

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