The U.S. government's plan to speed up green energy development appears to be working and that will make it more difficult to reduce carbon emissions.
You read that right.
Cheap natural gas, new regulations unveiled after Japan's Fukushima reactor disaster and wind and solar power tax credits are forcing nuclear plants to shut down ahead of schedule. Ironically, that will make reducing carbon emissions in the U.S. more difficult, according to a policy brief by the Washington-based non-profit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions released Monday.
“Losing more of our existing nuclear fleet will make it that much tougher to meet our carbon reduction goals," the group's president Eileen Claussen said. “We need to keep ramping up renewables, but they can’t meet our need for reliable power 24/7. Nuclear is a baseload source and it’s carbon-free – two things we need.”
Fossil fuels generate about 70 percent of U.S. electricity U.S. while zero-emissions power sources like hydro, wind, solar and nuclear generate the balance, the report said. In 2012, nuclear supplied nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and more than 60 percent of zero-emissions electricity, more than four times the amount generated by wind and solar combined. Another advantage to nuclear is its “baseload power” or reliability to run at full capacity consistently, unlike wind and solar.
The U.S. has pledged internationally to reduce its emissions by 17 percent, to below 2005 levels, by 2020. The nation's emissions declined about 7 percent in the early days of the pledge but they've been rising again, and the group said the U.S. needs additional policies to meet its 2020 goal.
The UN International Panel on Climate Change's recent climate report concluded that the world needs to more than triple the non-carbon energy it generates to prevent a 2 degree Celsius warming of the planet and to prevent extreme weather patterns.
“As the United States considers options for a low-carbon future the importance of the current fleet of nuclear reactors should not be forgotten,” the report states.
Lower natural gas prices and subsidies for wind power generation, which both help reduce carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels, are lowering wholesale electricity prices. Wholesale power markets operate on price only, without valuing electricity produced from a zero-carbon source like nuclear over a fossil fuel like coal. At the same time, maintenance and post-Fukushima safety enhancements have added to nuclear power plants’ operating costs.
“The best way to advance low-carbon solutions, including nuclear power, is to put a price on carbon,’’ Claussen said.
The EPA is considering new rules to force coal plants to cut carbon emissions and that would increase incentives for zero-carbon generation like nuclear. The nuclear industry's decline is outpacing the growth of zero-carbon sources, the report said.
About 4 percent of nuclear capacity retired last year and more closures are expected this year.
In the meantime, anti-nuclear, Washington-based group Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) is pushing C2ES and pro-nuclear group Nuclear Matters to disclose their sources of funding from Exelon, Entergy and other companies in the nuclear industry in their advertisements.
"Exelon is spearheading an aggressive, multi-front campaign today to rewrite the rules of the energy marketplace to protect the nuclear power industry, which is dying…” Tim Judson, executive director of NIRS, said. “All we are asking [the nuclear industry] to do is to come clean about the funding of their front groups.”