On April 22nd of this year—Earth Day—US President Joe Biden played host to some 40 world leaders in a virtual climate conference. The conference carried many of the talking points typical of its predecessors—climate change and crisis, of urgency and action—but Biden did make some bold promises for the nation’s direction. Carbon emissions, the president declared, would be cut by 50%-52% from 2005 levels by the year 2030, primarily on the strength of reduced coal usage and more electric cars and trucks replacing gas-guzzlers on the road.
Conspicuously absent from all this talk, however, was mention of the long-held hallmarks of the green energy movement, the windmills and solar panels that were once supposed to dot the fields of a bright and clean future. So what happened?
As it turns out, these alternative energies (wind, solar, hydroelectric, etc.) may not be all we thought they were. Though these sources are more efficient and produce more overall than ever before, they are not yet capable of seamlessly replacing our familiar carbon producers. Doing so would require not only economic viability, but tremendous scalability to keep up with current demand. Moreover, while concerns of greenhouse emissions may be answered by shifting away from fossil fuels, the alternatives are not without their own environmental drawbacks, from windmill blades creating hazards for birds to discarded solar panels leaking toxic waste.
A more complete shift away from fossil fuels may also require greater investment in nuclear energy, but this also may not be so simple. Much of the population is still wary of utilizing nuclear energy at all. Memories (and damages) from great nuclear disasters still linger, and the risk of catastrophe, however improbable it may be given modern measures, is one many simply cannot accept.
With time, perhaps, these alternatives may rise to become more rapidly scalable effective replacements. Mechanisms, materials, and safety measures evolve constantly, and potentially major innovations may await on the horizon, though such things are never guaranteed.
Time, however, is running out. The political pressure is mounting. Along with the US’ new directives, Japan, South Korea, and much of Europe have also embarked upon bold carbon-cutting initiatives. In the Netherlands, a court ordered Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest oil companies, to cut its emissions by 45% by 2030 in accordance with national targets. The shift towards alternatives is coming, whether the economy is ready for it or not.
All this leaves one vital question to be answered: are the alternatives up to the task?
The bar of energy production set by traditional fuels is a high one to clear. For every year that US energy consumption has been recorded, the three major carbon-producing sources (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) have consistently accounted for well over three quarters of it. In recent years, their total annual output has exceeded 73 quads. A quad is shorthand for a quadrillion British Thermal Units. A single quad is the energy output equivalent to a million standard air conditioners each left running for ten thousand years.
While the cumulative output has remained relatively consistent, the breakdown between these traditional power sources has changed considerably. Indeed, the most dramatic shift in American energy consumption over the past few decades has been the shift away from coal and in favor of other carbon-producing fuels.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 1950, coal burning accounted for over 35% of total national energy consumption. Last year, that portion was less than 10%, and the raw amount has dipped from 12.3 quads in 1950 to just over 9 quads in 2020. The difference has been made up predominantly by growth in natural gas production—which has become an export industry thanks to pipeline drilling—and steady petroleum production, bolstered in recent years by improved drilling and production technologies.
The shift away from coal has also meant a shift away from the notorious air pollution and dangerous mining environments that came with it. This improvement, coupled with the higher efficiency drilling and production methods that have supported oil and gas in recent decades makes the collective carbon-producing fuels something of a moving target in terms of viability and one that alternatives may not be able to hit so easily.
Since the dawn of the green energy movement, the hope has been to shift away from burning fuels and towards renewables. These are the power generators that draw from natural processes—the sun shining, the wind blowing, the rivers running, and so forth. To many, a shift towards these sources would be understandably attractive.
And to the credit of its advocates and providers, renewable energy has seen record production in recent years. As a portion of total national consumption, the 12% total accounted for by geothermal, solar, hydroelectric, wind, and biomass energy was the highest ever achieved, thanks largely to increased solar and wind production.
But these numbers remain small when compared to the roughly 79% of our energy, or 73 quads, generated through coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The difference is staggering, and it remains so despite many incentives and initiatives towards greener fuels.
One of the barriers most critical to any significant economic shift is cost, and this has proven to be a significant obstacle throughout the push for clean energy. According to data collected by the EIA in 2016, construction for new wind generators averaged around $1,630 for each kilowatt of output capacity. For new solar panels, that number was $2,434. For hydroelectric plants, it was a staggering $5,312. And for natural gas production? It cost $895.
The issue of cost has persisted at times despite government efforts for incentives and subsidies. In one famous case, solar manufacturer Solyndra received over $500 million in a 2009 government loan guarantee, the first recipient under former President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This was after generating buzz around their powerful copper indium gallium selenide solar cells, which the company and investors boasted would be far more efficient than traditional silicon cells. Two years later they were out of business, and green energy was hit with one of its biggest scandals to date.
The problem of price has become less of an issue in more recent years. While the fixed costs of construction were still higher than corresponding costs for fossil fuel generation as of the latest EIA data, the variable costs (operations and upkeep) have made that investment a significantly more attractive proposition. According to 2020 data provided by investment firm Lazard, the cost per megawatt-hour of power generation from solar and onshore wind were estimated around $36 and $40, respectively—the lowest of any energy source surveyed. The most efficient gas turbines, for comparison, ran up around $59 per MWh, while coal and nuclear cost upwards of $100 per MWh. And according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, this is reflective of a promising efficiency trend that has been going on for some years.
Beyond the issue of cost, there are also the problems of scalability and capacity for many energy alternatives. Sometimes, the resources demanded are not so easily spared. Wind and solar require ample space. Production of biofuel may come at the cost of food supply. Hydroelectric power demands the construction of a large dam and reservoir, with most of the good sites for dams already having been used. For this reason, hydroelectric power has shown the least growth in recent years of any renewable, with 2020 US production falling 9% below the 50-year average.
Finally, it should be noted that even renewables are not without their environmental faults. Though they do not spew carbon gases into the air and they are not going to have any dangerous meltdowns, this does not mean they are incapable of harm. Wind energy can pose a significant threat to flying wildlife. Hydroelectric dams kill fish and have the potential to disrupt ecosystems. And solar panels, after decades of use, make for arduous disposal and leave behind toxic waste in the form of carcinogenic cadmium.
There may currently be a more viable alternative to carbon-producing fuel, but it is an option green energy advocates rarely speak about. This despite major potential economic benefit, excellent scalability, and improved waste management. That option, of course, is the nuclear one.
Our nuclear power output has been quietly consistent, accounting for between 8 and 9% of total energy output since the year 2000. All of it (currently over 8 quads annually) is generated from 94 nuclear reactors which average just under 40 years old. And since the 1978 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, this production has thankfully come without American incident, with improvements in safety protocols and refined waste management working to ensure that remains the case.
It is not unthinkable to go even further into nuclear, to make it a more primary power source. In France, nuclear power accounts for over 70% of that nation’s energy output. It serves as the majority output source in Slovenia and Ukraine as well, despite the latter’s somewhat checkered nuclear past. Major investment in nuclear is ongoing around the world. In China, 17 new nuclear reactors are currently planned, with another six underway in India, four in South Korea, and three in the UAE—a nation with a population of under ten million. The US, in comparison, has two.
Increases in adoption are not only the result of carbon-conscious policy, advances in technology have also boosted the viability of nuclear power in recent decades. Waste management, for instance, has long been a major concern for critics, but new innovations have made considerable headway in addressing it. Breakthroughs in waste minimization, recycling, and treatment have made nuclear energy cleaner and greener—the good kind of greener.
Sentiment around nuclear energy continues to evolve as well. According to the American Nuclear Society, over 60% of Americans personally favor the use of nuclear energy, and a majority believe that their communities do as well, with both numbers having gone up significantly in the last several decades. The most positive sentiment, they note, comes from those who consider themselves very well-informed on the matter. Sixty-eight percent of that group say they strongly support the use of nuclear energy, compared to only seven percent who strongly oppose.
But while that positive sentiment may come from an understanding of the statistical safety and benefit of nuclear energy, the catastrophic cases of failure, however unlikely, still loom large in the minds of many. In 1986, a safety test gone wrong led to the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in turn leading to billions spent in repair and cleanup, thousands of excess deaths due to radiation exposure, and an incalculable environmental toll that is still being felt today. Perhaps even more concerning was the 2011 Fukushima Daichi incident, where an earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to one of the costliest disasters in history. All this at a modern power plant built in a First World nation by modern safety standards that had taken the likelihood of environmental phenomena into account during construction. That such events, however anomalous, can still occur and pose such destructive threat is not an easy thing to factor into calculation, but it certainly cannot be ignored.
Replacing fossil fuels is not a simple matter. Indeed, there are those who question whether we should be in such a rush to do it at all. But this is the path that much of the world has chosen, and it is a course of action in line with popular demand. For better or for worse, the nations pursuing 2030 carbon initiatives—the United States now among them—have committed to largely phasing out carbon-producing fuels. The problem that lies before them—before us—is figuring out exactly how.
New innovations still loom large over the horizon and hold the promise of easing the journey. On the renewables front, energy storage through the use of massive batteries looks poised to bring solar and wind production to the next level by storing energy harvested during times of plenty (wind and sun, that is) for use during what would otherwise be intermittency periods. And on the nuclear front, experiments in China are giving new meaning to the phrase ‘hottest new technology’ as work continues towards making fusion power a viable reality. Meanwhile, India has committed to deriving 30% of its energy by 2050 from nuclear reactors powered by thorium, a more abundant and less explosive alternative to the uranium typically found. Perhaps, one or more of these may dramatically change the future of energy production. Or perhaps none of them will. Not every promising idea can become reality, after all.
In the near term, the fuel of the future is not going to come from some idyllic device of our utopian imagination. In fact, there are strong indications that it is not going to come from any single source alone. Rather, the fuel of the future must come from a careful balance of imperfect sources—known alternatives, new technologies, and even some old standards for a while—each with their costs and limitations, each with their risks and their potential for environmental harm. We, the nations that have committed to the international shift away from fossil fuels, will have to find this balance and the combination of investments, incentives, infrastructure, and transitional processes that can make it viable.
And we are going to have to find it soon.
Taking the Conversation Further
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Editors: Craig Carroll; Stacia Wilson Peer Review Completed By 4 Individuals