A number of factors combine to limit our worldwide energy mix to 20 percent carbon-neutral energy, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts. By 2040, the energy mix would need to change to 66 percent carbon-neutral, the equivalent of replacing all oil fired vehicles, including hybrid and electric vehicles, with the vast majority of oil on the road. An exhaustive overview from the IEA also suggests other ways to limit emissions, including alternatives to coal and water.
Think of coal as an untapped asset. Combined with the uniting of vast supplies of conventional fuels such as oil and gas, it offers the perfect solution to the world’s energy needs. In fact, if the major new domestic supply sources in North America and other big countries can be maintained (like the ever-growing need for new coal), we should have no problem insulating the American economy from the energy requirements of the developing world.
Yet this perfect solution, drawing energy from abundant resources, requires a significant and necessary shift in our energy mix to natural gas, renewables, and nuclear. Over the last century or so, natural gas has seen impressive growth in electricity generation because it is such a well-tuned renewable energy. But that trend is reversing because of the falling price of natural gas. As a result, utilities have abandoned investment in some of the more advanced renewable technologies and are now turning instead to natural gas, or coal, to meet their electrical needs.
The result? By 2040, coal will more than double in use in the United States. It will, in fact, provide almost 85 percent of our total supply of electricity. That’s a large and inexorable shift that will require drastic changes in the nation’s electricity system.
To avoid a breakneck build-out of coal, some states are on a mission to switch as fast as possible to a “nuke-free” energy mix. A growth in demand for electricity from wind and solar sources can hardly be ignored. Since the new coal plants can operate 24/7 without refueling, they can produce electricity continuously while the air gets cleaner. This flexibility also allows wind and solar facilities to keep running even in the face of high wind gusts.
It’s a message that can’t be ignored by utilities, power companies, and policymakers. So while all that will surely be necessary to meet the rising demand for electricity, we can build in safeguards to prevent the growth of coal-fired power plants. With coal coming under tremendous pressures, it’s time to step up our efforts to avoid a nuclear power explosion.
Building nuclear facilities, which require no maintenance or development costs, also entails sacrifices in safety. New natural gas-fired power plants take much less coal to produce electricity, but also bring additional carbon pollution into the mix. As the growth of nuclear-power capacity slows, they also reduce our ability to meet our rapidly growing demand for electricity from our rapidly growing population.
Nuclear power should be treated the same as coal. In fact, it’s a good bet that our energy infrastructure will need to be an overwhelming part of the solution to reducing carbon pollution, not only to fight global warming, but also to clean up our air and water. Countries that form the most ambitious energy security plans around the world are seeking to do just that.
As more and more countries make nuclear power their primary energy source, technological developments are ensuring nuclear power plants will need fewer people and environmental degradation, thus meaning our need for nuclear power will be very small. But eventually, we also need to make sure that the country’s dominant system has the energy mix that it needs.
Using nuclear power safely and efficiently is necessary in the world’s energy mix because other forms of renewables remain extremely expensive. The growing demand for electricity is pushing nuclear costs out of the reach of many countries. Why not build nuclear plants so we can benefit from the promise of this resource in the years to come, and avoid a nuclear-power explosion?
According to the Energy Information Administration, if we took in the entire supply of electricity from coal, coal-fired, and nuclear plants combined, we would need to make 50 percent more electricity from renewables and 33 percent more electricity from coal, by 2040. It’s an important question, whether to rely on coal, nuclear, or natural gas, and some countries are already thinking about the best option. We must work together to avoid an energy meltdown like the one that we saw during the Iranian Revolution.