by Mike Mulvihill
Tired of trying to distinguish objective energy usage/ impact/ alternatives/ costs, et al. info from crap hype and fear-mongering half-truths? Then Need To Know is what you need.
This website was created by The National Academies (specifically, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council) to factually address our nation’s energy issues.
Here’s a little sampling of what they present:
Nearly 50 percent of all our electricity comes from coal. Another 20 percent from nuclear and natural gas, respectively, and finally about 5 percent each from hydroelectric and “other” sources (solar, wind, biomass and geothermal).
While it is easy to point at coal CO2 emissions and call for an end to coal use, coal can’t just go away and increased reliance on other energy sources would dramatically increase the price we pay for electricity. According to Need To Know, renewables are not going to replace coal. Projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) that provides policy-neutral data, forecast that for the next two decades renewable sources (such as solar, wind and geothermal) are unlikely to substantially change the mix of our energy supply. (Editorial: In other words, 90 percent of our electricity will still come from coal, natural gas and nuclear 20 years from now.)
From a cost standpoint, a million Btu of energy from coal carried a production price —i.e., the original price of the resource at its point of origin—of $1.60 in 2008, compared to $7.30 for natural gas. So just changing to a cleaner fossil fuel such as natural gas would be 350 percent more expensive. (Editorial: That would be a hard pill to swallow for most Americans.)
Nuclear has become less unpopular recently than is has been in many decades. But that’s not really saying much – not a single new nuclear plant has been built in the U.S. since 1996. Nuclear is clean and abundant. But fear of nuclear waste and, more recently, terrorism has stymied greater use in the U.S., but not abroad – France generates 80 percent of its electricity using nuclear. In the U.S., according to EIA 2009 estimates, output from nuclear power plants is expected to increase 10 percent by 2030. An America’s Energy Future (AEF) report suggests that a U.S. nuclear renaissance is possible (based on the number of nuclear plant design and construction permits submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the past year) with as many as five to nine new plants possibly built by 2020. New plants, combined with new capacity obtained by adding additional reactors at existing nuclear sites, could lead to as much as a 12 to 20 percent increase in U.S. nuclear capacity by 2020. And we had best add capacity because as much as 30 percent of the current U.S. nuclear capacity would be retired by 2035. (Editorial: So even at the high end of estimates above, nuclear could grow to, at best, 25 percent of all electricity generated in 2020 and may plateau at that level for 15 years.)
The sobering straight up is we are dependent on coal. Renewables won’t replace it. Natural gas can make a sizeable dent, but at considerable cost. And nuclear can, but it will be a long, hard road to get there – if ever.
Therefore, and this is all editorial now, logic should compel Americans to focus on using coal more judiciously to generate electricity, like replacing the oldest coal burning plants with new technology coal-fired power plants that generate 30 percent less CO2 (and in some cases even better). This would be a far more useful pursuit that some current efforts to halt all new coal-fired power plant construction, especially given that energy consumption is predicted to go nowhere but up even if America suddenly gets religion about energy demand reduction practices.