Jan 03 2022

Are Gas and Nuclear “Green”

Whether or not natural gas power and nuclear power plants should be considered “green” (meaning that they are environmentally friendly) is not just an abstract question. The European Commission has proposed plans to label some (emphasis on some) gas and nuclear plants as officially green. This has real-world consequences, such as the ability to receive funding and whether or not they will be considered green financial investments.

Part of the purpose of the proposal is to keep companies from “greenwashing” their portfolio and business activities, by listing which investments are considered officially green (as opposed to ones that may be presented as environmentally friendly when they are not). This proposal, however, has sparked a controversy of its own, with some EU countries, such as Germany, claiming that the proposed rules are a form of greenwashing themselves. Other countries, like France, who depend on nuclear power for 70% of their energy, have pushed for such labeling. Who has the better argument?

Let’s take each technology unto itself, because they really are independent and don’t necessarily have to be taken as a package. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and burning natural gas for energy does release CO2 into the atmosphere. The supply of natural gas is also increasingly dependent on fracking technology, which injects air and liquids into fossil fuel deposits in order to liberate and gain access to natural gas. This technology has significantly brought down the price of natural gas, resulting in a surge of its use in some countries. This surge has mostly displaced the burning of coal for power, and that is exactly the reason why some believe the technology should be considered green – in comparison to this one alternative.

Burning natural gas releases less CO2 into the atmosphere than coal:

Pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (Btu) of energy for various fuels

Coal (anthracite) 228.6
Coal (bituminous) 205.7
Diesel fuel and heating oil 161.3
Gasoline (without ethanol) 157.2
Propane 139.0
Natural gas 117.0

Source: eia.gov

Coal releases almost twice as much CO2 as burning natural gas. Even without pricing carbon, energy from natural gas is also a little more than half that of energy from coal. But a direct comparison get’s more complicated for two reasons. We also have to consider the environmental costs of extraction, and this depends heavily on the methods used and local regulations that constrain those methods. Where does the wastewater from fracking go, for example? What methods are used to mine the coal? The second reason is that natural gas (the largest component of which is methane) is itself a greenhouse gas, that causes 34 times the greenhouse effect over 100 years as CO2. A timeframe has to be stated, however, because methane does not last as long in the atmosphere, so long term CO2 is worse. Some methane is released into the atmosphere during extraction, transportation (leaky pipes), and storage of natural gas.

While a direct comparison of coal to natural gas is complicated, overall natural gas has the potential to be far more environmentally friendly than coal (with proper regulations to minimize methane leaks and harmful wastewater getting into sensitive ecosystems). This is why the proposed EU labeling would only consider “some” gas as green – if it meets standards for being environmentally responsible. The argument about labeling (which is a proxy for funding) then comes down to this – to what extent should we be purists when it comes to tackling global warming and protecting the environment, vs accepting temporary half-measures?

Given the urgency of dealing with global warming, and the fact that we basically wasted the last 50 years doing nothing, I would argue that we have to “Moneyball” the problem. This means we set ideology and purism aside (what feels right), and take whichever is the shortest path to reducing the carbon footprint of our energy infrastructure. In the US the percentage of energy coming from coal peaked around 2006 at around 20%, and is now at 10%. That reduction has been almost entirely replaced by an increase in natural gas, which is now at 34%. Worldwide coal production peaked in 2008 when it was responsible for about 30% of global energy production.

Since 2005 total carbon emissions in the US have been declining. This decline has numerous causes, but one major cause is this shift from coal to natural gas. It is also due to increased use of renewables, especially wind power, and some declines in industrial emissions. This decline is significant, and can keep a significant amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere over the next 30 years while we complete our transition to net zero. Natural gas is also cost-effective, and it’s dispatchable – it can be turned on and off quickly to meet demand. This further gives us time to develop grid storage options. I think a reasonable position, therefore, is that we should phase-out coal as quickly as possible, and if that process can be accelerated by temporarily using natural gas (with reasonable environmental regulations) then so-be-it.

What about nuclear? I have already written about this extensively, and won’t repeat everything here. The bottom line is that nuclear is a safe and green energy production technology. I believe that concerns about nuclear waste are overblown and entirely manageable (if we had the political will). There are questions about how cost-effective it is, and this is a complicated question, but it seems there is a reasonable argument to be made that until we have sufficient grid storage options (which we do not right now) and the ability to produce sufficient renewable energy, nuclear power is our current best option for baseload production. According to the IPCC, there is no viable path to limiting warming to 1.5 C that does not include nuclear power. And there are potential significant advances in nuclear power being developed, with Gen IV plants that produce less waste, could potentially burn waste from older reactors, are safer, and can be designed to be smaller and modular to bring down costs.

Germany is pushing back hard against the proposed EU labeling. But they are a case study in why this purist approach is flawed. Germany has a deep anti-nuclear stance, and this has surely affected their decision to phase out nuclear power prior to phasing out coal-power. This decision has been highly criticized, and has resulted in a significant increase in Germany’s CO2 footprint compared to if they had phased out coal first. It has even resulted in Germany having to import energy, some of which is produced by coal. This is happening even as Germany is perhaps in an ideal situation for use of intermittent energy, in that it is in the middle of other industrialized nations, and has the option of exporting and importing energy to balance demand. The same is not true for countries like the US.

Still, by opposing the proposed EU labeling Germany appears to be doubling down on a strategy that is demonstrably flawed, delaying reductions in CO2 at a time when all such delays may be critically damaging to our goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C (or as close as we can come). Phasing out coal and then other fossil fuels needs to be our top priority. The IPCC approach is valid – we need to consider plausible pathways to this goal, given a range of possible economic and technological variables. We do not have the luxury of ideology purism, on either end of the ideological spectrum.

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