Nov 12 2020

Biden’s Climate Plan

Despite Trump’s attempt to break US democracy in order to alter reality to his liking, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next president. This has obvious implications for US’s plans for tackling climate change. The first is that we will now have an executive branch that recognizes science, that climate change is real, and will actually try to do something about it. Immediately this means rejoining the Paris accord, and appointing people to the energy and environmental agencies that are not climate change-denying coal executives.

Biden’s plan (which is not the green dew deal) is to have our energy infractructure be net zero carbon emitting by 2035 and the entire country to be net zero by 2050. That is ambitious, and if I had to bet I would say we will fall short of this goal (although I hope I’m wrong), but it is a reasonable goal. How, theoretically, will we get there?

First, although it is politically risky to say so bluntly, we have to wean ourselves entirely off of fossil fuel. Biden acknowledged this during the second debate – end fossil fuel subsidies, and phase out fossil fuels over time. Given his stated goal, that would mean phasing out coal, oil, and gas by 2035. Is that even feasible? Currently, if we look only at power production, the mix of sources in the US is: fossil fuels 62.6%, Nuclear 19.6%, and renewables (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric) 17.6%. The question is, in 2035, what do we want our energy mix to look like and how can we get there?

The path to getting there is not insignificant, because we will be emitting carbon along the way. One controversy is fracking and natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, but still a fossil fuel. Should we phase out coal quickly by replacing it with natural gas plants, or skip over natural gas and go straight to renewables and nuclear? If we could skip natural gas that would be optimal, but realistically the perfect may be the enemy of the good. Natural gas may be an effective temporary measure to quickly eliminate coal while we are transitioning to net zero energy production. But I am open on this question.

The question then comes down to – can we have a 100% renewable energy infrastructure by 2035 (or at least close to that target date)? This is where experts legitimately disagree. I have my opinion, which I have made clear here previously. Going 100% renewable would mean updating the energy grid, which we need to do anyway, so this is not a deal-breaker for that plan. But this approach is more dependent on an upgraded grid than including nuclear in the mix. Much of renewable energy, wind and solar specifically, is intermittent – neither constant nor on-demand. This means you have to do some combination of two things to produce steady energy with these sources. You need to store energy while the sun is shining for later use. This requires massive grid storage, which we simply do not have right now, and we don’t even have a clear plan for how we would have enough grid storage to make this approach work. This strategy depends of future technology that we may have by 2035, but it’s no guarantee.

The other method is overproduction. The idea here is that the wind is always blowing somewhere, so if you have a large enough grid and can efficiently share energy across this grid, then the net effect will be constant energy production. But you need much more capacity than demand in this scenario; you need a lot of wind turbines that are only producing power some of the time. So as you push intermittent energy sources to higher and higher percentages of total energy production, overproduction starts to become massive and highly cost inefficient. This could be mitigated by grid storage, and so some combination of overproduction and grid storage can work, but again, we are not currently sure how to get there.

The other approach is to preserve and even increase our nuclear portfolio. If we generate even 30% of our energy from nuclear plants, that takes a lot of pressure off of the renewable infrastructure, vastly reducing the need for both grid storage and overproduction with its necessary grid sharing. Perhaps we need 30 years or so of nuclear production to give time for renewables to continue to get cheaper and for cost-effective (and resource effective) grid storage to come online.

In 2020, we essentially have to make an educated guess as to which path forward is most likely to succeed, and succeed quickly. We won’t get a second chance, and if we blow it we are guaranteed to miss our climate targets in terms of preventing serious negative outcomes from global warming. This is why some experts argue for hedging our bets as much as possible. We also have some recent history to guide our choices. The most salient is probably Germany. They tried to go fully renewable, even closing nuclear plants. But this strategy failed. They ended up having to expand their coal infrastructure, and there CO2 emissions have flat lined since 2009. They can’t go back in time to change their decision – they lost a decade.

Their strategy failed for the reasons I stated. But also, each energy source has its low-hanging fruit – the best locations, or example. Once you use up the best locations for wind, by definition expanding means going to less than the best. So rather than trying to push any one technology, we pick the best of all green energy technologies, and that includes nuclear.

The UK is going in that direction, at least for now. They are planning on building 16 mini-nuclear plants over the next 20 years. I wrote about the concept of small nuclear reactors earlier this year – the idea is that they are faster and cheaper to build, and by building more of them we get to some efficiency of scale. In the UK they plan to mass produce the parts in a factory, then ship the part to the construction site. The Gen IV nuclear plant designs are also safer, produce less waste, and can even recycle waste from older plants.

The problem is traditional opposition to nuclear will not go away, clinging to old arguments and failing to adapt to the new reality of climate change. For example:

Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Doug Parr, said that if the government wanted to take a punt on some new technology to tackle climate change it would be better off investing in hydrogen or geothermal power.

First, this is hardly a punt. Nuclear power is a proven technology, and this is simply advancing that technology. But further, geothermal power, while great, is limited by potential locations. You need a place where underground magma is close enough to the surface. There is simply no way to produce significant power with geothermal. Hydrogen is not an energy source, and to include it on the list is shockingly scientifically ignorant. It is exactly the same as saying use batteries as an energy source. To be charitable, he might have meant using hydrogen for grid storage, but that’s not what he said. Opponents also continue to bring up safety concerns, despite the undeniable fact that nuclear power is the safest source of energy we have. Waste is also a non-issue (or should be). Not only do the newer plants produce much less of it, and may even use waste from older plants, there simply is not that much of it. We could easily store it if not for political opposition.

The one legitimate criticism raised is that nuclear plants tend to be late and over budget. Sure, but even if they are, that will still fill a critical gap in our energy production needs until we can fully transition to renewable and grid storage. We also cannot count on new technology that does not yet exist, like nuclear fusion. That will likely not be a player until after 2050.

We also need to consider that our energy demand is going to significantly increase. Even if we push for energy efficiency, which we should, our energy demand will increase. Part of the net zero plan is also to phase out gasoline vehicles for all electric. Where is all the electricity for those vehicles going to come from? If we fall into the Germany trap, and end up building fossil fuel plants to power our electric vehicles, we will have lost in the bargain.

Phasing out an entire industry does sound scary, but that is the nature of progress. Rather than clinging to 19th century jobs, which are going away anyway, I agree with Biden’s approach to look at green energy as a source of jobs, which it is. In the end, disruptive technologies end up creating more jobs than they destroy, and they will likely be far better jobs than working in coal mines or on oil rigs. So overall I think Biden’s approach is solid, but I am concerned that he never talks about nuclear energy (I think out of fear from his left flank) but realistically I don’t think he will come close to achieving his goals without it.

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