Climate Change and the World's Future Fuel Choice

Reader Contribution by Richard Hilderman and Ph.D.
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Electrical consumption in both the United States and the world has doubled since 1980 and it is also expected to double again by 2030. Needless to say, to meet this demand we will need to create new electrical generating power plants. The cost to build these new plants is estimated at 14 trillion dollars (Daniel Yergin, The Quest, p. 396). 

Before we start creating these new power plants we must decide what will be the fuel of choice for these new plants. The fuel choice boils down to continue using fossil fuel and nuclear power or converting to non-carbon base renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric or geothermal. This is a critical issue because these new plants can operate for 60 to 70 years. Thus, once they are built we will be stuck using that fuel for a long time! 

Shouldn’t we consider making a major shift from fossil fuel to non-carbon based renewable energy sources?  Currently the United States generates 45 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, 23 percent from natural gas, 20 percent from nuclear, 7 percent from hydropower, 2 percent from wind and 1 percent from oil. (U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics, 2009). The United States has significant resources in wind, solar and geothermal to meet all of its electrical needs several times over (see my posting entitled The Cost of Climate Change). 

Some people argue that natural gas is the fuel choice for future due to its abundance and it is cleaner to burn than coal along with the fact that natural gas generates about half the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as coal. It is true that natural gas doesn’t emit the pollutants that are human health hazards that coal emits. However, natural gas does emit carbon dioxide! Even though natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal this carbon dioxide will continue to enhance climate change as the demand for electricity increases.  

People also argue that renewables are not competitive with conventional energy. It is true that electricity generated by renewables is currently more expense than conventional energy sources.  However, recent research and development on renewables is starting to lower the cost of electricity generated by these sources. In addition, a price on carbon in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system would make renewables more competitive with the conventional energy sources and also stimulate the conversion of conventional sources to renewable sources. An example of how cap-and-trade can be used to solve an environmental problem is acid rain. Acid rain occurs when sulfur dioxide, which is emitted into the atmosphere by coal burning power plants, reacts with moisture in the atmosphere to produce sulfuric acid. Acid rain damages forests and acidifies lakes killing fish and corroding buildings. In 1990, a cap-and-trade system to reduce acid rain was enacted in the United States. By 2008 sulfur dioxide emissions had been reduced to almost 60 per cent from the 1980 level (Environmental Protection Agency, Acid Rain and Related Programs: 2008 Highlights, December 2009).

The conversion to renewable energy sources will not occur overnight because history has demonstrated energy transitions takes several decades. This conversion will require significantly more investments by capital venture companies and energy companies along with research and developed funds from the federal government. The time for action is now, not in 2030!

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