Best days may be ahead for coal, nuclear power

It’s time to face reality: Using advanced coal combustion technologies and nuclear power to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the production of electricity should be a no-brainer.

Coal and nuclear power together provide more than 60 percent of the nation’s electricity. In recent years, however, coal and nuclear power have been subjected to increasing federal regulation, while renewable energy sources – which are favored by environmental groups – have been subsidized by the public sector.

Government policymakers are failing to deal squarely with this disparity between our conventional “base-load” energy sources that supply electricity 24/7 and renewables like solar and wind which only supply a small fraction – less than 4 percent – of the nation’s power. At that, solar and wind only provide electricity on days when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. The rest of the time they require back-up power from natural gas generators.

Yet research and development funding for renewable sources – not only solar and wind but geothermal, biomass, algae, ocean waves, and plant materials – has gone up sharply over the past decade, while outlays for coal and nuclear power continue to decline.

Nor is U.S. shale gas a long-term solution for U.S. and global energy needs. Natural gas prices are historically subject to wide swings, and when the export of liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia begins in a few years, electricity users are likely to see their monthly bills rise sharply. You can be sure some utilities will wish they had never switched from coal to natural gas.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations for existing power plants that would require, on average, a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. The required reduction would vary from state to state.

There are those who maintain that EPA’s climate stabilization plan means the end of coal and that our country will need to obtain most of its energy from solar and wind. That idea is wrong.

However much many of us may abhor EPA’s carbon rules, the reality is that the regulations can be used to our economic and environmental advantage if we see to it that new coal technologies are developed and demonstrated in this country.

Expanding the use of more efficient coal technologies such as ultra-supercritical steam cycle and integrated gasification combined cycle is not only in our interest but could make a big difference globally. Imagine the payback if we can successfully demonstrate carbon capture-and-storage technology at a coal plant. Coal accounts for 40 percent of global energy production. Our knowledge of coal technology is the envy of the world. And no other country surpasses us in providing on-the-job experience. Besides, there is plenty of coal beneath the ground in the United States .

Nuclear power is an option that some states are already pursuing. Currently five new reactors – two each in Georgia and South Carolina and one in Tennessee – are under construction, and two more reactors have been approved for construction in Florida . Almost all of the reactors will use an advanced AP1000 design, in which components of a plant are built off-site in factories, then delivered for assembly. As a result, concerns that nuclear plants cannot be built on time and according to a budget are fading. Worldwide, 72 nuclear plants are under construction and another 400 are planned or proposed.

Investing in advanced coal technology and nuclear power is the best strategy for curbing carbon emissions, while ensuring long-term fuel and technology diversity and reliability of the power grid. Despite regulatory challenges, coal and nuclear power are here to stay. If we can use new technological innovations to make coal and nuclear power even more competitive than they already are, the best days for both may lie ahead.

Michael L. Green

Scott Depot, W.Va.