A study commissioned by the California legislature has just reported that, in order to achieve the state's aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions by 2050, the golden state will need to more than triple the percentage of electrical power it gets from nuclear energy. In the January 6, 2012, issue of the journal Science a paper outlining the report's findings was published and they may be a bit unsettling for deep green Californian ecologists. It finds that technically feasible levels of energy efficiency and decarbonizing the state's energy supply alone are not good enough. The answer? Here is a hint—electric vehicles powered by expanded nuclear energy.
California has long led the US and the world in efforts to curb emissions and improved energy efficiency. California has set an eventual target of reducing 2050 emissions 80% below the 1990 level. This possibly misguided effort is based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emissions reduction projections that would stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), a level that the IPCC claims would reduce the likelihood of dangerous global warming. Regardless of the motivation, the oh so green California legislature has boldly set caps on future GHG emissions. Quoting from the article, entitled “The Technology Path to Deep Greenhouse Gas Emissions Cuts by 2050: The Pivotal Role of Electricity”:
California is the world’s sixth largest economy and 12th largest emitter of GHGs. Its per capita GDP and GHG emissions are similar to those of Japan and western Europe, and its policy and technology choices have broad relevance nationally and globally. California’s Assembly Bill 32 (AB32) requires the state to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a reduction of 30% relative to business-as-usual assumptions.
In the most general terms here are the findings: widespread electrification of transportation and other sectors is required; and decarbonized electricity would become the dominant form of energy supply, posing challenges and opportunities for economic growth and climate policy. An all electric world run on clean sources of electrical generation—the green dream. The catch? “This transformation demands technologies that are not yet commercialized,” the authors state. In other words, much of the technology needed is either experimental or nonexistent.
The team, led by James H. Williams, of Energy and Environmental Economics and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, describe their methodology this way: “We analyzed the infrastructure and technology path required to meet California’s goal of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels, using detailed modeling of infrastructure stocks, resource constraints, and electricity system operability.”
This being California, one has to worry about just what steps the study included, but not to worry. “We did not assume explicit life-style changes (e.g., vegetarianism, bicycle transportation), which could have a substantial effect on mitigation requirements and costs,” the authors state. A visual summary of the predicted impact by category can be seen in the figure below, taken from the report.
Emission reduction wedges for California in 2050.
Measures grouped into seven “wedges” reduce emissions from 875 Mt CO2e in the 2050 baseline case to 85 Mt CO2e in the mitigation case. The top three contributions are from energy efficiency (EE) (28%), electricity decarbonization (27%), and electrification of direct fuel uses (16%). The three main steps needed to achieve this near miraculous reduction in GHG emissions are given as:
- EE had to improve by at least 1.3% year−1 over 40 years.
- The electricity supply had to be nearly decarbonized, with 2050 emissions intensity less than 0.025 kg CO2e/kWh.
- Most existing direct fuel uses had to be electrified, with electricity constituting 55% of end-use energy in 2050 versus 15% today.
Those of you who have read our book, The Energy Gap will find this a bit familiar. Our conclusion was that, in the future, efficiency would rise and the roads would be taken over by electric/hybrid vehicles that got much of their energy from expanded nuclear plants. Seems we could have saved the state of California a significant amount of money if they had only bought a copy of TEG.
There have been other studies which claim that California could meet all of its future energy needs with just wind and solar power, and maybe a few composting toilets. Here is what the study's authors had to say about running the whole state on renewable energy:
Some studies suggest that 100% of future electricity requirements could be met by renewable energy, but our analysis found this level of penetration to be infeasible for California . We found a maximum of 74% renewable energy penetration despite California’s large endowment of renewable resources, even assuming perfect renewable generation forecasting, breakthroughs in storage technology, replacement of steam generation with fast-response gas generation, and a major shift in load curves by smart charging of vehicles. Using historical solar and wind resource profiles in California and surrounding states, the electricity system required 26% nonrenewable generation from nuclear, natural gas, and hydroelectricity, plus high storage capacity to maintain operability.
Buried in the article's table 1 are numbers that tell the true story: while other conventional fuels drop between now and 2050, most fossil fuels going to zero, nuclear power rises from 3% today to 11% in 2050. And that is a “best case” estimate from a green perspective. Reality will more than likely require continued natural gas for peak demand generation and more nuclear for baseload as it becomes evident that unreliable generation by wind and solar just don't get the job done. Looks like a green California is a nuclear California.
You might want to rethink that ordinance.
At the same time that the need for more nuclear power is being demonstrated by California ecologists, the Obama administration continues to prove that they are worse than clueless when it comes to energy policy. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed new regulations removing a large area of the southwestern US from prospecting for uranium. Members of the congressional delegations from Utah and Arizona issued the following statement denouncing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to withdraw approximately 1 million acres of federal land in northern Arizona from uranium mining:
“Today's announcement by the Interior Department shows how much this Administration just doesn't get it,” said Senator Orrin Hatch. “Mining this land poses no environmental threat and is expected to create thousands of jobs, but the Administration continues to pander to extremist environmentalists who oppose one of the cleanest sources of energy we have. I wish I could say today's announcement comes as a surprise but sadly it's just another sign that the Obama Administration is one of the most anti-American energy presidencies in history.”
One last thing from the Science article, for those outspoken critics of hybrid cars like the much maligned Chevy Volt. According to Williams et al.: “The most important finding of this research is that, after other emission reduction measures were employed to the maximum feasible extent, there was no alternative to widespread switching of direct fuel uses (e.g., gasoline in cars) to electricity in order to achieve the reduction target.”
As I have said before, the age of the electric automotive drivetrain is upon us. Simply put, a vehicle with an all electric drivetrain can be powered by anything—wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, hydrogen, even improved batteries. Just plug-in and any source of electricity will work. This is why first attempts at production serial hybrids like the Volt are important: auto manufacturers need to learn how to build high quality, cost effective electric cars. Sure the Volt leaves a lot to be desired, but the next model will be better.
Critics, like the terminally opinionated Neil Cavuto on FOX, seem to understand neither engineering nor business when they attack the Volt. When the first (rather bad) Japanese cars arrived in America they were ridiculed and made fun of; now Japanese brands are arguably among the best in the world. And do any of you fans of big ol' American iron recall the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto? They were Detroit's first attempt to build true compact cars—and they sucked. But eventually both GM and Ford learned to build world class small cars, just as they will learn to build great electric/hybrids. Assuming, of course, that public ridicule from airhead news anchors doesn't scare them into delaying efforts to develop such cars—that will only give the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese the chance to dominate the market without facing American competition. So put a sock in it, Neil.
The Chevy Volt and arch nemesis Neil Cavuto.
I'm all for using natural gas in power plants, it is the cleanest burning fossil fuel and the US has discovered that it has an abundance of the stuff. Building the Keystone Pipeline from Canada makes good sense as well, we will continue to need oil for decades, and even when we stop burning the petroleum products in cars and trucks it will be needed as feedstock for the chemical industry. But just because we have discovered a surfeit of fossil fuel for the present, it does not change the fact that world demand will continue to rise, reserves will be depleted and the price of oil will rise until it becomes uneconomical. Changing road transport to electrical power—severing the link between fossil fuels and cars—will take a half a century or more. The time to start is now.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.