REALITY: Coal is likely to remain an important piece
When Americans tap into the power grid, the large majority of our electricity comes from power plants in which coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel are burned to create steam to drive turbines. Each fuel has drawbacks. Coal is a notorious source of greenhouse gases, and though natural gas burns cleaner, it is plagued by market price volatility. Nuclear power is accompanied by concerns about cost and safety.
Alternatives are limited. Diminishing water supplies remove the option of expanding hydroelectric plants. Wind and solar are confined to niche roles—the wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining—while the technologies required to store and transport their energy are still over the horizon.
Largely by default, coal and nuclear fuel remain the heavy lifters of America's power grid. Per unit, nuclear fuel contains at least ten million times more usable energy than chemical fuel. That fact and the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provided the statutory groundwork for expanding the use of nuclear power in the United States, tipped the scales in favor of a reactor-based economy. Drafting and approving the Energy Policy Act were motivated largely by the desires to abate greenhouse gases, reduce the reliance on foreign energy supplies, ensure a sustainable source of electricity and allow more rapid migration to electric transportation, says Dana Christensen of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Christensen sees the effort as a multi-faceted one. "It doesn't make sense to have electric cars and then recharge their batteries with electricity from coal-fired power plants unless we can also capture and sequester the carbon dioxide that comes out of the coal-fired power plant," Christensen says. "If we are going to invest in electric vehicles, which I think is the wave of the future, then we are moving toward either hybrid or all-electric vehicles. This means we must today determine how we will generate and distribute the required electricity."
Today America has about 100 gigawatts of existing nuclear capacity. "We can get to 300 gigawatts by about 2050," Christensen says. "That's a Herculean build rate of a new American reactor coming online every 60 days. We have built reactors faster than that in the past, so we know that it is possible."
Economists anticipate that electricity demand will double by 2050. Meeting this ambitious goal would require that approximately 30% of America's electricity in 2050 be derived from nuclear power, compared with 20% today. So where would the remainder of the electricity be generated?
Christensen says the math is simple. "Even with an extraordinary program of nuclear construction and a host of new energy efficiency technologies, we are still going to need coal for many, many decades to come." —Dawn Levy
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations