Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Clean Energy Mind Games: If Policy Makers Want to Accelerate the Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy, They Should Heed the Lessons of the Decision Sciences and Take Another Look at Nuclear Energy

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Clean Energy Mind Games: If Policy Makers Want to Accelerate the Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy, They Should Heed the Lessons of the Decision Sciences and Take Another Look at Nuclear Energy

Article excerpt

The world needs clean energy. Clean, as in doesn't emit greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide, that can drive climate change. And we need plenty of it within the next couple of decades, nearly 50% more energy by 2040 than is currently produced, as billions of people rise out of poverty and expect the same resources the developed world already enjoys.

So it is encouraging that governments around the world are adopting policies that encourage clean energy production and large corporations are converting to low-carbon-emission energy supplies. But these steps, although meaningful, are not nearly enough, because government policies overwhelmingly favor some clean energy sources--renewables such as solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels--over other clean energy sources, particular nuclear power. Yet most energy experts agree that renewables can't supply as much power as we need, as quickly as we need it. It's therefore worth trying to understand why government policies favor some forms of low-carbon energy over others, because the battle over what sort of clean energy counts as clean leaves us fighting climate change with one hand tied behind our back.

In the United States, 29 states have adopted renewable portfolio standards requiring that a percentage of the electricity a utility sells must come from wind, solar, hydro, and in some cases biofuels, all of which need economic support from government policy because they can't compete against cheaper fossil fuels, especially natural gas. But whereas renewables receive significant direct economic support, nuclear energy receives far less. Only two states--New York and Illinois--provide financial assistance that helps nuclear compete economically, and in both cases the support was adopted less as a clean air measure and more to preserve high-paying jobs that would be lost if nuclear plants in those states closed. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Ohio are also considering economic support for nuclear, but the overall picture remains clear. State government subsidies for clean energy overwhelmingly favor renewables.

At the federal level, in 2016 renewable sources of energy received 114 times more support in preferential taxes than nuclear power per terawatt of power generated, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Between state and federal programs, the case is overwhelmingly clear; some forms of clean energy get vastly more support to help them compete in the energy marketplace than others. And nuclear, which could supply huge amounts of zero emission energy that could help the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, is being significantly disadvantaged by government policy. Selective policies to support some forms of clean energy more than others are dramatically limiting the nation's ability to address the problem that clean energy is supposed to help solve.

Clean machines?

Why this inequality? It can't be economics. Nuclear power is so expensive that it can't compete with fossil fuels, but neither can renewables once you factor in the necessary cost of backup power to compensate for the periods when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. It can't be that nuclear isn't needed because renewables can provide all the energy we need as urgently as we need it. The leading program in the world trying to replace nuclear with renewables, the massive Energiewende program in German) has made great progress, but not enough. Renewables haven't been able to replace all the energy lost due to the shutdown of nuclear power in Germany, so new coal plants are being built, energy-intensive sectors of the economy have been exempted from the program, and the nation is not even close to being on track to meet its greenhouse-gas-emissions goals.

Preferential government support for renewables over nuclear has more to do with a selectively applied interpretation of what "clean" means. Nuclear is held to a different standard than renewables. …

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