Carbon-Free Nuclear-Free Energy Economy Is Inevitable

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The impossible has become inevitable. A carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy is our future. Despite the energy industry’s hard work to keep energy dirty and damaging, the future will be clean and sustainable. Government is not leading the way. The new energy revolution is coming from the ground up, not the top down.

The United States and world face a series of interconnected crises: climate change caused by carbon-based energies like oil and methane gas; a shrinking supply of carbon fuel that has led to wars for oil and extreme extraction methods using tar sands, hydro-fracking, mountaintop removal and deep off-shore drilling; and proliferation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction and long-term environmental damage from the production of nuclear energy.

The human and environmental costs of fossil fuel and nuclear power as sources of energy are being felt by a growing number of people worldwide. At the same time, there is a realization that the government is doing little to nothing to encourage a transition from extractive to clean renewable sources. Instead, the Obama administration reveals its alliance with the status quo through the revolving door between industry insiders and government positions, the use of energy industry consultants to perform environmental impact statements, the suppression of unfavorable analyses and disregard for the concerns of people who are affected by energy extraction.

These crises and lack of response have sparked widespread resistance and a variety of approaches to stop extraction and demand renewables. This summer, there have been direct actions almost daily by coalitions of people through Fearless Summer, Sovereign Summer and Summer Heat to shut down pipeline construction and drilling for fracking. Anti-nuclear groups have won several victories to close plants and prevent the construction of new ones.

And the oil, gas and nuclear industries are employing more extreme methods to protect their profits, including the use of eminent domain to take land, hiring local police to patrol pipelines and avoiding the costs of cleaning up their toxic spills. People who object to the poisoning of the air, land and water are labeled “terrorists”and treated abusively. And families that are sickened from chemicals used in processes such as fracking and their doctors are forbidden to reveal the identity of those chemicals to others.

Fortunately, there is also a revolution in the development of new technologies that allow less waste of energy, more efficient production of solar and wind energy as well as the development of new sustainable energy sources. The production of energy from renewable sources is growing and becoming more affordable than nuclear energy and radical fossil fuel.

The most recent recommendations of the International Panel on Climate Change call for a 50 percent to 85 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. This can be achieved. It is time to set a clear direction toward the new energy economy. The United States could and should become a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy by 2030.

The roadmap to a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy

Is this possible? Arjun Makhijani, who has a PhD in engineering with a specialization in nuclear fusion from the University of California, was challenged in 2006 to answer this question. Makhijani was at a conference organized by Helen Caldicott’s Nuclear Policy Research Institute. David Freeman, who served as the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority under President Jimmy Carter, said it was time to jettison coal and nuclear and move to solar. Caldicott expressed agreement. Makhijani told them this was impossible and that doing so would destroy the US economy. Caldicott and Freeman challenged Makhijani to stop being a naysayer and look at the evidence.

Makhijani has produced many studies and articles on issues related to the nuclear fuel cycle – including weapons production, testing and nuclear waste – during the past 20 years. He is the principal author of the first study ever done (completed in 1971) on energy conservation potential in the US economy. He has testified before Congress and served as a consultant on energy issues to numerous utilities including the Edison Electric Institute and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Makhijani took the challenge seriously and began examining the feasibility of a renewable energy economy. He looked at energy use in the US, the technology available to produce energy from sustainable sources like the sun and wind, interviewed leaders of established and emerging industries and reviewed an enormous amount of recent technical literature. In the end, he surprised himself.

The result was a book: Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy. When the book was first published in 2007, he predicted we could be carbon-free and nuclear-free by 2050. Today, with advances in technology, he believes the transition could be completed in 20 to 25 years.

His central finding was that “actual physical emissions of CO2 from the energy sector can be eliminated with technologies that are either now available or foreseeable. This can be done at reasonable cost while creating a much more secure energy supply than at present.” This would end the need for importation of oil, wars for oil and destruction of the environment to extract coal, oil and methane gas. And Makhijani points to large ancillary health benefits including the elimination of most regional and local air pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion.

Makhijani does not claim this will be a smooth or easy transition. He recognizes this is a major social and economic change that will require coordination in policies from the local to the national levels and across all sectors of the energy system. He acknowledges there are policies being put in place at the local, state and national levels that point us in the right direction, but they are small steps that are insufficient to get us where we need to go and still lack a national direction.

The first requirement is a clear, long-term goal of becoming a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy. This goal must be set by national leaders, who must explain that this is essential for the environment, the economy and national security. Makhijani writes:

“Even the process of the United States setting a goal of a zero-CO2, nuclear-free economy and taking initial firm steps towards it will transform global energy politics in the immediate future and establish the United States as a country that leads by example rather than one that preaches temperance from a barstool.”

A series of US presidents have missed the opportunity to lead the country to a new energy future. Rather than set a clear course for the country, they have all taken the approach that President Barack Obama continues to take: an “all of the above” approach to energy. Such an approach reinforces the status quo and results in unclear and directionless policy.

Indeed, this lack of direction leads the country into further investment of taxpayer funds in the status quo. This includes continued subsidies of billions of dollars annually for carbon and nuclear energy and pipelines to carry tar sands bitumen, gas and oil across the country. Resources continue to be invested in the old, dirty energy systems rather than re-directed to a new energy economy.

Among the first steps recommended in Makhijani’s roadmap are to eliminate all subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels and nuclear power, including guarantees for nuclear waste disposal from new power plants, loan guarantees and subsidized insurance as well as eliminating subsidies for biofuels from food crops. He recommends a ban on new coal-fired power plants that do not have carbon storage. Obviously, approval for mountaintop removal should be stopped, as should construction of the KXL and other pipelines, the extraction of tar sands for oil and further hydro-fracking for methane gas (which the industry falsely calls “natural” gas for marketing reasons).

Instead, resources should be directed toward the new “Apollo project” of creating a clean energy economy by 2030. This would include building “demonstration plants for key supply technologies, including central station solar thermal with heat storage, large- and intermediate-scale solar photovoltaics and CO2 capture in microalgae for liquid fuel production” as well as “federal contracting procedures to reward early adopters of CO2 reductions” and “vigorous research, development, and pilot plant construction programs for technologies that could accelerate the elimination of CO2, such as direct solar hydrogen production (photosynthetic, photoelectrochemical, and other approaches), hot rock geothermal power and integrated gasification combined cycle plants using biomass with a capacity to sequester the CO2.”

While this redirection of resources is occurring, the United States also should be embarking on a major energy efficiency program to reduce consumption. The United States wastes the most energy in the world. Our energy efficiency rate of 42 percent, means 58 percent of all the energy we produce is wasted. Makhijani recommends the federal government enact high efficiency standards for appliances; enact stringent building efficiency standards at the state and local levels, with federal incentives to adopt them, and stringent efficiency standards for vehicles; and make plug-in hybrids the standard US government vehicle by 2015.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the United States should “set a physical limit of CO2 emissions for all large users of fossil fuels (a “hard cap”) that steadily declines to zero prior to 2060, with the time schedule being assessed periodically for tightening according to climate, technological, and economic developments.”

Where would the new energy come from to replace the old energy? Makhijani points to wind energy resources in 12 Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states that equal about 2.5 times the entire electricity production of the United States. He also highlights the potential wind energy from North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana and Nebraska, which each have wind energy potential greater than the electricity produced by all existing nuclear power plants. In addition, solar energy resources on just 1 percent of the area of the United States are about three times as large as wind energy, if production is focused in the high-insolation areas in the Southwest and West. In fact, just the parking lots and rooftops in the United States could provide most of the United States’ electricity supply; and this would have the advantage of electricity being created close to where it would be used.

The cost of these new energy sources is declining. Wind energy is already more economical than nuclear power. In the past two years, the costs of solar cells and installation have decreased.

Makhijani acknowledges that “the main problem with wind and solar energy is intermittency but this can be reduced by integrating wind and solar energy together into the grid – for instance, wind energy is often more plentiful at night. … Solar and wind should also be combined with hydropower – with the latter being used when the wind generation is low or zero.” Further, “compressed air can also be used for energy storage in combination with these sources. No new technologies are required for any of these generation or storage methods.” He recommends that “baseload power can be provided by geothermal and biomass-fueled generating stations. Intermediate loads in the evening can be powered by solar thermal power plants which have a few hours of thermal energy storage built in.”

Of course, with a clear goal and investment in research and development, new breakthroughs are likely that will speed this transformation. Since Makhijani wrote the first edition of this roadmap, he already has seen technological breakthroughs that have sped up the time for transformation to a new energy economy.

A carbon-free, nuclear-free future is more likely than a carbon-nuclear future

Makhijani is not the only person who envisions a clean, renewable energy future. A 2013 report by Synapse Energy Economics for the nonprofit think tankCivil Society Institute found that in the US, reliance on wind, solar and other renewables “could meet or exceed demand in 99.4 percent of hours” by 2050. According to the author of the report, Thomas Vitolo, “Put simply, the message is this: It is a myth to say the United States cannot rely on renewables for the bulk of electricity generation.” In fact, they find that relying on carbon and nuclear energy sources by 2050 is “far less feasible, and presents much more daunting technical, economic, and social challenges to human and environmental welfare.”

Another 2013 report by researchers at Stanford that focused on the state of New York found that by 2030 New York could convert to energy from wind, water and sunlight. Not only is this feasible, but it would also reduce energy costs, create jobs, reduce air and water pollution and improve health. The study described the new energy economy as a mix of onshore and offshore wind; concentrated solar plants, residential, commercial and government rooftop solar; and wave, tidal and hydroelectric water.

In fact, the fastest-growing energy source in the United States in 2012 was wind power, producing 23 percent more than the much-hyped methane gas. Wind generation has quadrupled since 2007, growing by more than 30 percent per year while nuclear and coal plants are declining at 1 percent and 5.5 percent per year, respectively. Thanks in part to tax credits, wind power in the US is growing, but the country has only just begun to tap its massive potential (especially offshore energy sources).

The decline in nuclear is astounding when one remembers that the nuclear industry saw a renaissance when Obama was elected. He had been a long-term supporter of nuclear energy and the largest nuclear company, Exelon energy, had been a major contributor throughout his political career. In Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, Obama appointed two Energy secretaries who supported nuclear energy. He offered the industry loan guarantees and tried to find somewhere to store its radioactive waste. Even some environmental groups had been fooled into supporting nuclear as a way to solve the climate problem.

Despite all of this, the industry’s renaissance has been turned into a retreat. Recently, there have been some major victories for activists working to stop nuclear energy. Duke Energy canceled its two proposed new reactors in Levy County, Florida. And, Electricite de France (EDF) announced that it is pulling out of the US nuclear market entirely. EDF wanted to build new reactors at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland and Nine Mile Point, New York. This follows victories in summer 2013 in California and Kentucky.Bloomberg reports that nuclear energy is withering in the face of growing wind energy production.

According to the US Wind Industry Annual Market Report for 2012 , wind power had its best year ever in 2012, with a year-over-year growth in capacity of 28 percent coming from 6,700 new wind turbines. In 2012, Iowa and South Dakota generated close to one quarter of their electricity from wind farms. Wind power accounted for at least 10 percent of electricity generation in seven other states. The United States now has 60,000 megawatts of wind online, enough to meet the electricity needs of more than 14 million homes.

It is not only in the United States where studies are showing such a transformation is possible. Australia could be self-sufficient in renewable energy in 10 years by converting to solar and wind energy if the country had a motivated social and political leadership, according to the Energy Research Institute of the University of Melbourne. Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases. The report, the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan, states that if the political will existed, Australia’s enormous renewable potential could be harnessed and within a decade make the country carbon-neutral and create thousands of new jobs.

In fact, solar and wind power are growing throughout the world. There are 46 countries that produce over 60 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources. According to Bloomberg’s renewable energy research team, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 70 percent of the power generation the world will add between now and 2030 will most likely be renewable. While wind, sun and water are producing more energy, nuclear energy production has decreased by 6 percent worldwide since 2006.

The Earth Policy Institute, which also put forward a roadmap to a clean energy future titled “Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” reports that the world installed 31,100 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2012 – an all-time annual high that pushed global PV capacity above 100,000 megawatts. There is now enough PV operating to meet the household electricity needs of nearly 70 million people at the European level of use.

The institute also reports that global wind power set a new record for installations in 2012, with 44,000 megawatts of new wind capacity worldwide. With total capacity exceeding 280,000 megawatts, wind farms generate carbon-free electricity in more than 80 countries, 24 of which have at least 1,000 megawatts. At the European level of consumption, the world’s operating wind turbines could satisfy the residential electricity needs of 450 million people.

One country that has had government leadership for renewables is Germany. It has two goals: phase out nuclear power and become carbon-free. There is a lot that other countries can learn from Germany. Germany gets more than 25 percent of its energyfrom solar, wind and biomass. One-third of the world’s solar capacity is in Germany, a nation that gets roughly the same amount of sunlight as Alaska. A whopping 65 percent of the country’s total renewable power capacity is now owned by individuals, cooperatives and communities, leaving Germany’s once-powerful utilities with just a sliver (6.5 percent) of this burgeoning sector. Projections are that by 2050 Germany will get 80 percent to 100 percent of its electricity from renewables. After Fukushima, Germany decided to close all 17 of its nuclear reactors (and already has closed eight) and invested $270 billion in renewable energy, 8 percent of the country’s GDP.

This worldwide transformation is occurring in spite of misdirected governments. In 2011 there was an estimated $623 billion spent to subsidize fossil fuels. This does not include tax breaks and years of government-funded research and infrastructure dedicated to the older, dirtier sources. In contrast, just $88 billion went to subsidies for renewable energy, most often paid to the producer.

The energy transformation is being led from below

As we reported in the most recent weekly resistance report for Popular Resistance, there is a vibrant movement opposing the extreme extraction for radical energy. This movement opposes President Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy that continues to destroy the environment, pollute the air and water and push the world over the climate-change tipping point. Leadership is coming from below, with people putting their bodies on the machine to stop the energy-extraction economy as well as people working to create our clean energy future.

We are in the midst of an energy revolution, in spite of government’s lack of leadership. In the end, as Makhijani found, a clean energy future is inevitable. Key questions are how quickly will we get there and how much damage will be done by old, dirty energy profiteers before we get there.

Next Week: The Boulder Battle for Municipally Owned Clean Energy

Further reading:

US Climate Bomb is Ticking: What the Gas Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

Gang Green or Fresh Greens?

This Earth Week: Stop the Extraction Economy, Create a New World

You can hear Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese interview with Arjun Makhijani and Alison Burchell on “Making the Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free Energy Economy Real” on Clearing the FOG.