After Japan, Nuclear Fades. But Clean Coal? You’ve Gotta Be Kidding!
After Japan the supporters of nuclear will be on the defensive.
Yet climate change is a reality and renewables are growing only sluggishly. I can see attention moving to ways of abating the carbon pollution generated by coal. I’m not saying I’m persuaded. But I can see this debate gathering force.
First, climate change. At 390 parts per million (ppm) carbon-dioxide concentration is now at the highest level in many millions of years. The last time it was sustained at this level much of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets were not there. Meanwhile it is going up by about two ppms a year. Here’s how one American writer puts it:
“By the time today’s sixth-graders finish high school, the world carbon-dioxide level will probably have passed 400 ppm, and by the time most of them are starting families, it will have entered the 420s.”
Now we face the question of what might happen as carbon-dioxide levels reach 450 ppm – the prospect that with “positive feedback” loops, the hotter things get, the faster they will get even hotter. For example by the melting of polar ice sheets. By the vast Arctic permafrost areas thawing and releasing methane.
Now let me confess that this excellent update comes from the article by James Fallows that appeared in the December 2010 edition of The Atlantic which argues – in light of the above – we are going to have to make low-polluting coal a reality. Whoa, you say. Deal with coal? That’s a big leap.
Let’s come to the goal we all aspire to, infinite energy from renewables. What about solar? What about thermal? What about wind?
Even if these renewables – currently running at four or five percent – were to double or triple they still won’t come close to meeting total demand for energy in China or the U.S. or Australia.
Fallows quotes one Chinese advisor who says, “We hope someday to have 15 percent of our power from renewable sources. Even so, the percentage of power generated by coal will not drop by more than a few points, and the absolute amount will quickly grow.” What about that big investment in railways across China? The reason they’re doing it is
Julio Friedmann of Lawrence Livermore said, “Solar and wind power are going to be important, but it is really hard to get them beyond 10 percent of total power supply.” This is reflected, by the way, in the Australian experience. He pointed out in an interview with Fallows the huge engineering achievement it has taken to raise the efficiency of solar photovoltaic cells from about 25 percent to about 30 percent but you need improvements of two or threefold.
That’s why U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, “We have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.” Yes, a nightmare. But not receding. And if the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. stalls, it will not begin to recede.
Fallows therefore focuses our attention on what up till now has been a repellent prospect: finding new technologies that tackle the oxymoron of “clean coal”.
You can read his disturbing analysis – all the more relevant after Japan – at