Do not put coal and nuclear power plants on the back burner just yet | Opinion


The gap between global energy demand and available supply is widening and could widen and disrupt global electricity capacity with unintended economic consequences.

This is why the specter of energy shortages and soaring costs in an uncertain pandemic era, with a coal squeeze leading to the shutdown of industries in China, the explosion of natural gas prices in Britain and Soaring gasoline and electricity prices in the United States are all linked. and require a clear strategy and a recognized objective to be resolved.

If we focus on a single environmental problem, we may unintentionally encourage a decline in energy production, which would spread across the country. With energy costs rising so rapidly in Europe and Asia, the last thing countries need are actions that are driving costs even higher.

Yet this is what happens in power generation, where wind and solar only supply electricity intermittently, unlike fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Despite the rapid decline in the costs of renewables, the share of renewables is actually increasing at a much slower rate than that of coal, oil or natural gas. Coal is still the dominant fuel in the world for the production of electricity, at more than 40%. In contrast, solar and wind combined only represent 7.3% of global electricity.

Without a doubt, technological advances in solar and wind power – and the emergence of large-scale electricity storage on the grid – will make a difference in the years to come. But that might not happen soon enough, given the obvious danger of global warming and the desperate need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and quell severe climate change.

It is unwise to assume that we can ignore the construction of new power plants. We cannot sanction the premature decommissioning of efficient nuclear and coal-fired power plants, as is the case in the United States. Even the most aggressive solar and wind programs, backed by natural gas power plants, cannot meet all of America’s electricity needs.

What is really sobering about the new energy reality is the unpredictable global gas market, where liquefied natural gas exports from the United States and the Middle East cannot meet the growing demand for gas. in Europe and Asia. Difficult issues need to be addressed, such as the impact of gas shortages on manufacturing, jobs and the global geopolitical order.

We need to increase our power generation capacity, but due to financial and regulatory pressures, electric utilities stopped building new large power plants in the United States four decades ago. As demand for electricity has continued to increase, parts of the United States are now facing power shortages. There have been power outages in California and Texas, and many parts of the country are facing serious reliability issues.

Last summer, power grids from Maine to Arizona set a record for electricity use. Fortunately, there was enough base load generation to keep the lights on and air conditioners and dehumidifiers running in homes and businesses. The reason was the excellent performance of nuclear power plants and fossil fuel power plants in much of the country. The country’s fleet of nuclear power plants operated around the clock, avoiding power shortages.

We must also recognize the important role of coal for our electricity grids. In early summer, coal production in the PJM grid, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity across all or part of 13 states and the District of Columbia, peaked in three years. The demand for coal in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s network increased by 37% and by 42% in the Southwest Power Pool. As the warm weather extended into August, the PJM network supplied a third of the production. On the SPI grid, almost half. And in MISO, which covers most of the Midwest, more than half.

It is impossible to predict what the global economy will do in the future. But electric power will remain a driving force, in large part because automakers are now heavily committed to bringing electric vehicles into commercial production. Even when renewables are competitive and intermittency is resolved by affordable storage, the fossil fuel system and nuclear power cannot be put on hold due to their vast scale.

While it seems difficult to envision that many existing power plants will remain operational for decades, it seems impossible to imagine that the world economy will remain healthy without them.

Gary Marlin Sandquist is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah.

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