Sunday, January 28, 2018

Reckoning with Climate Change Will Demand Ugly Tradeoffs from Environmentalists — and Everyone Else - by David Roberts

Being a climate hawk is not easy for anyone.

Climate change is a crisis.  Serious damages are already underway, there’s enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to ensure more damages to come, and if carbon emissions continue unchecked, species-threatening damages become a non-trivial risk.

Lots of people acknowledge this.  But it’s one think to acknowledge it and another to really take it on board, to follow all the implications wherever they lead.  Very few people have let the reality of the situation sink in deep enough that it reshapes their values and priorities.  Being a consistent climate hawk, it turns out, is extremely difficult.

Let’s take a look at an example of what I’m talking about, and then pull back to ponder the broader problem.

Zero-carbon energy vs. environmentalists in New England
The operators of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, the only remaining nuclear plant in Massachusetts, recently announced that they would close the plant no later than June 2019.  It has long been plagued with maintenance and safety issues, and nuclear is having a hard time competing in wholesale energy markets.

Pilgrim is a 690 megawatt plant that has been producing 5.12 terrawatt hours of energy per year — around 4.1 percent of the New England region’s energy.  (These numbers are courtesy of Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst and MIT PhD candidate, whose tweet thread got me thinking.)

That represents an enormous amount of carbon-free energy about to vanish from the grid, which any climate hawk must surely view with alarm.

Take the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club (SCM).  It proclaims that “climate change is an existential threat.”  But it is not fighting to find new ownership or better safety procedures for the Pilgrim plant, or ways for the plant to be compensated for the lack of CO2 it produces (as in New York).  It advocates that Pilgrim be closed immediately.

OK, well, Pilgrim is a pretty poor performer, safety-wise, so maybe it’s best to replace it as quickly as possible with clean energy.

So how about this idea?  As part of an effort to clean the grid, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has proposed the Northern Pass transmission line, which would bring around 9.45 TWh/year of hydroelectric energy down from dams in Quebec.  That would replace the lost Pilgrim energy and add more carbon-free energy to boot.

SCM ... opposes that too.  “Not only will we be contributing to ecological destruction on a massive scale,” it writes, “we will be furthering the exploitation of the indigenous people of Canada.”

Well then, what does MSC propose doing to replace all that energy from Pilgrim?  Simple:  it advocates getting all that power from renewables.  But there are two problems with that.

First, it would cost more than hydro.  Lots more.  Jenkins pulls together a rough comparison: 
Final corrected cost comparison:
-NPV of 20 years of Quebec Hydro MWhs + Northern Pass transmission line construction: ~$4.7-5.9b
-Equivalent MWh from utility-scale solar PV: ~$9b (assuming no grid upgrades)
-Equivalent MWh from rooftop PV: ~$27b (assuming no grid upgrades)
You can quibble about the exact numbers (check the thread for more discussion), but the point is that existing nuclear and hydro are both extremely cheap. Closing off both possibilities raises the cost of decarbonization substantially.

Second, even if New England citizens were willing to pay that much more for energy, even if procurement and construction went perfectly and the region were covered in solar panels, that energy would be replacing the energy lost from Pilgrim (and rejected from Quebec) rather than adding to it.  There would be less progress toward decarbonization in Massachusetts than otherwise possible.

And it wouldn’t even be a one-to-one replacement.  Because it is variable, a MW of sun or wind does not play the same role as a MW or nuclear or hydro; it would have to be backed up by lots of natural gas (or oil).

Yes, it will be possible some day to run an energy grid almost entirely on wind and solar, using demand-shifting and energy storage for the role natural gas (the dominant energy source in the state) plays today.  But Massachusetts needs energy soon, and of the options available, natural gas is the cheapest and most available, so that is, in practice, what’s likely to fill the gap.

In short, losing Pilgrim (and rejecting Northern Pass) would almost certainly result in a net increase in New England carbon emissions.  This isn’t speculation — something similar already happened:  when the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closed in 2014 (amid promises from environmentalists that it would be replaced by renewables), the region’s energy-sector emissions subsequently increased by 5 percent, after years of decline.

Read more at Reckoning with Climate Change Will Demand Ugly Tradeoffs from Environmentalists — and Everyone Else

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