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Obama Must Stop Dirty Coal -- But What Will He Replace it With?

It is incumbent on progressives to propose a realistic alternative to new coal plants -- here's our best options.

A year ago I wrote a post " Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?" where I hypothesized:

Suppose the leaders of this country were wise enough to put a moratorium on traditional coal (the most urgent climate policy needed, as discussed here)? How will we meet our steadily growing demand for carbon-free power over the next decade? And to get on the 450 ppm path, we don’t just need to stop U.S. emissions from rising -- we should return to 1990 levels (or lower) by 2020.

Well, we now appear to have leaders that wise (see " Obama EPA to act on global warming emissions from new coal plants"). And we need real reductions by the end of next decade (see " The U.S. needs a tougher 2020 GHG emissions target").

Also, while my original post focused on the key strategies of efficiency and recycled energy (i.e. cogeneration or combined heat and power), wind, and concentrated solar thermal, I left out one of the most crucial -- biomass cofiring, which is almost certainly the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to provide new renewable baseload power without having to build any new transmission lines!

I think it is incumbent on progressives to propose a realistic alternative to new coal plants -- and a path to reduce emissions from existing ones. That’s especially true since it is increasingly clear carbon capture and storage will not be a major player by 2020 (see " Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?"). So I will revise and extend my previous analysis:

NUCLEAR: Nuclear is an obvious possibility, beloved of conservative Francophiles like McCain and Gingrich, but energy realists understand that it is very unlikely new nuclear plants could deliver many kilowatt-hours of electricity by 2020, let alone affordable kWhs. Indeed, back in August 2007, Tulsa World reported ( here):

American Electric Power Co. isn’t planning to build any new nuclear power plants because delays will push operational starts to 2020, CEO Michael Morris said Tuesday….

Builders would also have to queue for certain parts and face "realistic" costs of about $4,000 a kilowatt, he said….

"I’m not convinced we’ll see a new nuclear station before probably the 2020 timeline," Morris said.

And that in spite of the amazing subsidies and huge loan guarantees for nuclear power in the 2005 energy bill (see here).

As for the $4,000 a kw capital cost -- and the related electricity price of about 10 cents per kwh -- mid-2007 has already turned into the "good old days" for nukes. Utilities are now telling regulators that nukes will cost 50% to 100% more than the AEP estimate (see " Exclusive analysis, Part 1: The staggering cost of new nuclear power" and " The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power").

So what do we do in the near term to meet the projected 1% annual increase in demand over the next decade while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions?

The answer is we do energy efficiency (including cogeneration), wind power, concentrated solar power (CSP), and biomass cofiring. These are the low-carbon power sources capable of delivering power affordably and quickly -- and that means having no obvious production bottlenecks (unlike, again, say, another well-known power source, see " Look up nuclear bottleneck in the dictionary….").

The goal is to fund technologies and boost industries that are capable of scaling up to deliver hundreds if not thousands of GWs of carbon free power by mid-century. No surprise that these sources account for a (slight) majority of the wedges I propose for 2050 (see " Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution").