By Michael Mariotte

Former top Obama aide Rahm Emanuel is now Mayor of Chicago. And he's joined forces with clean energy advocates who have a different vision of the state's energy future than Exelon. Photo from Wikipedia.

Former top Obama aide Rahm Emanuel is now Mayor of Chicago. And he’s joined forces with clean energy advocates who have a different vision of the state’s energy future than Exelon. Photo from Wikipedia.

In theory, the “all of the above” energy policy has a certain amount of appeal: why should government pick winners and losers? Why not–since no one knows the future–as a matter of policy pursue all energy sources?

One obvious issue is the availability of sufficient resources to effectively support all energy sources.

But there is a much more fundamental problem that makes “all of the above” a PR tagline, not a real energy policy: some energy sources are simply incompatible with others.

Specifically, as we’ve pointed out in these pages many times, the 20th century “baseload” power approach of electricity generation and distribution–reliant on large nuclear and coal plants–does not work in a 21st century energy system based on clean, distributed generation, energy efficiency, and a smart grid.

Using Minnesota’s Monticello reactor, which recently underwent an uprating that cost twice as much as planned, as the example, John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance this week explained the issue in a post titled Big, Expensive Power Plants Undermine a Clean Energy Future.

That’s a problem, especially for those who want to end fossil fuels and view both nuclear power and renewables as having a role to play in fighting climate change. The choice isn’t clean energy versus coal; it’s clean energy versus fossil fuels and nuclear because the baseload power model–which is the only model in which nuclear works–prevents the integration of all but a small percentage of renewables into the grid.

Germany and some other European countries already have reached that point. And some U.S. states are getting there rapidly.

Naive nuclear backers may not understand this reality, but the nuclear utilities (which are the same, by the way, as the fossil fuel utilities) do understand it. That’s why the nuclear industry isn’t going after natural gas, which is its main competitor in many locations at the moment. Instead, as this long and well-done article, titled Why the nuclear industry targets renewables instead of gas, from Midwest Energy News points out, the nuclear industry is going after renewables–and in a big way.

Others, focused more on fossil fuels, have noticed the same trend from the flip side. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) this week points out that while the media has been obsessed with the notion of a “war on coal,” the real war going on is the war on solar power. While IEEFA takes on the issue from the viewpoint of the fossil fuel industry going after solar, remember: the nuclear and fossil fuel utilities are one and the same.

This chart from Institute for Local Self Reliance explains how large baseload power plants do not work in a clean energy system. Click to enlarge.

The war on solar, which is real, is really a war over what kind of energy system we will have in the 21st century. Will it be the 21st century model we at GreenWorld and NIRS advocate, based on clean renewable energy, distributed generation and the rest? Or will it be a continuation of the 20th century model of large baseload power plants, whether they be coal or nuclear? That’s the fundamental issue and how it is resolved may well determine the future of our planet.

For those who think nuclear power is a climate solution even disregarding its enormous financial costs and inability to be built quickly enough to make a difference in reducing carbon emissions, there is more bad news: a new analysis of nuclear’s carbon footprint, published yesterday in the Ecologist, finds that nuclear power–at least new nuclear power–cannot even lay claim to being a low-carbon energy resource.

All of this, of course, has serious practical implications–especially as it is beginning to become more widely understood. If we want a clean energy, carbon-free future, we’re going to have to implement a system based on clean energy.

That reality became stunningly evident in Illinois this week, where Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel joined with clean energy advocates and environmentalists in announcing a new coalition to push for clean energy in the Illinois. The Clean Jobs Coalition wants Illinois’ Renewable Energy Standard improved, from 25% by 2025 to 35% by 2030.

Some have in the past criticized Emanuel, and much of the Obama White House, as being too cozy with Exelon, the state’s largest utility and the nation’s largest nuclear utility. But as Crain’s Chicago Business reported, “Emanuel’s unusual participation in the group potentially sets up the mayor as a political foe of Exelon, which in the past has counted on Chicago politicians, notably Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, for political support at the state level.”

Exelon, it probably goes without saying, did not join in with the Clean Jobs Coalition. And the coalition recognizes that Exelon’s nuclear ambitions conflict with the coalition’s goals,

At the press conference, one of the group’s members scoffed at the notion that nuclear should be considered green the way wind and solar power are.

“Everybody knows what (clean power) is,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, a frequent Exelon critic.

Exelon has been pushing hard for a year now for some sort of bailout from Illinois, to the tune of around $580 million/year, to prop up six of its aging, uneconomic reactors and thus avoid their threatened shutdown. Exelon has been hoping the state legislature would take action to support its position this year. But now, with one of the state’s most powerful politicians joining the clean energy forces, their goal may have been pushed out of reach. After all, state agency reports intended to support Exelon’s position didn’t do so, instead concluding that Illinois would get by just fine if all six reactors were closed, and that their shutdown would spur new clean energy jobs and investment in the state.

The practical reality is that Illinois, like every other state, cannot get to 35% renewables with a grid designed to accommodate Exelon’s behemoth baseload nuclear reactors. To reach the 35% goal, those uneconomic reactors will have to close.

While a few states, well, only Ohio and West Virginia, have backtracked on their renewable energy standards, most states are sticking to them and even, as proposed in Illinois and Maryland at the moment, are working to increase them. And as renewable energy grows, nuclear power and coal are going to have to move over and make way. That’s the battle before us now and it’s why the nuclear industry’s battle against renewables is intensifying. They understand the real world, even if many of their backers don’t.

Michael Mariotte

February 6, 2015


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Filed under: energy future, Nuclear Economics, nuclear industry, Renewables Tagged: 21st century energy system, baseload power, Exelon, Institute for Local Self Reliance, nuclear’s carbon footprint, Rahm Emanuel

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