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Published: Wednesday, 10/15/2008

ON THIN ICE

Options for replacing coal are few, costly

But new power-generating technologies making a dent

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Efforts to curb greenhouse gases that cause global warming have sparked interest in new technologies, rejuvenated pleas for energy conservation, and resulted in development of co-generation projects in which steam from one industrial facility is captured and used to generate electricity at another.

But when it comes to replacing coal-fired power plants that are the country's biggest source of greenhouse gases, there are not many viable options.

At least for now.

Although wind power is the fastest-growing form of energy production, it commands less than 1 percent of the national market.

The goal of wind-power proponents is someday to command a 6 percent market share.

Renewables diversify the energy mix. They complement other sources of power. They are making an important contribution, providing clean kilowatts.

READ MORE: On Thin Ice -- How global warming is changing our world

Some even offer added benefits beyond a megawatt or two of electrical power, such as those which make use of garbage and landfill methane gas.

But they'll never replace baseload sources of power unless someone invents a way of capturing the electricity they produce and storing it for when it is needed later.

Even then, the economies of scale are overwhelming, given that it would take 365 of the utility-scale, 1.7-megawatt, wind turbines west of Bowling Green to produce more electricity than FirstEnergy Corp.'s coal-fired Bayshore power plant in Oregon, which has a capacity of 620 megawatts.

Every megawatt of electricity produces nearly enough power for 1,000 homes.

An inescapable obstacle is a supply of reliable, around the clock energy. A certain amount of power has to come from baseload sources that produce it. And, with today's technology, those continue to be mostly coal-fired power plants, nuclear plants, hydroelectric plants, and plants that operated off natural gas.

The nuclear industry has promoted itself as a carbon-neutral panacea for climate change, hiring onetime Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as celebrity spokesmen. Both have touted nuclear as a way to generate more electricity without making global warming worse.

Nuclear plants don't emit greenhouse gases if you strictly limit the discussion to operations.

But there's one huge asterisk the industry's chief lobbyist group on Capitol Hill, the Nuclear Energy Institute, doesn't like to talk about.

Tons of greenhouse gases are emitted in the mining of uranium and the subsequent milling and packing of it into reactor-core fuel rods. Tons of greenhouse gases are emitted in the construction phase of nuclear plants, which require more concrete and steel than almost any other structure.

And tons of greenhouses gases will be emitted from future shipments of spent radioactive fuel to a long-term repository, whether that is Nevada's Yucca Mountain or someplace else. That's no small amount, either: There already is enough spent fuel stockpiled for interstate shipments to occur by rail or truck for 40 years.

Even so, Barack Obama and John McCain both see a new fleet of advanced nuclear reactors as a key component of their energy plans. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expecting to receive applications for as many as 45 new nuclear plants by 2030.

There are now 104 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. Many, including Davis-Besse in Ottawa County, are on the downside of their original 40-year licenses and are seeking 20-year extensions.

"I am convinced, first, that nuclear energy is essential to our nation's energy security and, second, that energy security is a keystone of our national security," retired Navy Adm. Frank L. "Skip" Bowman, the nuclear institute's president and chief executive officer, said this month at a meeting in Washington hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"As you all know, national security involves more than protection against external military threats. Positive national security includes public confidence in our nation's economic prospects, confidence that we can sustain economic growth, and confidence that we can create jobs and promise our people a higher standard of living," he said.

Last Oct. 8, Mr. Bowman acknowledged support the nuclear industry had received from both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain during their debate the night before. He described nuclear power as a technology that "provides nearly 75 percent of carbon-free electricity generation."

He also acknowledged the nuclear industry's greatest deterrent: costs. DTE Energy estimates the cost of building a new reactor on its Fermi complex north of Monroe to be $10 billion today, more than three times the figure that accompanied the project's announcement in early 2007. And costs are likely to rise, given that those projects are expected to take four years of review and six years of construction.

The nuclear industry fell into a 30-year period of stagnation because of cost overruns affecting the existing fleet of plants. Wall Street became nervous about investing.

Nearly 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gases are produced by coal-fired power plants, by far the most of any in the utility sector.

In Canada, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty surprised some people by calling for Ontario's five coal-fired power plants to be phased out by 2014.

The province wants to establish itself as a Great Lakes leader for reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It hopes to make up the difference largely with greater investments in hydroelectric power and wind power, according to Jennifer Keyes, manager of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources' renewable energy section.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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