My Turn: Government must boost coal, nuclear power
Given the newfound bonanza of oil and natural gas in shale deposits across the country, Americans might be forgiven for believing that the nation’s energy problems are over.
Unfortunately this is not the case. An active role for the federal government is needed to help achieve energy security and retain America’s edge in energy technology. Economic and environmental concerns – climate change, ensuring low-cost electricity and leading in two critical export industries – justify a concerted effort to boost domestic production of coal and nuclear power.
Although President Obama took an antagonistic position toward coal during his first term, U.S. coal production was not affected, as coal exports continued to go up. Nor did Obama’s preference for renewable sources have much affect on nuclear power, which accounts for 19.2 percent of the nation’s electricity generation and is still the world’s largest nuclear energy program.
Here in New Hampshire, coal and nuclear power continue to serve us well, supplying about 60 percent of the state’s electricity, safely and reliably. But that won’t last for long, and our economy will suffer unless the government shows more support for coal and nuclear power.
In the years ahead, a cost-sharing partnership with private industry will be needed to achieve the promise of advanced clean-coal technologies and small modular reactors that can be built for a fraction of the cost of large nuclear plants. Coal and nuclear technologies are financially viable for a full range of energy companies in this country, and their development will position the United States to be a world leader in the commercialization of new and innovative power-plant designs.
To be sure, our nation’s energy future has become considerably brighter as a result of the enormous growth in oil and gas production. But we will continue to need a balanced mix of energy sources in order to hold prices down. Especially natural gas, with a history of price volatility, is a reminder of what could happen if we become heavily dependent on a single energy source for electricity production and neglect coal and nuclear power.
Keep in mind that as many as 15 companies are seeking licenses from the Department of Energy to export up to a third of domestically-produced natural gas to Europe and Asia.
Most of the companies want to convert liquefied natural gas terminals, which were originally built for LNG imports, into export facilities. Because utilities and manufacturers will be competing for domestic gas supplies, the Energy Information Administration forecasts an increase in gas prices that will be borne by American consumers once exports begin.
In a policy brief for the Stanford University Institute for Policy Research, Frank Wolak cautioned that investing in natural gas export facilities “is a bet against what U.S. firms excel in – developing and commercializing new technologies and products.”
The overall efficiency of U.S. power plants has been rising for years. Thanks to steady improvements in coal technology, airborne emissions have continued to decline. The cleanest plants, called combined-cycle coal-gasification plants, convert coal into gas, which is burned to generate electricity. These units have been built in several states and overseas, and are up to 12 percent more efficient than conventional coal plants.
The upshot is that we’re getting more power from less coal. And since they’re more efficient, coal gasification results in less greenhouse-gas emissions.
Concurrently, the performance of nuclear plants like Seabrook have improved steadily over the past decade, to the point where they are producing electricity, on average, more than 90 percent of the time.
Working to realize further advances in coal and nuclear technology will require government support. However, federal spending on energy research and development last year was down by $357 million.
It’s time to raise the budget for energy programs so that coal and nuclear power can continue to play an important role in our nation’s energy supply.
(V.K.Mathur is a professor emeritus in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Chemical Engineering.)