To satisfy House Democrats’ low-cost solution to global warming, Americans would have to double their reliance on nuclear energy by 2030 - a target the nuclear industry says is unlikely and that many environmentalists and Democrats dislike.
That is the conclusion of a new Energy Information Administration report that looked at the House Democrats’ global warming bill. To produce enough clean energy at a reasonable cost would require construction of dozens of new nuclear power plants, even though no new plant has been built in decades.
The EIA, in its report last week, projected that to keep the costs of implementing the bill low for consumers - about $339 extra per household in 2030 according to their basic scenario - nuclear energy use would rise from 8 quadrillion BTUs a year to 16 quadrillion, or from 11.3 percent of total U.S. energy to 18.1 percent.
That’s the largest projected increase of any source of energy, even topping renewable sources such as wind and solar power, which are supposed to be the hallmark of the bill, and would mean reliance on a controversial technology.
“What this shows is that when you fail to make necessary investments in clean and renewable technologies and in efficiency measures, you are left with using fossil fuels and other anachronistic and outdated technologies, and I include nuclear in that,” said Damon Moglen, the climate campaign director at Greenpeace, which opposed the House bill as not laying out a clear enough road map to a clean-energy future.
Other environmentalists blasted the EIA report as “a fantasy.”
“This thing is completely so buried in the 20th century it isn’t even funny,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which opposes expanded nuclear power. “To assume that nuclear and carbon sequestration are going to be the low-cost sources of electricity in the future are wrong.”
He said EIA underestimated the ability of wind and solar power to expand quickly and cheaply.
But nuclear-energy proponents back the House bill and were pleased with the EIA analysis, saying it shows how critical nuclear energy will be if goals on climate change are to be met without creating massive new costs for consumers.
“You clearly cannot have a credible program to control carbon emissions without expanded nuclear power,” said Richard J. Myers, vice president of policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s advocacy arm.
Mr. Myers said the EIA model’s projection’s are not likely. It would mean 96 gigawatts of new capacity by 2030, while “what’s doable” is more in the range of 65 gigawatts, or about 45 new plants, he said.
Still, he said, the model shows that taking options like nuclear off the table means other sources get overwhelmed, and costs rise.
“To the extent you cannot build nuclear at the rate the model suggests is needed … you are dealing with a world in which electricity costs and natural gas costs are higher than they would otherwise be,” he said.
EIA is an independent analysis branch of the Energy Department, and it ran a series of models to test how the global warming bill would play out. The models that relied more on nuclear energy generally had lower impacts on the economy.
Another key variable in figuring the cost to consumers was how much of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions could be “offset” by companies paying for reductions in emissions from other countries.
Under the basic scenario EIA ran, consumer energy prices would rise about 15 percent by 2030. But under a scenario with less reliance on nuclear energy, international offsets and other alternatives, consumer prices could rise by more than 60 percent, and the hit to the U.S. economy would be three times as deep as the basic scenario, EIA said.
Proponents say nuclear energy is safe and clean and offers nearly unlimited potential, while opponents say it’s too expensive and the risk of accidents and continued problems of nuclear-waste storage make it an unworthy alternative to increased efficiency and more use of renewables.
While campaigning for president, Barack Obama said he supported nuclear power “as part of the energy mix,” but couched it by saying it must be proved to be safe, and the country must come up with solutions for nuclear-waste storage.
Earlier this year, Mr. Obama essentially ended the government’s long-standing plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, putting another roadblock in the way of nuclear energy.
The EIA report was requested by Reps. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, and Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, the two chief authors of the House bill. A spokesman for Mr. Markey said other analyses have also predicted increases in nuclear power, though not as high as EIA’s projection.
The House bill passed by a vote of 219-212. Senate Democrats hope to act on some sort of clean-energy legislation in the fall, and some senators hope to include in that bill incentives for expanding nuclear power.
Environmentalists were split on the House bill, with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club in favor, while Greenpeace was among those opposed.
Mr. Moglen at Greenpeace said the bill left too many open questions about what technologies would be needed, and that left the door open for a big expansion of nuclear. He said that’s a reason Mr. Obama “needs to lead on this issue, because it’s not right now about the science, it’s about the politics. And while Congress dithers, the planet melts.”
But groups that supported the House bill said more important than a specific road map is to set the right goals and incentives.
“Rather than trying to project precisely the mix of technologies in the future, it’s more important to get the policy right and let the market pick the technologies,” said Thomas B. Cochran, director of NRDC’s nuclear program.
But he said one key is not to have the federal government subsidize nuclear energy, and instead have it compete on its own merits. He said subsidies are appropriate for research and development on long-lead and high-risk technologies, but said nuclear technology has had 50 years to prove itself already and should be able to stand in the marketplace on its own.