Is the energy glass half full or half empty? The answer often depends on who is looking at the glass:
- The US is now awash in natural gas, but concerns about groundwater pollution and other side effects are on the rise.
- Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan nearly caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, residents of Germany have turned against nuclear power.
- In rapidly industrializing China, reliance on coal-fired energy from older power plants has threatened residents due to the health risks of smog.
From one country to the next, different yardsticks in evaluating the energy mix will dictate extremely different energy policies, depending on affordability, availability, reliability, and environmental concerns.
The US natural gas boom has created an outlook for the low-priced fuel so positive that some pundits say the country is poised to become “the Saudi Arabia of gas.” However, the industry still faces uncertainties, according to Public Utilities Fortnightly editor Michael Burr. “Concerns over groundwater contamination and the potential seismic effects of fracking could bring stringent regulations at federal, state, and local levels,” he said.
Gas is nevertheless recognized as the “cleanest” of the fossil fuels, able to meet air quality restrictions more easily than coal. “In this gas-price environment, I don’t know how anybody builds base-load capacity that isn’t gas-fired,” David Crane of NRG Energy, which operates one of the largest power-plant fleets in the US, said in Fortnightly’s 2012 CEO Forum. “I don’t know how you justify coal or nuclear.”
“AS WE NEAR THE END OF THE 21ST CENTURY, OIL AND COAL WILL DIMINISH SLIGHTLY IN IMPORTANCE, AND NATURAL GAS, NUCLEAR AND RENEWABLE WILL GAIN SHARE.”DR. SCOTT TINKER
DIRECTOR OF THE BUREAU OF ECONOMIC GEOLOGY AND THE STATE GEOLOGIST OF TEXAS
POWER WITH NUCLEAR
But other countries clearly do believe investment in such sources can be justified, said Ken Barry of the Advanced Nuclear Technology Program at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute. Barry noted, for example, that 66 nuclear power plants currently are under construction around the globe, led by China, Russia, and India. Another 487 plants are proposed or being planned.
“These countries have evaluated the advantages of nuclear power, as well as the associated challenges, and decided to move forward,” Barry said. “The industry has learned much from the past, and next-generation designs adhere to best practices.” However, nuclear does face political roadblocks in some countries, he noted, particularly over the storage of spent fuel.
WHAT ABOUT COAL?
Despite all the alternatives, coal remains the world’s leading fuel in terms of shares of electricity generation – more than 40% – according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). As IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol wrote in the current World Energy Insight report, coal “remains the backbone of electricity generation and has been the fuel underpinning the rapid industrialization of emerging economies, helping to lift hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty.”
Rapidly emerging China has now changed from a net exporter to a net importer of coal (leading the US and India in consumption rates). But the burning of coal can exact a heavy environmental toll. “Clean coal,” plus carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, could eventually reconcile coal’s continued use with the need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Birol noted.
However, CCS remains exploratory. RWE npower, a UK energy retail business, recently marked a significant milestone by successfully capturing the first metric ton of CO2 at its Aberthaw Power Station in Wales. “This pilot plant will provide invaluable data on the viability of capturing carbon at an industrial scale, and help RWE to better understand how this technology could be used to reduce carbon emissions at coal-fired power stations,” said Kevin Nix, head of Hard Coal and Gas, UK, for RWE Generation.
AND THE ALTERNATIVES
Alternative energy sources like wind remain part of the mix, becoming more cost-effective as investment in new technologies continues. “There are a lot of things in the technology pipeline that will make wind turbines more profitable,” said Paul Dvorak, editor of Windpower Engineering. “Advances in materials and technology should make it both more energy efficient and cost effective going forward” (see related article "Capturing the Power").
A total of 553 new nuclear power plants are either under construction, proposed or planned worldwide. ELECTRIC POWER RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Industry observers also are optimistic about combined-cycle gas-fired plants (CCTGs), which offer previously unheard-of efficiencies of up to 60% (a typical coal plant is only about 33% efficient). CCTGs also start up and shut down faster, making them ideal partners to fluctuating energy sources such as wind and solar.
WHAT’S THE RIGHT MIX?
Scale is the underlying driver for countries to continue to examine their energy options. For now, experts agree that fossil fuels will remain critical for decades to come.
“As we near the end of the 21st century, oil and coal will diminish slightly in importance, and natural gas, nuclear and renewable will gain share,” Dr. Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and the state geologist of Texas, wrote in the 2011 Global Energy Utilities & Mining Conference report. “But coal and oil will still be an important part of our energy economy. They are abundant, efficient and affordable, and thus difficult to replace.”