Grow Up and Emulate China on Energy

Robert Ehrlich

President Obama has recently requested funding for two new nuclear reactors – the first to be built in 30 years in the U.S. This follows his State of the Union speech in which he expressed support for new safe nuclear plants, clean coal, and off-shore drilling for oil and gas. All three proposals have considerable merit, and complement rather than undermine progress towards more renewable energy and a sustainable future.

The burning of coal, if it is to be truly clean, must be coupled with carbon sequestration. This is likely to be a major technical and economic challenge. However, if it can be done at reasonable cost in a manner that assures a relatively permanent sequestration, then coal can make a significant contribution to a clean energy mix. Most observers agree that no one solution will solve our energy dilemma, and that it will be a considerable time before we are able to wean ourselves from coal, which accounts for nearly two thirds of our electricity generation.

President Obama’s support for new, safer nuclear plants may be the largest source of disappointment among anti-nuclear activists. However, the public opposition to building new nuclear plants has steadily faded since Chernobyl. In 1975, 60% of the public opposed them, while only 35% oppose them now. Moreover, the technical improvements envisioned in the new generation of nuclear plants solve most of the problems of the earlier “second” generation of plants. Reactors with a fuel cycle based on a thorium rather than uranium appear to be particularly promising in terms of ore abundance, lack of need for enrichment, proliferation prevention, breeding properties, solution to the waste problem, and protection against catastrophic accidents. Who is pursuing thorium reactors? The main action is in India and China. India plans to increase its nuclear power (mainly thorium) by 2050 to 25% of its total energy production, while China plans to build dozens of nuclear reactors in the coming years, and it hosted a major thorium conference in 2009.

Off-shore drilling is likely to prove nearly as controversial in some quarters as the other two proposals. However, the US transportation sector currently relies almost entirely on oil, and it is dangerous and fiscally ruinous for the US to have an increasing reliance on oil imports. The possibility of shifting entirely to electric vehicles will depend largely on further improvements in batteries at an economical cost, and consumer acceptance of a limited vehicle range. The best hope for moving away from oil may eventually be biofuels, but in the interim, relying more on domestic oil sources (along with energy conservation and hybrids) seems like a sound policy. Energy independence, and renewable energy in particular, have great support among the US public, who favor it for reasons that go well beyond preventing climate change: Fully 85% favor federal incentives to promote renewable energy, while many believe that the media is exaggerating the effects of climate change.

President Obama has gone on record in support of greatly expanding U.S. efforts in researching and deploying more renewable energy, an area in which we have been significantly behind a number of nations. In particular, the Chinese have not only set emission reduction targets by 2020 almost three times as stringent as ours but have been backing up their rhetoric with real actions. As reported in the January 31, 2010 New York Times “China vaulted past competitors in Denmark, Germany, Spain and the United States last year to become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, and is poised to expand even further this year. China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. And the country is pushing equally hard to build nuclear reactors and the most efficient types of coal power plants.”

President Obama’s declared policies are now strikingly similar to those of the Chinese, with two important exceptions. He has not renounced binding limits on CO2 emissions, whether congressionally mandated or internationally agreed upon. But the idea of going full steam ahead on renewable energy, trying to develop really clean coal and pursuing new safe nuclear plants may actually promote the goal of reducing CO2 emissions far better than arbitrarily chosen binding limits, whether nationally or internationally set.

Robert Ehrlich is a physics professor at George Mason University, where he teaches a course on renewable energy.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.