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Can We Produce Enough Energy with Green Sources or Must We Rely on Coal, Oil, and Nuclear?

Ask a Scientist - April 2011

J. Fishman from Scottsdale, AZ, asks “Can we produce enough energy by using green sources, such as wind and solar power, or must we continue to rely on coal, oil, and/or nuclear energy?” and is answered by Jeff Deyette, Assistant Director of Energy Research and Analysis.

In the past year we’ve seen too many examples of just how costly our reliance on coal, oil, and nuclear energy can be. The Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the current nuclear crisis in Japan—the dangers of using these sources of energy to power our lives have been starkly highlighted, not to mention the climate impacts of burning coal and oil. The truth is it doesn’t have to be this way. There are cleaner, safer options available and ready for use today.

According to a 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report, Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy, the United States will be able to meet projected consumer demand for electricity over at least the next 20 years without building any new nuclear reactors or coal-fired power plants. The analysis shows that we can meet consumer demand by increasing our use of renewable energy resources like wind and solar and by increasing energy efficiency. This would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce global warming emissions from power plants by about 85 percent by 2030.

The UCS Climate 2030 Blueprint lays out a plan to increase renewable energy from about 11 percent of all U.S. electricity today to 50 percent by 2030, after cutting power demand by more than one-third through efficiency measures and greater use of combined heat and power systems, or CHP (generating both electricity and heat from a single fuel source—typically natural gas). Where would all this clean electricity come from? More than half would come from hydro, biopower (from plant- or animal-based materials such as crops, crop residues, trees, animal fats, by-products, and wastes), and geothermal (heat from the earth), and concentrating solar plants with storage, all of which are available to produce electricity around the clock or during periods of high demand. Wind and solar photovoltaics would produce the rest, with wind accounting for about 20 percent of the total U.S. electricity supply. These wind results are consistent with the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2008 20% Wind Energy by 2030 study, which found such a scenario feasible. Collaborative studies by electric grid operators, government agencies, and others have all found that we can reliably generate up to 20-25 percent of our electricity from variable power sources like wind and solar.

As a result of this increase in renewable energy, efficiency, and CHP, UCS analysis found that nearly all existing coal-fired power-plants could be phased out by 2030. Existing nuclear reactors would continue operating at least through 2030 (the end of our study’s forecast period). No new nuclear or coal plants were needed beyond four nuclear plants that would likely be built as a result of existing federal subsidies, 18 new conventional coal plants that are either under construction or approved, and 12 new coal plants with carbon capture and storage to demonstrate whether this technology is feasible and affordable. However, all of these new plants could be replaced with additional efficiency, renewable energy, or new natural gas plants, at a lower cost. In fact, increasing energy efficiency and expanding the use of existing renewable energy technologies would be less expensive than building new nuclear reactors. Some other recent studies have gone beyond the UCS Blueprint and found that it may be possible to phase out coal and nuclear power entirely (pdf), and even to reach 100 percent renewable energy globally by 2050.

In addition to reducing our reliance on coal, the UCS National Oil Savings Plan describes how we can cut America's projected oil consumption in half by 2030 by boosting the fuel economy of our vehicles, producing clean biofuels, and investing in the next generation of advanced vehicles that no longer rely exclusively on oil.

Clean, safe energy solutions that can reliably meet our nation’s electricity demands are available today. These technologies can save Americans money, reduce global warming emissions, and increase our national security. 

 

As the assistant director of energy research and analysis for the UCS Climate and Energy program, Jeff Deyette conducts analysis on the economic and environmental costs and benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency policies. He has a master's degree from Boston University in Energy Resource and Environmental Management & International Relations.

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