Climate Strategy: Every Dollar Counts

While some believe we shouldn't act at all because the price will be too high, other research suggests inaction would be far more costly. But both sides of this debate are wrong if we choose the best buys first, because then the cost of climate protection will be negative -- not a cost but a profit.

Investing in energy efficiency -- energy-saving buildings and appliances, lighter cars, smarter industrial processes, and cogeneration, for example -- can actually generate profit and create jobs, simply because it's cheaper to save energy than to buy it.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, is so costly that despite new Federal subsidies rivaling or exceeding the total cost of new plants, no private investor is willing to risk capital to build them.

Most people have come to understand the risks imposed on our climate if we continue to use coal-powered electricity. Burning coal releases around 0.9 kg of CO2 per kWh. That's a lot -- even oil-fired power plants release only around 0.6 kg of CO2 per kWh.

Nuclear power is often offered as the solution -- it does not release significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere (19 recent studies found an average of just 0.066 kg of CO2 per kWh to build the plants and run their fuel cycle), so why not use lots of it to replace coal power?

Setting aside nuclear's other problems, this might make sense if it were the only virtually carbon-free option, but it's not; other ways to do the same thing are cheaper, faster, and bigger.

While nobody knows how much a new nuclear plant would cost today (because not many have been built recently), the Keystone Center's industry-led 2007 study, "Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding," estimates the levelized cost (the present value of the total cost of building and operating a generating plant over its economic life) to be between 8.3 and 11 cents per kWh put into the grid.

At that price, we'd be displacing 9-12kg of CO2 per dollar (assuming each kWh produced from nuclear displaces one kWh produced from coal). That might sound pretty good. By spending $1 on nuclear power we could displace 9-12kg of CO2.

But let's look at nuclear's competitors. By spending $1 on energy efficiency (at the widely observed price of 1-2 cents per kWh saved) we could displace up to 10 times as much CO2 per dollar spent (93 kg). Recovering waste heat from industrial processes and using it to cogenerate electricity would save around 31 net kg of CO2 per dollar, and wind power would save 13 kg of CO2 per dollar.

Many other opportunities to save or generate energy displace far more CO2 per dollar than nuclear because nuclear power is far more expensive than these alternatives. Moreover, nuclear power is rapidly becoming costlier--the latest utility and Wall Street estimates approach twice the Keystone figures used above--while many of the competitors are getting cheaper.

It all comes down to opportunity cost -- the impossibility of buying two different things with the same dollar at the same time. Since society only has so much money to spend on tackling climate change, each dollar spent poorly reduces our ability to reduce emissions in the future. Based on the costs and installation speeds actually observed in the marketplace, spending a dollar on new nuclear power displaces about 2-11 times less carbon, about 20-40 times slower, than spending the same dollar on efficiency, renewables, and cogeneration.

So let's spend wisely.

By: Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins and Bennett Cohen

Image Credit::Eric Skorupa

For more coverage of RMI and climate strategy, see the following TreeHugger archive links:

Profitable Climate Protection
Rocky Mountain Institute's 25th Anniversary: Celebrating Solutions ...
Designing Radically Efficient and Profitable Data Centers
Introducing Rocky Mountain Institute's First Guest Post
Beating the Energy Efficiency Paradox (Part I)

Related Content on