Why We Need "All of the Above" Carbon-Free Power Sources

CC BY 2.0. Sir Adam Beck, who turned the many of the rivers of Ontario into power stations/ Lloyd Alter

More on why the 626 environmental groups demanding action on climate change shouldn't be doctrinaire.

When I recently wrote about the letter written by 626 organizations to congress demanding that they "Address the Urgent Threat of Climate Change", I worried that there were probably more people signing it than there were people reading it. I was particularly concerned about one paragraph about moving to 100 percent renewable power, that might be considered too far a reach.

As the United States shifts away from fossil fuels, we must simultaneously ramp up energy efficiency and transition to clean, renewable energy to power the nation’s economy where, in addition to excluding fossil fuels, any definition of renewable energy must also exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large scale hydro and waste-to-energy technologies.

Ontario energy mix

Hydro One Energy Mix/Public Domain

I thought this was silly and counterproductive because the fight over nuclear power is not a fight over carbon dioxide, and I have seen how one can go carbon-free. Where I live, in a Canadian province just north of the American border, fossil fuels now provide all of four percent of our electricity, while carbon-free nuclear and hydro provide over 85 percent. Surely this a good thing when our problem right now is carbon.

I quoted a tweet from David Roberts, asking much the same question, and now he has weighed in with his response, in Here’s one fight the Green New Deal should avoid for now.

He notes that there is a school of thought that says all power should be clean and renewable, and another school that says, "We can get to 50 percent, maybe 80 percent renewables, but after that, it will start getting very expensive without some of the 'firm' resources that the enviro letter explicitly excludes. They believe nuclear, CCS, biomass, waste-to-energy, run-of-river hydro, and who knows what else will eventually be needed to fully decarbonize."

Perhaps there should be a third school of thought, because biomass and waste-to-energy put out more carbon dioxide per kilowatt generated than coal. Just because the CO2 got sequestered in your pellet or plastic jug makes no difference to the atmosphere when it is burped out all at once now. But that aside, David Roberts emphasizes that "100 percent renewables is the highest result. Decarbonization is the highest result."

The overwhelmingly salient fact is that carbon emissions need to be rapidly reduced and eliminated from the electricity sector. (And everything that can be electrified needs to be.) Everyone who understands climate change understands that basic imperative....

It stands to reason that everyone who agrees on the need for decarbonization needs to speak in a single voice. The US desperately needs a bigger, louder, and more unified decarbonization movement.

Bruce Power nuclear plant

Bruce Power nuclear plant/CC BY 2.0

There is lots of clean, green hydro power that can be sent from Quebec and Labrador to the USA, but nobody in New Hampshire wants to look at the transmission lines. There are activists around the world fighting to close nuclear plants, and what we get instead is more coal being burned. Roberts concludes that we need...

...a common banner, a common understanding of the imperative to reduce carbon emissions quickly. That is the social consensus that is desperately needed. It would be a shame to fracture or conceal that consensus over non-carbon disagreements.

He's right.