The one thing that were not short of in the fight against climate change is technology. Time, yes; technology, no. As Harvard physicist Mara Prentiss wrote for the Prospect two years ago, solar, wind, efficiency retrofits, and energy storage enhancements can get us to where we need to be for decarbonization. These technologies have now gotten cheap enough that they wont require the prohibitive amount of capital investment that was once feared, while the price of fossil fuels, save for a dip during last years global lockdown, has continued to accelerate.
Whats missing from that list is the two green technologies that have become increasingly talked about as part of the Build Back Better plan: nuclear energy and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). In fact, tax credits for nuclear and CCUS are expected to feature prominently in the final draft of the bill, according to Reuters, citing three congressional staffers involved with negotiations.
At the same time, nearly every major, actionable climate standard that was once in the bill has been hammered out or ground down by sensible Democratic moderates led by Joe Manchin. The inexplicable chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has deemed the Clean Energy Performance Program (incentivizing utilities to move to renewables and penalizing those who dont) too stringent, money for proven green energy generation too lavish, and penalties for polluters too harsh (the methane fee proposal being the last to go). So alongside the remaining clean-energy and electric-vehicle tax credits, beefed-up support for nuclear and carbon capture is what Joe Biden is going to take to Glasgows COP26 climate talks as proof of the United States willingness to tackle climate change head on.
The inconvenient problem is that those technologies dont exist, at least not in any meaningful way. In the name of compromise, Build Back Better is now forgoing proven, cost-effective technologies for unproven ones, because that, evidently, is less ideological.
The inconvenient problem is that those technologies dont exist, at least not in any meaningful way.
The nuclear industry has proven extremely adept at securing a choice spot in line any time Washington gets ready to dole out bailout money. In recent months, theyve even been able to gin up favorable coverage in the countrys major media outlets. What they havent been able to do is produce much energy.
Its been over a decade since high gas prices kicked off the nuclear renaissance in the United States, with the construction of four new nuclear reactors, two in South Carolina, two in Georgia. These remain the foremost attempts to expand nuclear generation as part of the energy mix in the United States, and their status is telling. The South Carolina project, with its two reactors, has been abandoned. The only current nuclear project in development in the country, Georgias Vogtle plant, was supposed to be finished in 2016; just yesterday, its completion was delayed yet again, until September 2022. That single project has run astonishingly over budget, now clocking in at $27.8 billion and counting. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have fewer than ten years to decarbonize, a timeline thats irreconcilable with the 15 years it has taken to build one new nuclear plant.
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The nuclear industry has kicked off a new marketing campaign about small reactors that may be easier to build, though that does little for the concerns about waste, the immense amount of water that nuclear plants consume, and their placement in storm-vulnerable coastline regions in order to access that amount of water. Not to mention that compact nuclear fusion is still at the research paper and simulation stage of development.
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage has also been around for decades and is, if anything, even more theoretical as a policy. There are currently 21 large-scale CCUS commercial projects in the entire world, where carbon dioxide is taken out of factory emissions. As of last year, there were only two active carbon captureequipped power plants in the world. Petra Nova, the United States flagship coal-burning CCUS plant, based in Texas, was shut down abruptly in August of 2020. After having been cited frequently by carbon capture promoters as a shining model of success that could be replicated widely to keep coal-fired plants online and advertised as a means to use carbon dioxide emissions to improve production in nearby oil wells, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the plant failed to perform as advertised and other planned coal-fired carbon capture projects face a similar fate. This, despite the fact that Petra Nova received massive financial support from the Department of Energy.
Ending the climate crisis is not a matter of innovation; weve had clean-energy solutions for many decades.
The IEEFA report goes on to note that there was insufficient evidence that the plant really consistently captured 90% of the carbon dioxide in the slipstream it was processing, as advertised, and questioned whether the project was ever economically viable. It concludes with a warning note for investors to stay away. Power plant CCUS programs are the only ones that produce decarbonization at a rate necessary to mitigate climate change, and a stunning 95 percent of power plant CCUS projects have failed to operate. If CCUS existed, why would Elon Musk need to pledge a $100 million prize to anyone who could come up with a viable version of it?
As The New Republics Kate Aronoff pointed out, Chevron, in tandem with Shell and ExxonMobil, spent billions on a carbon capture outfit at its Gorgon liquid natural gas export plant in Australia, a condition of its permitting by the Australian government. The project was supposed to ensure 80 percent carbon capture; it has ended up capturing just 30 percent of the 15 million tons of CO generated since it started producing gas in 2016. Ian Porter, the chairperson of Sustainable Energy Now, Western Australia, told Bloomberg that the technology simply does not work at the scale and at the price needed.
Its important to note that Petra Nova was a coal plant; its captured CO was supposed to help in boosting production at its parent company NRGs affiliated oil field. Gorgon is a fossil fuel plant as well. So not only does carbon capture and storage not work or exist in any meaningful sense, but even if it did, it would only serve to preserve the status quo of fossil fuelbased energy generation. Provisioning big money for its expansion, beyond the obvious recklessness of funding an unproven solution, is effectively a giveaway to fossil fuel producers and ensures their position, protection, and profits. If anything, its underwriting their expansion. And any CO that the technology fails to capture leaks into the atmosphere, something that you dont get with truly renewable energy.
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This line of thinking, catering to existing polluting industries by funding attempts to make them sustainable, pops up elsewhere in the Build Back Better plan. On the agriculture side, theres now billions of dollars for things like methane capture from factory farms, another version of the lightly proven procedure that helps justify channeling even more money to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). All over, this bill uses dubious technology to justify throwing money at large corporations to maintain and protect the status quo.
This isnt the first time an imaginary technology has factored into a climate proposal. Hydrogen-powered cars played a nontrivial role in the energy plans of the Bush years. We were still hearing about clean coal well into Obamas first term. Although natural gas, which was initially sold as a climate solution, does actually exist, it would be better if it didnt, given the immense carbon pollution from fracking and methane leaks.
Ending the climate crisis is not a matter of innovation; weve had clean-energy solutions for many decades. What were short of most right now is time. And given the increasingly dire scientific consensus, wasting time and money on wishful thinking in the name of protecting business as usual is climate denial by a more innovative name.