Report pushes for future with no coal, less nuclear

Source: Manuel Quinones, E&E Reporter • E&E • Posted: Friday, November 18, 2011

The United States would save more than $80 billion over the next 40 years by committing to renewable energy, according to a report released yesterday by the think tank Civil Society Institute.

The document, prepared by Massachusetts-based consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics Inc., envisions the retirement of all coal-fired power plants by 2050, along with a quarter of the nation’s nuclear energy fleet. Natural gas use would grow, but more slowly, compared to what the study calls a “business as usual” scenario.Republicans and many Democrats, including President Obama, have called for an all-of-the-above energy strategy, relying on fossil fuels while the United States makes the transition to cleaner energy. The report, an update of another study released last year, is meant to convince politicians and other policymakers to scrap conventional wisdom.”Business as usual — that is, a continued reliance on fossil fuels — is not going to be as cheap going forward as it has been in the past,” Geoff Keith, a Synapse senior associate and one of the report’s authors, said in a conference call with reporters.Keith said the report predicts higher coal and natural gas prices, making them less attractive. It presents a transition scenario where increased efficiency slows the growth of electricity use and boosts savings. The nation would also rely more on solar and wind power, including offshore wind farms.”The results of this analysis are encouraging,” the authors wrote. “We find that a transition to efficiency and renewable energy in the power sector is likely to be less expensive.”The Synapse analysis does not rely on any technological breakthroughs or carbon reduction efforts, such as clean-coal research. The authors say coal-related pollution would decrease and industry would save more than $100 billion by retiring coal plants rather than retrofitting them with environmental controls.Coal foes are touting the report as support for their push toward other energy sources. “Those who rely on scare-tactic assertions about ‘not keeping the lights on’ and ‘higher energy bills for renewables’ need to join us in a fact-based transition to a healthy, affordable energy future,” Vernon Haltom, an activist against mountaintop-removal mining and head of Coal River Mountain Watch, said in a statement.

The seven authors of the report range in expertise from scholars in environmental studies and public policy to experts in economics and planetary sciences. They rely on information from government sources, agencies, utilities and other researchers. They say their conclusions are likely to change with new information about energy sources and prices.

The findings are likely to be interpreted as overly optimistic, especially by energy industry leaders. Many point out that coal remains a cheap and abundant source of power, creating thousands of mining jobs along the way.

The Energy Information Administration predicts coal will continue to account for the largest share of electricity generation through at least 2035.

“This [EIA] report underscores the important role that coal will play long into the future,” said Steve Miller, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement earlier this year. “Coal will continue to be America’s fuel for decades to come because it will remain affordable, reliable and will be used in an increasingly clean manner.”

The use of nuclear power, EIA says, will also increase.

But Civil Society Institute President Pam Solo said the new report shows that many policymakers are wrong about the cost and difficulty of a renewable energy future. Solo has advocated against nuclear weapons and was campaign director in the 1980s for former Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado.

“The truth is that America can and should embrace a workable and cost-effective future that is built on safe, renewable energy,” Solo said in a statement. “Not only is it feasible and less expensive to do so, but we really have no other choice as a nation, given the concerns about coal emissions, natural gas ‘fracking,’ and nuclear reactor safety.”

Click here to read the Synapse report.