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Energy clean sweep, continued


As researchers and industry work to develop commercial-scale low-carbon energy solutions, debate remains over where nuclear power might fit in the mix. Some climate scientists and other stakeholders suggest that including nuclear in the energy portfolio would benefit national security, the environment and the economy.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers are considering lifting a decades-old moratorium on building new nuclear power plants in the state, placing UW-Madison faculty – renowned for their depth of knowledge of nuclear energy – at the center of a conversation over nuclear’s future role.

Paul Wilson, a professor of engineering physics and interim chair of the Nelson Institute’s Energy Analysis and Policy certificate program, studies the technical and policy aspects of nuclear power and has spoken broadly on the topic. The risks posed by climate change warrant a new look at “the next generation of safe nuclear technology,” Wilson wrote in December in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a collaborative column with Jack Williams, a professor of geography and director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research. The pair called nuclear power “an essential element of a climate-safe and business-friendly energy portfolio.”

“A big focus of innovation is
overcoming bottlenecks, so it
would be a mistake to think of
technologies as frozen in time.
They get better, and more
innovation effort would help.”

“It is doubtful Wisconsin – and the nation — will be able to reduce carbon emissions to safe and acceptable levels without nuclear power,” Wilson also said in January in the Wisconsin State Journal. Nuclear energy today provides more than 60 percent of the country’s low-emission electricity, and estimates suggest U.S carbon emissions would be 27 percent higher without nuclear power.

The construction of nuclear plants is costly, though, and concerns remain over the associated dangers of nuclear power, including the catastrophic effects of nuclear accidents. More than 170,000 residents were evacuated from the area of the most recent accident, occurring in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, and 1,000 square kilometers of surrounding land, or 386 square miles, are still considered uninhabitable.

But some climate advocates say that the risks of nuclear energy can be reduced by placing nuclear plants in geologically stable regions and using the latest technology. They contend that nuclear’s risks pose less of a threat than the harm caused by unconstrained greenhouse gas emissions, while other environmentalists argue for a 100-percent renewable energy approach.

Nemet cautions that writing off certain technologies too quickly – even those with obvious problems – could interrupt advancements toward climate adaptation and mitigation.

“A big focus of innovation is overcoming bottlenecks, so it would be a mistake to think of technologies as frozen in time. They get better, and more innovation effort would help,” he says. “Nuclear power today is expensive and we have not agreed on what to do with the spent fuel, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way.”

In the end, Nemet says, all options should be considered. The historical record of technological change suggests that focusing on one or two silver bullet technologies would be misguided, “in large part because almost every technology creates new problems when deployed at very large scale,” he explains, “and we need massive deployment of low-carbon energy to meaningfully address the climate problem.”

“The challenge of decarbonizing the world economy – or even a local economy – is incredibly large and will play out over many decades,” he adds.


Urban low-emission leaders

Cities consume 78 percent of energy worldwide, making them a paramount factor in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And many are leading the charge.

Frankfurt Germany
By 2050, all of Frankfurt, Germany’s energy will
originate from renewable, mainly local sources,
resulting in a 95 percent decrease in emissions.

Over a third of 162 global cities surveyed by CDP, a nonprofit organization aimed at driving sustainable economies, currently draw more than three-quarters of their electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. Several have completely transitioned to 100 percent renewable energy: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Curitiba, Brazil (a country with 15 fossil fuel-free cities); Greensburg, Kansas; and Reykjavik, Iceland.

Frankfurt, Germany, which topped the inaugural Sustainable Cities Index from the Center for Economics and Business Research, has curbed carbon emissions by 15 percent since 1990 while increasing its economic power by 50 percent and its office space by 80 percent. By 2050, all of Frankfurt’s energy will originate from renewable, mainly local sources, resulting in a 95 percent decrease in emissions.

A growing body of research suggests that a shift to chiefly renewable energy can be feasible and cost-effective. One recent study, published in January in the journal Nature Climate Change, posits that wind and solar energy could power most of the United States by 2030 without raising electricity prices, and cut electricity-sector carbon dioxide emissions by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels.

In Burlington, environmental and economic factors drove the switch to renewable energy, a local utility representative said in an interview with PBS NewsHour, and will likely save the city $20 million over the next two decades. Utility rates there haven’t increased since 2009.


Hot topic: Energy and climate resilience

Energy sector adaptations don’t stop at curbing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate global warming. The effects already induced by a changing climate also require response.

Coming off Earth’s hottest year ever recorded, and with global temperatures forecasted to continue to rise, seasonal energy demands are in flux. Higher summer temperatures and increased cooling needs are expected to raise peak electricity demand and hike costs.

In September 2015, for example, as most of the United States experienced record and near-record warmth, temperature-related energy demand rose 80 percent above average across the country, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Wind turbines on horizon
With global temperatures forecasted
to continue to rise, seasonal energy
demands are in flux.

“From a global perspective, it’s quite clear that climate change will lead to an increased demand for cooling that will offset the decline in demand for heating,” says Associate Professor Greg Nemet.

A dramatic increase in access to electricity and air conditioning in the developing world, as well as growing demand for goods like food that must be refrigerated during transportation and storage, also contribute to the increased demand.

Michael Shellenberger, who will discuss climate policy and action at the Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference in April, spoke about this challenge in a recent interview with Allianz Journal.

“Adaptation to global warming is going to require more energy. But more energy demand also boosts technological innovation,” he told Allianz. “In the long run, innovation accelerates the decarbonization of energy, and thus the joint goals of climate stabilization and human development.”

Meeting increased global demand, Nemet says, will involve a combination of better efficiency in energy end-use, more energy supply, a greater share of that supply met by electricity, and possible changes in behavior.

A changing climate is also likely to place greater stress on energy infrastructure and delivery through sea level rise and an uptick in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, from hurricanes to severe drought to heavy rainfall and flooding. Minimizing energy vulnerabilities will require a more resilient – and possibly different – grid system, Nemet says, “in which disruptions have more local effects, rather than broad, cascading ones.”

Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, has met with several Wisconsin utility managers as they plan for a changing climate. He says one wild card is an expected increase in wintertime precipitation falling as freezing rain rather than snow, “which can bring down power lines and wreak expensive havoc.”


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