Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On the Role of Nuclear Power in Climate Change Mitigation

Nuclear power has always been a contentious subject among parties in the climate debate. Pragmatists, among whom I count myself, expound the importance of nuclear power expansion to supply near-zero carbon baseload power. Idealists think we can achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by mid-century by using renewables, smart grid, and happy thoughts.*

An article today in the Washington Post illuminates how this debate is playing out on capitol hill, with Republicans weary of supporting any climate bill that leaves out significant incentives (such as federal loan guarantees and federal support for training workers at nuclear plants) for nuclear power. Interestingly, it seems the Senate's nuclear proponents are even more optimistic than those in the nuclear industry when it comes to the question of how many plants we can expect to build in the next 30-40 years: Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wants 100 new plants (doubling the nation's current capacity), while nuclear industry finance experts place the most optimistic estimates at around 50 by 2035.

This leads to an interesting demand-side management problem: nuclear plants are designed to provide continuous baseload. With a much higher percentage of electricity coming from nuclear, utilities will need to find ways to utilize that power at night when demand is at its lowest. One option would be to install electric water heaters, a method France uses to absorb its electricity output at night (it uses upwards of 75% nuclear power). Another would be using that electricity to charge electric vehicles (more of a long term goal).

Another interesting snippet from this article is that for nuclear to be a more attractive option than gas-fired plants, the price of natural gas must be above $7 per 1000 cubic ft. Right now, the price is about half that. The volatility of this price point notwithstanding (see figure), I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of carbon tax would be needed to make nuclear and gas-fired plants break even. With natural gas having an emissions coefficient of 116 lbs CO2/1000 cubic ft (from the EIA) and a price of $3.5/1000 cubic ft, a carbon price of $60/ton would make nuclear the more attractive option for additional generating capacity development. And that includes a huge assumption about natural gas prices staying constant: accounting for the uncertainty in price would make nuclear the more attractive option with a much smaller (if any) carbon price.

*The author apologizes to anyone she's offended with her snarkiness.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Human rights today, climate change tomorrow

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal questions President Obama’s recent softening on human rights negotiations. Bret Stephens cites Obama’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama, softening positions on Sudan, Burma, and Iran as appeasement to China. Mr. Stephens feels the goal of these compromises is to get China at the table in Copenhagen for climate negotiations in December.

The claim is serious. Currently, there are nearly a million Sudanese refugees. Approximately 110,000 Tibetans live in exile. 50 million Burmese live under a brutally repressive regime.

However, Stephens never asks why Obama is making these sacrifices for climate change. He should have instead asked if preventing climate change is worth turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Climate change will have a disastrous impact on human welfare. The IPCC AR4 report states, “In the year 2000, climate change is estimated to have caused the loss of over 150,000 lives”. Impacts will be higher in the future: by 2050, the an estimated 133 million people will be at risk of hunger because of climate change. Decreased freshwater availability in Asia, due to melting glaciers, “could adversely affect more than a billion people by the 2050s”. And by the end of the 21st century, climate change will increase the number of people flooded in coastal populations by 80 million.

Enough of the scary forecasts. Bottom line: climate change is expected to increase the suffering of hundreds of millions of people. The real question is: how much are we willing to increase suffering today to reduce suffering tomorrow?

An easy answer is that we’re not willing to compromise at all on human rights. Human rights compromises lead to a slippery slope that undermines our moral character. Although this is a noble position for an individual to take, it is an impractical position for the U.S. government. International diplomacy requires compromise. Not compromising equals inaction, which will increase suffering from climate change.

Economists deal with this problem by discounting future lives, just as you discount the costs of future purchases because of inflation. OMB suggests federal agencies adopt a 3% discount rate on statistical lives for regulatory policies that impact human health.

A 3% discount rate means 15 million deaths in 2009 equal 50 million deaths in 2050 and 122 million in 2080. Are we willing to sacrifice the human rights of 15 million today to prevent the suffering of 50 million in 2050? How should we, as a society, value future human lives?