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  • Writer's pictureTom Mast

Future U.S. Electrical Energy Sources

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

These comments are about the sources of electrical energy in America, an industry where big changes are needed to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – the major cause of global warming. It does not include the present sources of energy for other major energy needs like heating and transportation now using mostly solid, liquid, or gaseous fossil fuels. #climatechange

Electrical energy sources are particularly important because the climate change pathway forward appears to include using more electrical energy for tasks now being supplied by non-electrical means, like electric cars and heat pump heating. So, the electrical portion of total energy used will be greater than it is now, and we must not only to plan to phase out most of fossil fuels, but plan for the industry to grow considerably.

What changes have we seen in the last decade or so in the data above?

  • Other: Geothermal, Biomass, etc., plus Hydro. None seem destined to grow noticeably anytime soon. Hydro, the most important now at about ¾ of this category is restricted by limited river sites. Geothermal is discussed often, but is not widely available.

  • Wind and Solar: After an intense growth period of a decade or more, these two total 12% of electrical energy. They can grow more, but both sunshine and wind are intermittent and unpredictable; absent huge developments in energy storage, they have to be backed up by other sources of electrical energy. It has become increasingly obvious recently that these intermittent sources alone do not provide the energy security that people demand.

  • Nuclear: There do not seem to be obstacles to using nuclear sources for generating electrical energy in abundance. See more on nuclear below.

Why have the U.S. as well as much of the rest of the world seemed to have overlooked this the nuclear source to replace much or most of fossil fuels usage?

Nuclear is emotional and frightening to people for several reasons: a few highly publicized accidents, a difficult-to-understand process, nuclear waste, and weapons. Its accident record as a fraction of the amount of energy it has already generated really ranks very favorably compared with many other industries we live with daily; there are data available. The other issues are manageable, especially so when compared with what we hear about the dangers of climate change.

Nuclear power has had a spotted history. For example, Germany was relying heavily on it, and then decided to phase it out, getting most of that done just in time for Putin to begin cutting the country off of its very important dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. Interestingly, neighboring France is heavily invested in nuclear energy. The U.S. hasn’t seemed to be able to make up its mind.

Most nuclear plants around the world have been huge. They are commonly custom designed, something that almost always makes a project go way over budget, suffer severe completion delays, and have quality problems.

New technologies have been under development for many years, and China is going on-line with its first two Small Modular Reactors. Terra Power chaired by Bill Gates has made remarkable progress and expects in the future to be able to produce a plant in two years. Of course, small reactors have been used in ships for decades with excellent results. This SMR technology has some real advantages. Most of the components can be mass produced in factories to have higher quality and lower costs; the machinery for their manufacture is relatively small and transportation of the components is straightforward. A design can be standardized, speeding manufacture and construction and reducing costs. Larger plants can by created simply by using up to ten SMRs as modules. The SMR makes a lot of sense for developing countries, something very important in the coming decades since it doesn’t make sense for global warming for developing countries to be using coal and other fossil fuels just as the developed countries are fazing them out. Also, SMRs can be safer than large, one-off nuclear plants. #SMR

Nuclear power seems to be the obvious selection for dependable, well understood, non-intermittent, reliable, and free-from-carbon dioxide energy. Let’s give it the priority it deserves.

Reference: Small Modular Reactors by Daniel T. Ingersoll


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