Monday, May 7, 2012

Japanese Nuclear Closures Provide A Painful Lesson About A Fuel Moratorium: More Pollution Can Result

In the rabid fracking debates, demands for moratorium on fracking are common. Vermont, for example, is moving forward with a ban on hydraulic fracturing, though it has little to ban, and though it will not ban the use of natural gas within its borders.

Proponents of these measures say or imply that the USA could immediately replace with renewable energy and conservation the 26% of its total energy coming from natural gas or replace the 38% of its electric energy coming from coal or both coal and gas.  Despite the fact that the US gets 98% of its total energy from oil, coal, nuclear, natural gas, large hydro, corn ethanol, biomass, and fracked geothermal wells, proponents of a moratorium insist that saying no to gas does not mean saying yes to coal or oil or nuclear power, in the real world.

Supposedly energy conservation, solar and wind--energy sources that are my favorites too--can fill any void right now. Japan is actually testing in a way this proposition, as it seeks to replace 33% of its electric energy in one year that had come from nuclear power.

Can a country close 55 nuclear reactors in one year, representing about one-third of its electricity, and not have carbon emissions rise? The answer is unsurprisingly no.  If any country could have done it, it would have been probably Japan, given its extraordinary, even heroic commitment to energy conservation.

 As Japan stopped operations on Saturday at its last of formerly 55 operating nuclear plants, Japan reported its carbon emissions jumped 15% since 2010.  Japan had reduced its carbon emissions to 1990 levels but not any longer, after the closure of the nuclear plants.

Japan found it impossible for conservation, despite mandatory and draconian measures, to make up for all of the loss of one-third of its power generation that nuclear power had provided, prior to Fukushima.  To replace some of the lost power, Japan had to also increase the use of coal, oil, and natural gas to make electricity and so carbon emissions have risen. It had to do this, even though it is scaling up its renewable energy supply from the current level of 9% of electricity supply to 20% or more in the next decade.

While Japan had been ahead of the USA in reducing its carbon emissions to 1990 levels, it no longer is.  With emissions 15% above 1990 levels, Japan has likely fallen behind the USA, where US energy related carbon emissions are back to approximately 1997 levels.

The 15% increase in Japanese emissions represent about 180 to 210 million tons of additional carbon pollution.   While Japanese emissions are rising, just the displacement of coal by gas in the USA will reduce US carbon emissions by 300 million tons in 2012, compared to 2000.

The approximately 4 percentage point decline in coal generation market share in the USA just between 2011 to 2012 will represent about a 180 million ton carbon reduction and a net 90 million ton carbon reduction, if one assumes that natural gas increased its market share by 4 percentage points to replace the coal generation.

Japan proves once again that saying no to one fuel means saying yes to something else.  And the something else may well have higher carbon emissions than the fuel that was stopped.

In the USA, China, Poland, and many more countries around the world, where coal and oil dominate, banning natural gas means saying yes to coal and oil and more pollution.

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