Last Wednesday, Exelon announced that the last nuclear reactor operating at Three Mile Island (TMI) would close by September 30th. For those still living with fear after what is described as the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, this sounds like cause for celebration. Those concerned about lung, heart, and brain diseases, as well as the environment, however, might want to think twice before breaking out the Champagne.
Air pollution already accounts for over 8 million annual deaths worldwide, and since 1986 oil and gas accidents have resulted in over $8 billion in financial damages. Coal use will increase immediately as Pennsylvania and surrounding states still rely on those dirty and toxic plants for base-load power. The increase in coal use, along with the increase in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from additional reliance on methane, aka “natural gas”, can cause 100 premature deaths annually, because of TMI’s premature closure. Mark Szybist, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “We’re at a point where if nuclear retires immediately, we would probably replace it with natural gas generation because we haven’t sufficiently planned to replace it with something cleaner.” Unfortunately replacing Three Mile Island’s output with fossil methane will dump an additional 3.2 million tons of CO2 emissions into Pennsylvania’s air every year. Should a $50 per ton carbon price come into place, swapping Three Mile Island’s functioning plant with fossil fuels will tack on an additional social and environmental price tag of around $350-$500 million.
Nuclear power currently supplies just over 19% of U.S. electricity, while producing zero CO2 emissions. For comparison, all non-hydro renewables together totaled about 8.5% of U.S. electricity generation. It’s tempting to imagine the United States replacing nuclear power completely with more renewables but, according to Dr. Michael Shellenberger, that scenario isn’t just unlikely—it’s currently unfeasible. Solar farms take up 450 times more land than nuclear power plants to produce the same amount of energy, while wind farms take 700 times more land.
Shale-fracked methane gas has dominated new energy builds and that’s a climate disaster. But many environmentalists are still confused. Fossil gas consumption is healthier for humans in the short term than coal, but when more than 1% of the fracked gas leaks into the atmosphere unburned its greenhouse climate damage is worse than coal. There are leaks everywhere in the system from the well to the burner and in the 100 year old cast iron pipes beneath our cities. Many places leak 7% of their gas unburned, such as Southern California, but the overall industrial “fugitive emissions” numbers are unreported or industry self-reported with unbelievable variances.
Another bad reason to favor fossil methane is the momentary cheap price. Bloomberg shows the fracking business, built on 0% interest rate, is now losing money and forced to accelerate borrowing Ponzi-style. It’s dangerous to increase our addiction to fracked methane at affordable prices.
There are good reasons why gas wins, for now: Smaller budgets for construction. Less uncertainty in construction cost.
For nuclear power to expand in the future, it needs to match those qualities and that is easy to do. Nuclear, like gas, will be very easy to construct on schedule, due to use of factory-built transportable equipment made of standard parts. When an effort is made to manufacture and ship small nuclear power plants, they outperform natural gas economically around the world, as well as in safety and climate impact.
However, policies that encourage green energy often exclude nuclear power, leaving zero-carbon plants unable to compete against cheaper fossil fuels. Companies like NuScale Power hope to reverse that trend by building small modular reactors, which can be mass-produced quickly at low cost. A 2018 study by MIT suggests that decarbonization without nuclear will be costly and slow, as we must build out more renewable storage to replace existing, functional, and safe zero-emissions nuclear plans.
Andrew Place, of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, found that at a 1% annual changeover rate replacing the energy loss from Three Mile Island with alternative clean energy sources would take 5-11 years alone. With climate change already damaging our coastal cities, burning our wilderness, and hurting our vulnerable populations, air pollution is a global and local health hazard. We are committing suicide!
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Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States have pledged to phase out subsidies – but many are still in place
By Lin Taylor
LONDON, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The world’s major industrial democracies spend at least $100 billion each year to prop up oil, gas and coal consumption, despite vows to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, a report said on Monday ahead of the G7 summit in Canada.
Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – known as the Group of Seven (G7) – pledged in 2016 to phase out their support for fossil fuels by 2025.
Electricity, the thing we all use but don’t really notice, has unexpectedly become a hot topic under President Trump.
Why it matters: His administration is mulling bailouts for coal and nuclear power plants in a questionable attempt to strengthen the electricity grid. Meanwhile, this winter’s cold snaps drove up New England’s power bills and Puerto Rico is still grappling with one of the world’s worst power outages. Here’s a primer + glossary to help light the way.
Energy vs. electricity
They’re not the same thing. Energy is the type of resource used to make electricity. Once they’re in the power lines, electrons are the same regardless of whether they came from wind turbines or coal plants.
America’s electricity resource mix is increasingly diverse: Natural gas and coal are each about 30%, nuclear power 20%, and renewable energy makes up most of the rest.
The electricity grid
This is a catch-all phrase describing America’s electricity infrastructure, most visibly through the power lines you see along the road.
The grid isn’t monolithic. Several, mostly separate, power grids exist across the country. Within each grid, there are different types of markets. Some are set up in an auction-based system where electricity sources compete, and others are not.
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9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, but more countries are taking action
Air pollution levels remain dangerously high in many parts of the world. New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) released today, shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Updated estimations reveal an alarming death toll of 7 million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.
“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”
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Multimillion dollar project will scan and make public methane leaks from oil and gas plants that are a major contributor to global warming
Methane leaking from oil and gas facilities around the world – a major contributor to global warming – is set to be spotted from space.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has announced it aims to launch a satellite called MethaneSAT by 2021 to scan the globe and make major leaks public. That information will then enable governments to force action, EDF hopes. Building and launching the satellite will cost tens of millions of dollars, but EDF says it has already raised most of the money.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term, and is responsible for about a fifth of human-caused climate change. The oil and gas industry is to blame for about a third of anthropogenic methane emissions, from fracking and other exploration sites, and from leaky pipelines. Read more
Sometimes air pollution is easy to see. It billows off the top of smoke stacks, and out the tailpipes of cars zooming down the highway. Misty smog hangs in the air in cities like Delhi, Beijing, and Los Angeles, fracturing sunlight into a muted haze.
Most of the time, though, dirty air just looks like air. About 92 percent of the world’s population, and more than half the people in the United States, live in areas with unhealthy air quality. The World Health Organization calls air pollution the world’s “largest single environmental health risk,” and it leads to the premature deaths of millions annually. It’s a major public health problem for reasons you might expect: breathing in dirty air isn’t good for your lungs, and the the connection between the lungs and the cardiovascular system means it puts pressure on your heart, too.
But it’s increasingly clear that the effects of air pollution aren’t constrained to body parts below the shoulders—they can hurt the brain in a whole host of ways, many of which researchers are still trying to understand. One major area of interest? The way exposure to polluted air can affect the cognitive development of babies and children. Researchers aren’t shocked to find that an environmental toxin could harm young brains, because they’ve seen it happen before.
“To me, air pollution is kind of the next lead, in a way,” says Deborah Cory-Slechta, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester. Read more
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For now, however, we’re still moving in the opposite direction: Carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil and natural gas increased 1.4 percent globally in 2017 after holding steady for the previous three years, the International Energy Agency reported on Thursday. That’s the equivalent of adding 170 million new cars to the road worldwide.
The energy agency, which called the findings “a strong warning for global efforts to combat climate change,” detailed several big reasons CO₂ emissions are increasing again. Here’s a look at the main ones:
Emissions are rising fastest in Asia
Roughly two-thirds of last year’s emissions increase came from Asia, where fast-growing countries like China, India and Indonesia continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels as they lift themselves out of poverty.
China, which is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s industrial greenhouse gases, saw its emissions rise 1.7 percent in 2017, fueled by rapid economic growth and an increase in oil and natural gas use. The rest of developing Asia, including India and Indonesia, saw their overall emissions increase 3 percent.
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Nearly every country in the world regulates air pollution. But how much pollution control is enough? Answering that question requires considerable information about the costs as well as the benefits of regulation. Historically, efforts to measure benefits have focused on averting major health insults, such as respiratory or cardiovascular events that result in hospitalizations or death, which typically only afflict the most vulnerable segments of the population. These health episodes are clearly consequential—e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 avert an estimated 160,000 deaths and 86,000 hospitalizations annually—but may only represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg, compared to the number of cases of respiratory impairment and other health insults that affect many healthy people every day but do not require hospitalizations or even formal health care encounters. The ubiquity of these less lethal impacts, revealed by emerging economic research on labor productivity and human capital accumulation, suggests that even modest impacts at the individual level can add up to considerable, society-wide impacts across the globe.
For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health addresses the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil pollution. Through analyses of existing and emerging data, the Commission reveals pollution’s severe and underreported contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. It uncovers the economic costs of pollution to low-income and middle-income countries. The Commission will inform key decision makers around the world about the burden that pollution places on health and economic development, and about available cost-effective pollution control solutions and strategies. Read more
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