Suppose the leaders of this country were wise enough to put a moratorium on traditional coal (the most urgent climate policy needed, as discussed here)? How will we meet our steadily growing demand for carbon-free power over the next decade? And to get on the 450 ppm path, we don’t just need to stop U.S. emissions from rising — we should return to 1990 levels (or lower) by 2020.


Nuclear is an obvious possibility, beloved of conservative Francophiles like McCain and Gingrich, but energy realists understand that it is very unlikely new nuclear plants could deliver many kilowatt-hours of electricity by 2018, let alone affordable kwh. Indeed, back in August, Tulsa World reported:

American Electric Power Co. isn’t planning to build any new nuclear power plants because delays will push operational starts to 2020, CEO Michael Morris said Tuesday …

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Builders would also have to queue for certain parts and face “realistic” costs of about $4,000 a kilowatt, he said …

“I’m not convinced we’ll see a new nuclear station before probably the 2020 timeline,” Morris said.

And that in spite of the amazing subsidies and huge loan guarantees for nuclear power in the 2005 energy bill (see here).

As for the $4,000 a kw capital cost — and the related electricity price of about 10 cents per kwh — mid-2007 has already turned into the “good old days” for nukes. Utilities are now telling regulators that nukes will cost 50 to 100 percent more than the AEP estimate, as I’ll report in a couple of weeks.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One very good source of apples-to-apples comparisons of different types of low- and zero-carbon electricity generation is the modeling work done for the California Public Utility Commission on how to comply with the AB 32 law (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act), online here. AB 32 requires a reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The most valuable document is probably the “Generation Costs,” although the slides for the recent May 6 presentation are fascinating.

The research for the CPUC puts the cost of power from new nuclear plants at 15.2 cents per kwh. It also puts the cost of coal gasification with carbon capture and storage at 16.9 cents per kwh. In any case, given its immature state and the mismanaged federal effort (see “Bush drops mismanaged ‘NeverGen’ clean coal project“), coal with CCS won’t be providing much power by 2020. At this point, it would even be pure speculation to say that coal with CCS will be one of the low-cost options in the 2020s.

So what do we do in the near term to meet the projected 1 percent annual increase in demand over the next decade while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions? There are only three plausible options, and we’ll need them all: Energy efficiency (including cogeneration), wind power, and concentrated solar power (CSP).

By “plausible,” I mean capable of delivering power affordably and quickly — and that means having no obvious production bottlenecks (unlike, again, say, another well-known power source). The goal is to fund technologies and boost industries that are capable of scaling up to deliver hundreds if not thousands of gigawatts of carbon free power by mid-century. No surprise that these three sources account for a (slight) majority of the wedges I propose for 2050.


Energy efficiency is the cheapest alternative. California has cut annual peak demand by 12 gw — and total demand by about 40,000 gwh — through a variety of energy efficiency programs over the past three decades. Over their lifetime, the cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2-3 cents per kw. If every American had the per capita electricity of California, we’d cut electricity use some 40 percent. If the next president aggressively pushes a nationwide effort to embrace efficiency and change regulations to encourage efficiency, then we could keep electricity demand close to flat through 2020. That is particularly true if we include an aggressive effort to push combined heat and power.

A May presentation [PDF] of the CPUC modeling results shows that energy efficiency could deliver up to 36,000 gigawatt-hours of “negawatts” by 2020 (that is the equivalent of more than 5 gw of baseload generation operating 80 percent of the time). At the same time, the state could build 1.6 gw of small CHP and 2.8 gw of large CHP. So that is nearly 10 gw of efficiency by 2020. If this were reproduced nationwide, efficiency would deliver more than 130 gw of efficiency by 2020.


Power purchase agreements for wind power are currently averaging 4.5 to 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour, including the federal wind tax credit, which is a fair comparison in the near term to new nuclear, which itself gets huge subsidies, loan guarantees, and liability protection (this does not include transmission costs). Even unsubsidized, and with the recent price rise that most power sources have seen, wind power is delivering power at 7.5 to 10. The country has thousands of gigawatts that could be delivered for under ten cents unsubsidized. Just 300 gw by 2030 would provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity. The world added 20 gw last year alone, with over 5 gw in this country.

Yes, wind power is intermittent, but the country has a great deal of baseload power, and many regions of European countries integrate up to 40 percent wind power successfully. An August 2007 review of actual windpower integration by utilities in this country, “Utility Wind Integration and Operating Impact State of the Art,” found that the integration cost in eight different major wind projects, ranged from 0.2 to 0.5 cents per kwh. Moreover, as we electrify transportation over the next two decades with plug-in hybrids, the grid will be able to make use of far larger amounts of intermittent, largely night-time zero-carbon electricity from wind. So post-2030, windpower should be able to grow even further.

(Note: On Monday, the wind industry is releasing a major report on achieving 20 percent of our power from wind by 2020, so I will be doing a longer discussion of this core climate solution then.)


I have previously written about concentrated solar power at length. It has come roaring back after more than a decade of absence with more than a dozen providers building projects in two dozen countries. Google is placing a large bet on CSP. Utilities in the Southwest are already contracting for power at 14 to 15 cents/kwh. The modeling for the CPUC puts California solar thermal at 12.7 to 13.6 cents/kwh (including six hours of storage capacity) — and at similar or lower costs in the rest of the West.

A number of players are adding low-cost storage that will make the power better than baseload (since it delivers peak power when demand actually peaks, rather than just delivering a constant amount of power 24/7). More importantly, CSP has barely begun dropping down the experience curve as costs are lower from economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve (see experience curve discussion here). The CPUC analysis foresees the possibility that CSP could drop 20 percent in cost by 2020.

A 2006 report [PDF] by the Western Governors Association “projects that, with a deployment of 4 gw, total nominal cost of CSP electricity would fall below 10 cents/kwh.” And that deployment will likely occur before 2015. Indeed, the report noted the industry could “produce over 13 gw by 2015 if the market could absorb that much.” The report also notes that 300 gw of CSP capacity can be located near existing transmission lines. As an aside, wind power is a very good match with CSP in terms of their ability to share the same transmission lines, since a great deal of wind is at night, and since CSP, with storage, is dispatchable.

Finally, a brand new report from Environment America, Solar Thermal Power and and the Fight Against Global Warming, explains how the United States could achieve 80 gw of CSP by 2030, which is not even what I would consider to be a true stretch goal given how dire the climate situation is.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.