by Daniel B. Poneman
The United States and other countries have set their sights on building a clean energy future. Whether that transition unfolds slowly or accelerates is an open question. But over the long run, most experts agree that we must head toward a low carbon energy future — not simply to avert catastrophic climate change, but also to reap the economic benefits of clean energy.
One of the implications of the changing landscape is that making long-term decisions based on short-term considerations will prove to be a costly mistake. It may not be raining very hard today, but that’s no reason to throw away your umbrella.
A perfect example of this phenomenon is the decision being made in a number of states to retire nuclear power plants — a decision that drives up air pollution, increases dependence on fossil fuels, undermines the reliability of the power grid, and likely will raise costs for consumers over the long term.
Our country’s 99 nuclear reactors are uniquely valuable because they do not emit carbon and provide “always on” base-load energy, with far fewer outages than any other source of electricity. Unfortunately, however, electricity markets across the US either undervalue these attributes — or place no value on them at all. In many parts of the country, it is becoming increasingly difficult for nuclear power plants to compete with fossil fuel plants that are allowed to emit unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere without penalty. The true price of those emissions is paid by society through health bills and insurance claims, storm response and recovery, and reduced productivity and quality of life.