The Case for a Diverse Energy Mix – The United States

At the end of last year, the world came together for COP21 and resoundingly committed to combat the pressing issue of climate change. With 177 signatures so far, the Paris Agreement has raised awareness of climate change issues among the general public, sparking dialogue regarding best approaches to achieve the ambitious goals of the Agreement.

A major focus of these discussions has been the expansion of clean energy, both in developed countries, where existing infrastructure consists largely of detrimental fossil fuel plants, and in emerging markets, which must navigate fledgling energy grids.

In the United States, this means transitioning from a system that is both firmly entrenched in coal and natural gas and spans thousands of miles of extremely diverse terrain. While solar and wind – the “traditional” renewable technologies – can be highly effective in certain conditions, not all regions in the continental United States can realize the full potential of these energy sources. Wind and solar technologies are constantly evolving, but given the intrinsically variable nature of their energy generation still face issues of energy storage.

The think tank Third Way recently produced an engaging, short video that effectively outlines the barriers facing a realistic 100% renewables scenario in the United States. Without delving into technicalities, the video succinctly surmises that pursuing a future solely powered by wind and solar by 2050 is unrealistic.

Ultimately, the video concludes that continued pursuit of renewable expansion and market penetration is valuable and necessary, but embracing other low-carbon alternatives is also vital. Specifically, Third Way highlights advanced nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies.

Though the video remains big-picture in order to engage a wide audience, these recommendations are apt. The key reason why advanced nuclear and CCS can fill “The Gap” identified in the video is that these are dispatchable energy sources.

Rather than relying on an unpredictable resource such as sunshine or gusting wind, advanced nuclear and CCS technologies rely upon electricity generated from a physical supply – specifically enriched uranium and coal – that can be ramped up to meet demand as needed. Until batteries and storage evolve further, dispatchable electricity sources are necessary to ensure reliable electricity for an entire population, especially in a geographically diverse country like the United States.

The importance of nuclear energy for the future of climate change mitigation continues to become increasingly apparent, especially for the United States. Forum on Energy encourages our readers to explore the resources behind Third Way’s video, and to share this digestible piece with as many people as possible, making a small contribution to electricity and climate literacy across a wider audience.