DOE Chief: Nuclear Power, Clean Coal Technology Key to Reducing Emissions

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry on February 28 said nuclear power and the use of clean coal technology are the way to combat climate change and reduce emissions from the energy sector.

Perry, speaking at a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., with Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), said, “We believe that you can’t have a serious conversation about reducing emissions without including nuclear energy and carbon capture technologies.”

Birol, in comments to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee later Thursday, supported Perry’s position and added, “We are not in a position to pick up our favored technology today. We need all those: renewables, nuclear, CCUS [carbon capture, utilization, and storage] and efficiency.” Birol pointed out that Perry’s home state of Texas gets 15% of its power from wind and solar resources. The U.S. Department of Energy has said Texas’ wind generation capacity is greater than all but five countries.

Perry and the Trump administration have been vocal in supporting coal and nuclear power generation. Perry said Birol agrees that making the use of fossil fuels cleaner through carbon capture technology is necessary because fossil fuels will continue to be important for global power generation.

Perry and Birol held the Thursday press conference to announce two new initiatives supporting carbon capture and nuclear power. Perry announced a $24 million effort to advance what he called “transformational” carbon capture technology. The money will be used for industry research into emissions-reduction systems.

“By 2040 the world will still rely on fossil fuels for 77% of its energy use. Our goal is to produce them in a cleaner way,” said Perry. “These projects will allow America, and the world for that matter, to use both coal and natural gas with near-zero emissions.”

Carbon Capture ‘Most Vital’ Technology

Birol told the Senate committee later Thursday that carbon capture is the “most vital” technology of any to reduce carbon emissions. He said the “end of the coal age” is nowhere in sight, in large part due to the number of coal-fired power plants that have come online in Asia in recent years.

Birol said there is “a growing disconnect” between climate change targets and “what’s happening in real life.” He noted that power plant emissions have declined in the U.S., though they continue to rise worldwide.

“In the last 10 years, the emissions reduction in the United States has been the largest in the history of energy,” he said at Thursday’s press conference, noting the decline is “almost 800 million tons.” But his agency last year reported that global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) grew by 1.4% in 2017, a year-over-year increase of 460 million tonnes, reaching an all-time high of 32.5 gigatonnes.

The Rhodium Group, an independent economic data and policy insight research provider, has said U.S. emissions rose slightly in 2018, though it said the increase was due to strong economic growth and inclement weather, including extreme cold and extreme heat that raised demand for electricity and heating, which in turn drove emissions higher.

New Test Reactor

Perry also Thursday announced the launch of a new test reactor, which he characterized as a “key step” in implementing the Trump administration’s aim to “revitalize the nuclear energy industry.” The reactor will be used to help industry test new nuclear energy reactor designs, in support of a new generation of nuclear power plants.

“The Versatile Test Reactor is a key step to implementing President Trump’s direction to revitalize and expand the U.S. nuclear industry,” said Perry. “This cutting-edge advanced reactor will give American companies the ability they currently lack to conduct advanced technology and fuels tests without having to go to our competitors in Russia and China.”

Birol said the U.S. should strive to maintain a leadership role in global nuclear technology. He told the Senate committee that China would become the “number one nuclear power” if the U.S. does not take steps to support nuclear technology. “It is a critical juncture for nuclear in the U.S.,” he said, noting that ceding the nuclear power market to China “would be detrimental to both energy security and clean energy objectives.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).