Why Nuclear isn’t an Answer for Climate Change

Overall, nuclear power has been on the decline for a number of years. Of the 99 reactors online in the US in 2016, only one had been built since 1996 and it looks unlikely that more will be built. This month, Massachusetts closed their last nuclear power plant in Plymouth. This closure is part of a national trend for nuclear power, as plants in Pennsylvania and Illinois also close ahead of schedule, and another estimated fifteen to twenty plants are likely to close early over the next ten years. The industry is facing mounting pressure both from environmentalists concerned about the dangers posed by nuclear power plants, and from dropping energy prices driven by fracking and new energy sources.

Nuclear Less Cost-Effective

Nuclear power plants are tightly regulated and expensive both to build and to repair. Their main fuel source, uranium, is also costly to obtain and to enrich before it can be used. When nuclear was competing against coal, these figures were cost effective. But the rise of cheap natural gas from fracking, and the plummeting costs of other renewable energies like solar, have brought energy prices down to a point that nuclear power can’t compete with in states with an open electricity market.

Safety Concerns

There is some controversy among environmentalists about closing nuclear power plants. On one hand, they do reduce our carbon emissions, which is something the world sorely needs right now. But when nuclear power plants fail, they can have catastrophic consequences. Infamous incidents like those at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima gave many second thoughts about using nuclear power. The immediate impact of a meltdown is devastating, but the long-term consequences may be worse. Chernobyl will not be habitable anytime soon, estimates range from a minimum of several hundred years up to several thousand before the radiation levels are safe for humans to live in the area.

In addition, nuclear materials are often cited as a national security threat from would-be terrorists using them to make a nuclear or “dirty” bomb.

No Long-Term Radioactive Waste Disposal Solution

Even when nuclear plants are operating as designed, they put out hazardous waste that remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. The US currently has no long-term storage solution for this waste; most is stored at the power plants themselves. And recently, there has been a proposal by the federal administration to classify radioactive waste as a lower threat level so it can be more easily disposed of at a lower cost. This is a concern for many states that have waste dating back to World War II, as “The new rules would allow the energy department to eventually abandon storage tanks containing more than 100m gallons (378m liters) of radioactive waste in the three states, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.” This waste would not be buried as previously thought necessary, and the tanks of waste would remain a threat to nearby residents.

A Better Way to Reduce Carbon

Ultimately, the best argument to keeping nuclear plants is to reduce our carbon footprint. But the health and safety costs of nuclear energy are too high, and we don’t have a solution to deal with the radioactive waste produced. Nuclear is no longer cost effective.  We do have access to other lower-cost, carbon-free technologies, like solar and wind. It would only take installing solar panels on about 17,500 square miles of the US’s roughly 3.7 million square miles of landmass (or about 0.4%) to power the country. This year, the US passed the two million installation mark in the solar industry, and the industry is still growing.

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How Third-Party Suppliers Soured the Clean Energy Market

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A Guide to Choosing Clean Power in MA

Utilities and energy are a complicated space, and for a busy consumer it can be confusing when trying to make a switch to cleaner energy. In particular, third party suppliers with inflated rates and shady tactics have been an ongoing problem in Massachusetts. Poor experiences with them have turned many customers into skeptics, but there are legitimate ways to reduce your carbon footprint with your electricity choices.

What is competitive supply?

Utility bills are split into two parts – delivery and supply. Delivery is what you pay the utility to be connected to their grid, and have energy brought to your home. Supply is what you pay for the actual energy you use. By default you get your “supply” from the utility itself, but to try and avoid monopolies, Massachusetts also allows what is called “competitive supply” or “third-party supply.” This means getting  the supply portion of your bill from another company that’s not the utility. The problem comes when this supplier has a variable rate – that is, their pricing is set “…at the discretion of the competitive supplier.” Some residents that have used these suppliers may have joined looking at a rate that was much lower than the utilities, only to have it jump up above the utility “standard offer” rate a short time later, leaving them worse off than they started.

What are legitimate clean energy offerings?

Some suppliers may market as being a clean energy offering, but they usually have a mix of energy that is not 100% renewable, and they will often be priced at a slight premium. There are better ways to know you’re choosing clean energy.

Solar

Perhaps the most obvious one is to install a solar array yourself – you know what’s being produced is clean energy that’s feeding directly into your meter. But for many people, solar requires good credit or a large upfront payment or their home is not sited well for solar.

RECs

A REC, or Renewable Energy Certificate, is defined by Mass Climate Action as  “… proof of purchase for the attributes of renewable energy generation.” An individual, company, or nonprofit that wants to cut their carbon footprint can buy RECs to offset their usage. This is a way to directly support clean power projects because the project owner gets the money for the RECs, thereby raising the project’s value.

Community Solar

Community solar, or community shared solar (CSS,) is a way to share the benefits of a solar array with multiple participants in a given region. Participants generally save money by getting a discount for on-bill credits that offset their utility bill. A host with good siting for solar will install the array; this installation is supported by the participants who invest or buy credit from the farm. This form of solar is meant as a solution for those who cannot install a solar array themselves. Currently this is one of the best ways to both support local, clean solar energy and benefit by getting electricity bill savings.

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Corporate America is Going Solar (and Wind)

There are a slew of major companies that have been choosing to invest in solar this year. Corporate responsibility is becoming more important to consumers, plus it makes financial sense.

Amazon

The online shopping giant installed solar panels at its fulfillment centers in the U.K., producing enough to power 4,500 homes and offsetting 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. And although it’s not solar, they’re also going green by purchasing the power produced by three wind farms to power data centers. “The new trio of wind farms will add to Amazon’s existing portfolio of nine utility-scale renewables projects, totaling more than 1,000 megawatts. AWS has a long-term target of reaching 100 percent renewables across its global footprint, and is already halfway there.”

Disney

Disney has pledged to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2020 – to that end, they’ve installed a solar field capable of producing over fifty megawatts. That’s enough to meet 25% of Disney World’s power needs.

Starbucks

Starbucks has partnered up with Cypress Creek to invest in several solar projects. These developments will produce 70 megawatts, enough to power 360 cafes in Texas. The coffee chain had previously used a similar model, investing in a project in North Carolina to power 600 stores.

Walmart

Walmart has installed about 150 megawatts of solar, with the goal of reducing their emissions by one billion metric tons by 2030.

Target

Target might take the cake, with a whopping 203.5 megawatts of solar installed. They have also worked to bring over 1,000 of their stores up to the Energy Star standard, and report their carbon emissions each year to the Carbon Disclosure Project.  

There are many more big names that are investing in solar – Ikea, Apple, Kohl’s, and Costco, to name a few. Solar isn’t just for hippies or do-gooders, it just makes financial sense, and more and more companies are making the switch.

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Why Coal Plants are Going Out of Business

Coal plants are struggling to keep up with the fast paced changes in the energy sector, despite federal efforts to prop them up.

Coal Doesn’t Make Economic Sense

  • It’s expensive to build and run coal fired plants
    • “In many areas, it is not cost-effective to building a coal plant: Increasingly, building a new solar or wind farm is cheaper than just operating an existing coal plant.”
    • The average coal fired plant in America is 43 years old, meaning they require lots of maintenance and run less efficiently.
  • It’s important to acknowledge the decline, and to plan how we want our power grid and economy to develop.
    • A town in Montana had proposed to purchase a struggling coal plant a few years back, fearing what it going under might do to the economy.

Can We Use Decommissioned Plants?

  • Coal plants suddenly shutting down could cost jobs, and burning coal causes contamination at the old sites.
    • There have been some creative solutions – to avoid losing around 1,600 jobs, Acme Equities LLC purchased an old coal plant in New Mexico that was about to shut down for $1.
      • They plan to keep the plant running, but install carbon capture technology and sell off the CO2 as an additional revenue stream.
    • A coal plant in Germany was faced with a similar issue.
      • They’re investigating turning the old plant into molten salt storage unit – basically a huge battery that would preserve the coal plant jobs and also add storage capacity for renewable energy.

What’s Taking Coal’s Place?

  • There are several drivers of coal’s decline. Although GDP is up, energy usage has remained fairly flat due to efficiency increases.

Cheap natural gas and explosive additions to our solar and wind capacity are a more economically feasible way to meet our current energy demands.

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Fighting Climate Change for Kids’ Sake

We’ve Left it up to the Kids

Children and teenagers have gone on strike this past Friday to protest inaction on climate change. Around the world, young protestors like Greta Thunberg feel that we’ve reached a tipping point and they must take action into their own hands, even though they are not yet out of grade-school.

What they’ve had to say is powerful. Greta’s speech included moving lines like this:

  • “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes…Because the adult generations have used up all our carbon budget.

What’s the Impact of Inaction?

The IPCC’s climate report gives us ten years to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and it’s had a big impact on these Generation Z activists, who are mostly aged in their mid teens. In ten years’ time, they’ll be in their mid twenties and dealing with the repercussions of older generations’ inaction.

These bleak prospects have a real impact, even beyond the climate. The United States has an aging population, and young people have cited climate change as a concern for having children. Business Insider conducted a poll which found

  • Nearly 38% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that climate change should be a factor in a couple’s decision about whether to have children. And 34% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 44 agreed.

What Can We Do?

By powering most of the world on electricity that comes from wind and solar and other renewable, carbon-free sources and offsetting things like plane travel that have to use fossil fuel with higher prices and carbon capture, we can put a stop to the worst of climate change.  “It’s 2050 And This Is How We Stopped Climate Change” outlined a clear vision of the future:

  • “This is the foundation of a zero-carbon world: Electricity that comes from clean sources, mainly the sun and the wind, cheap and increasingly abundant. Today, it powers this house; tomorrow, it could drive the world.”

The good news is that we still have a few years to turn things around, and we have the solutions we need to do it – all that’s missing is action.

  • “In order to have impact, timely impact, I figured that I need to leave research and focus on impactful things that I want to do. And fast,” she says.

As consumers and citizens, we can also have a big impact. Voting, both at the polls and with our dollars, combined with individual choices on things like transportation, are powerful ways to combat climate change. One easy switch to make is to support the transition to clean energy through community solar, which is becoming increasingly available in many states.

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Climate Change isn’t the whole problem

So much of the discussion around clean energy currently focuses on climate change and pricing, but we shouldn’t forget another important reason to “go green” – pollution. Fossil fuels and nuclear produce dangerous pollutants which have a direct impact on our health and the sustainability of our planet.

Coal

  • Coal use is declining, but we still get almost 30% of the country’s power from it.
  • Coal extraction uses harmful techniques such as mountaintop removal and strip mining, which pollutes water sources and damages ecosystems.
    • Underground coal mines pose threats to safety from collapse and methane leaks.
  • Burning coal releases heavy metals such as mercury, as well as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates
    • These pollutants are linked to respiratory illness, neurological damage, smog and acid rain.

Natural Gas

  • Natural gas burns cleaner and more efficiently than coal, but it still emits pollutants and accounts for about 32% of our energy.
  • The extraction of natural gas can be problematic.
    • Laying pipelines to transport natural gas requires clearing land, and when the pipelines leak they release methane, a strong greenhouse gas.
    • Hydrogren sulfide is burned off, or “flared,” when extracting natural gas, which releases varying pollutants
    • Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, uses a fluid that contains unknown chemicals – only 28 states require the disclosure of some of the chemicals in fracking fluid. This fluid can leak and pollute water supplies.
  • Fracking has also resulted in earthquakes at wastewater injection sites.

Nuclear

  • Some says nuclear energy could help with climate change, but we should not take the potential health risks lightly.
  • Used nuclear fuel emits dangerous levels of radiation long after it’s used and there is currently no long-term solution on where and how to store this waste.
  • Nuclear meltdowns may be relatively infrequent or unlikely, but when they happen they’re disastrous.
    • Incidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl have a high human cost, and render cities uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

Solar is a Solution

  • The guaranteed lifespan of solar panels is twenty to twenty-five years, which is much better than many consumer electronics such as cell phones or laptops, and in many cases they can be recycled.
  • Using the sun for energy doesn’t emit water, air, or carbon pollution.

You can help Fight Climate Change by joining a Community Solar Farm.

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3 Easy Changes to Help New Year’s Climate Resolutions

2019: The Year to Take Action

Every January we set goals for our new year. With all the news about our environment’s future that came out in 2018, maybe one of your resolutions was to be greener. We’re here with our top picks for easy ways to fight climate change and save money.

1: Say NO to Single-Use Plastic

Plastic pollution is a major concern – from news on single use plastic bans to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we’ve all heard the scope of the problem. There are many ways we can tackle this.  First and foremost when asked “Paper or Plastic?” at the store, the answer is “Neither.”  Bringing (or buying at the store) your own re-usable bag will help reduce plastic waste. If you have to use plastic bags, try to re-use them and then they can be recycled at most grocery stores.   Another cost effective and easy switch you can make is to buy in bulk. It cuts down on packaging, even more so if you bring your own reusable container to the bulk aisle.

2: Take a Walk (Or Bike)

According to the EPA,A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.” And according to the Energy Information Administration, the average household spent about two thousand dollars on gas in 2017. If you’re able to, committing to walking or biking on trips under a mile will save you at the pump, and as an added bonus you’ll make some progress on your fitness resolutions too.

3: Support the Switch to Clean Energy

Electricity accounts for twenty eight percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and residents of Massachusetts pay one of the highest rates for it. Often people like the idea of clean energy, but are concerned it’s too expensive or complicated. Community solar is a different way to “go solar,” designed to remove obstacles. By participating in communal fields of panels, residents of Massachusetts can save money, guaranteed and fight climate change with no investment and no installation. And community solar doesn’t conflict with choosing a green electricity supplier.

Get Paid to Keep This New Year’s Resolution:
Fight Climate Change

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The Benefits of a Green Power Grid

Skeptics of clean energy argue that more technology like solar and wind on the grid would mean instability, higher prices, and economic harm. But moving to a more sustainable power grid hasn’t caused the destabilization or issues critics predicted. In fact, the transition has come with many benefits beyond mitigating climate change. These include lower and more stable energy prices, as well as resilience to natural disasters and other interruptions.

California, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado are a few of the states that have seen a lot of success with community solar programs. They have overcome some of the obstacles in accessibility like pricing and siting that rooftop solar faces, and community solar distributes the financial benefits of solar more equitably than rooftop solar does.

But it’s not just traditionally “blue” states that have had success integrating clean energy. Texas, Alabama, Iowa, and Idaho have also been leaders in installed capacity. Texas is a great example, it hit a milestone with 18% of its energy coming from wind and solar. “The 18 percent number matters because for years critics of renewable energy have argued that grid costs and reliability will spiral out of control before we hit 20 percent wind and solar. But in Texas, retail electricity prices have actually decreased, coming in well below the U.S. average.” If a conservative state like Texas can make wind work to their benefit, it seems like we should be able to follow suite in other states too.

And all signs seem positive that we can move beyond the twenty percent mark with no ill effects. “…a succession of rigorous studies — including a widely cited two-year study conducted by the DOE itself in 2012 — has found that renewables can provide as much as 80 percent of the nation’s energy supply without disrupting a properly managed grid. And that doesn’t mean that 80 percent is the upper limit of renewables — it indicates only that levels beyond 80 percent weren’t thoroughly investigated.” In fact, there are some aspects of solar and wind generated power that make things more stable. Once a solar or wind farm is built, operating costs are low and predictable, helping to even out electricity prices. They are also less vulnerable to major outages as they are more spread out and “modular,” meaning a natural disaster taking out some plants won’t stop overall production.

As we see more success stories, the reasons are piling up to transition to clean energy. Adding lower prices and more stable service to the benefits of renewable power makes it more broadly appealing; climate change isn’t the only motivator anymore.

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