Can the USA curb CO2 emissions, satisfy growing electricity demand and limit electricity costs all at the same time? Yes it can - but only if it uses a full portfolio of power technologies. That's the message from updated analyses released by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).
Updated versions of the California-based independent research institute's 'Prism and Merge' analyses suggest that the US electricity sector could potentially reduce annual CO2 emissions by 41% relative to 2005 levels by 2030, but that to do so would require sustained research and development efforts as well as aggressive deployment of the full energy portfolio. This would include coal-fired generation with carbon capture and storage (CCS), renewables and nuclear plus significant efficiency improvements throughout the electricity production and distribution system as well as improved end-use efficiency.
In numerical terms, the portfolio would see an 8% reduction in electricity consumption from end-use efficiency improvements, 45 new nuclear units, new renewables generation equivalent to a four-fold increase in current wind and solar capacity, and the use of 100 million plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs).
Prism and Merge were first released by EPRI in 2007 to provide a "technically and economically feasible roadmap" for the electricity sector as it strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Prism analysis provides an assessment of potential electricity sector CO2 reductions, while Merge identifies the economically optimum technology portfolio to achieve a given CO2 emissions constraint.
In terms of nuclear energy, the Prism analysis assumes the safe continued operation of the US 104-reactor nuclear fleet to high capacity factors, as well as life extensions for existing plants beyond 60 years and the construction of 10 GWe of advanced reactors by 2020, with 64 GWe of advanced reactor capacity being built by 2030. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already received construction licence applications for 26 new reactors since 2007 but the first is not likely to be granted until 2011.
The Merge analysis considered "full" and "limited" technology portfolios. The full portfolio assumes the availability of coal and gas with CCS available, accelerated end-use efficiency, an expansion in the use of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), and an expansion of nuclear power, while the limited portfolio assumes no CCS or PEVs, and that nuclear generation remains at existing levels. Both scenarios assume serious energy efficiency efforts and a renewable sector of over 20% by 2030. However, EPRI warns, the contribution of gas will have to expand rapidly if the availability of new nuclear and CCS is uncertain post 2020.
Cheaper in the long run
Both EPRI's scenarios could deliver the desired emission cuts, but at a price. However, the results indicated that cost to the US economy of deploying the full portfolio would be significantly lower than the limited portfolio: the full portfolio would represent an electricity cost increase by 2030 of 50% relative to 2007 prices, whereas the limited portfolio would result in a 90% hike. Projecting even further ahead, the full portfolio's 2050 cost increase would be only 80%, while the limited portfolio would soar to 210% relative to 2007 levels. According to EPRI, the full portfolio could reduce the US economy's carbon emissions reduction bill by over $1 trillion by 2050.
In a presentation to EPRI's 2009 Summer Seminar, the institute's president and CEO Steve Specker identified CO2 emissions and electricity cost as the two key metrics in defining the challenge facing the electricity industry. "Our analyses clearly show the imperative for the electricity sector to move aggressively to deploy a full portfolio of technologies that will lead to low-carbon energy future while limiting costs to the nation’s economy," he said.