May 16, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning, and welcome to Friday Eve. Let's get to it.

1 big thing: Climate activists dismiss nuclear power

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Backers of the Green New Deal say climate change is the world’s most urgent threat, but supporters of that cause are not embracing the largest source of carbon-free power in America: nuclear energy.

Why it matters: Several nuclear power plants have closed or are scheduled to shut down prematurely due to economic challenges. These plants are being largely replaced by natural gas or coal, increasing emissions at a time when climate activists say the world needs to rapidly reduce emissions.

Where it stands: The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activist group, says the GND calls for America to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions within 11 years, a feat many technical experts say is highly implausible in the best-case scenario, let alone one where existing carbon-free sources shut down early.

“We have proven solutions to 100% renewable energy like wind and solar--we want to be prioritizing development of them. That said, we don’t want to shut down nuclear power plants and replace them with coal-fired power plants.”
— Stephen O’Hanlon, founder, Sunrise Movement, at GND rally this week

Reality check: Carbon emissions went up in Vermont when a nuclear plant shut down there in 2014, and coal and gas plants are likely to replace a Pennsylvania nuclear plant that last week announced its closure. Nuclear power provides 20% of America’s electricity, more than half of the carbon-free kind.

By the numbers: Losing all of America’s economically struggling nuclear plants — roughly half of the existing ones today — would remove so much carbon-free power from the electricity grid, it would take the next 11 years of renewables growth to make up for it. That's according to an analysis by the think tank Third Way.

The backdrop: The resistance among climate activists to nuclear power, particularly keeping open existing plants, is at odds with some more established environmental groups, who have increasingly backed these plants in the name of climate change.

  • The GND resolution in Congress is silent on specific energy types, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the influential backer of the proposal, says it could “leave the door open” to the nuclear.
  • But, O’Hanlon and other activists have been clearer they don’t support it.

The intrigue: I asked O’Hanlon if his group would ever consider holding a rally to keep upon a safely operating but economically struggling nuclear plant. He said they would need to consider that on a “case by case” basis but didn’t elaborate.

One level deeper: When asked in a followup email, O’Hanlon declined to describe his main reasons for opposing nuclear. But, the fear of an accident and what to do with the radioactive waste are big ones among the public.

2. What we’re hearing: GND rallygoers on nuclear

At the GND rally in Washington this week, I asked random rallygoers whether they think nuclear power should be part of the proposal.

The big picture: The responses were mixed and more nuanced than one might initially think of in such a crowd. The comments reflect a level of divergence on a controversial energy that’s been mostly shut out of grassroots climate activism in recent years.

What they're saying:

  • “That is a really complicated question. I personally don’t think we really need nuclear power, so I think we should stay away from it, but I don’t have ethical problems with it,” said Caroline, who like many interviewees preferred first names only.
  • “I have mixed feelings about it. It certainly needs to be discussion because it is carbon-free but there are a lot of negative consequences,” Zack said.
  • “I think there are already are existing nuclear power plants in existence and there is no reason to immediately shut them down as we transition,” Jewel noted.
  • “It’s possible, if it can be done safety and some checks on it,” Sunil said.
  • “I think it has problems, largely due to the storage issues, and number 2, based on my understanding of the advances in other technology it’s not necessary,” Rick added.

Go deeper: As climate change worsens, America faces nuclear power closures

3. Europe takes bigger share of U.S. LNG exports
Expand chart
Data: EIA and the European Commission; Note: EU figures were converted from cubic meters to cubic feet and reflect approximate values. Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

After years of anticipation, Europe is finally taking a big share of American exports of LNG as it seeks to lessen its reliance on Russian gas.

Why it matters: It gives Europe leverage with Russia, which has cut off gas supplies in the past, and also bolsters President Trump's goal of positioning America as a global energy superpower.

What they're saying: I caught up Wednesday with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, who is in charge of the EU's Energy Union. He toured an LNG export facility in Louisiana with Trump on Tuesday.

"We are at the stage when these facilities become commercially very important. We have demand. We have infrastructure in place. The U.S. now has the export capacity."
— Maroš Šefčovič

Between the lines: Per Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, "The price premium disappeared in Asia (partly as a result of the recent oversupply), which leaves U.S. LNG going to Europe, the market of last resort."

4. Lightning round: Inslee, Tesla, sleep

2020 Democrats:

  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this morning released a jobs plan largely centered on greening the economy. (BuzzFeed News)
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a plan yesterday for how the military can address climate change. (Axios)
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been aggressive on climate change and critical of Big Oil, is running for president. (Axios)

Cabinet updates:

  • Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said at a hearing yesterday he hasn't "lost any sleep" over climate change. (Roll Call and many other outlets)
  • The EPA Inspector General is set to release this afternoon a long-anticipated report evaluating first-class travel of then-Administrator Scott Pruitt's travel.

Solar flop: Elon Musk's bid to build solar panels resembling roof shingles is apparently falling flat. (Reuters exclusive)

  • The big picture: The news "underscores the depth of Tesla’s troubles in the U.S. solar business, which the electric car maker entered in 2016," via Reuters.

Fire faults: Equipment of utility PG&E caused California's deadliest fire, investigators said Wednesday. (Axios)

Pipeline protests: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rejected late Wednesday a controversial natural gas pipeline. (NYT)

  • What's next: New Jersey officials are still reviewing it, but it's unlikely to move forward.
5. Energy storage gets boost in new budget

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Axios Expert Voices contributor Sarah E. Hunt writes ... DOE's 2020 budget request reveals new initiatives for advanced energy storage technologies, which are critical to integrating more clean energy into every portion of the power grid.

Why it matters: In the DOE's assessment, deployment of these technologies has been slowed by a "scarcity of technical information on [their] economic performance."

  • The proposed efforts are meant to lower technical barriers to their adoption, helping to meet high electric grid demand by saving energy during off-peak periods from intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar.

Details: According to the budget justification documents provided to Congress by the DOE, this budget would support the following efforts...

  • Creation of an “Advanced Energy Storage Initiative.”
  • Continued research on new storage devices and materials.
  • Design and construction of a grid storage “launchpad” at the Pacific Northwest National Lab.

Watch to watch: The DOE is requesting $5 million to build the launchpad, an expenditure it will partially offset with a $2.5 million reduction in research spending elsewhere.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Hunt is the co-founder and CEO of Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy.

Ben GemanAmy Harder