Energy Policy

Greenpeace adviser discourages use of clean coal and nuclear to reduce warming

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepares to issue its fourth assessment, expected to emphasize humans' contributions to global warming, Greenpeace has released a report commissioned by the German Aerospace Center entitled, "Energy Revolution: A Blueprint for Solving Global Warming." Meant to coincide with the IPCC findings, the Greenpeace report seeks to provide solutions to climate change with an international focus on renewables. During today's OnPoint, John Coequyt, energy policy specialist for Greenpeace USA, discusses the details of the "Energy Revolution" report and explains why clean coal and nuclear should not be a focus for lawmakers in the push to curb the effects of global warming. Coequyt also addresses critics' claims that the recommendations in the report are lofty and not feasible.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is John Coequyt, energy policy specialist at Greenpeace USA. John, thanks for joining me.

John Coequyt: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: John, Greenpeace recently released a report by the German aerospace center called "Energy Revolution: A Blueprint for Solving Global Warming." In a nutshell, what does the report say? How can the world's energy needs be met?

John Coequyt: What the report shows is that with the aggressive energy efficiency and implementation of renewable energy resources we can basically solve global warming. We can reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide by 50 percent by mid-century. And in the U.S. we'd reduce them by about 72 percent. That isn't what's possible in the U.S., that's just where our blueprint gets us. That's what's technically needed.

Monica Trauzzi: What do you mean it's not possible?

John Coequyt: We think a lot more can be done in the U.S. to reduce emissions. We think there are a lot of options with renewable energy that we didn't have to put on the table. What we're saying here is that this is possible, this is -- the potential exists to deploy renewable energy to the extent that we can reduce emissions by 72 percent. But the potential is much larger than that if we wanted to go further. What people generally say on renewable energy and efficiency is that it's part of the slice, but it's not possible to go that far with renewable energy. And what we're saying is it can go very far. It can do much more than let's needed. And what we need to do is get on with deploying those emissions, those reduction technologies as soon as possible.

Monica Trauzzi: The report discourages the expansion of clean coal and nuclear. Why shouldn't these have a place in our push to wean ourselves off of oil and help the environment?

John Coequyt: Well, the reason that they're not in there is because the timeframe that we're talking about is so tight, we have to begin moving immediately to reduce emissions. And particularly with coal technologies, those technologies are at least 10, 20 years away before they can be deployed in any large scale. And our concern is that in the meantime we don't get going on renewable energy because everyone is focused on this silver bullet that is clean coal. With respect to nuclear technology, so far what we've seen from that industry is empty promises, failure to deliver. We still don't know what to do with the waste. The costs are very high. The reactor being built in Finland is one year into construction. It's already one year behind time. It's been very expensive. It's actually causing financial difficulties for the French company that's constructing it. So we don't think that that's a useful way to go. We think that the bulk of the focus now has to be on deploying renewable energy technologies and bringing down electricity demand and demand for oil.

Monica Trauzzi: So should we stop trying to pursue IGCC plants and nuclear power? I mean how do we work it? Do we just put all our emphasis on renewables and all our money towards renewables?

John Coequyt: Well, we clearly think that we need to put all their money towards renewables. All the public money needs to go towards renewables and efficiency. There's probably a case to be made to continue to study carbon capture and storage technologies, particularly because there is this potential that we're going to miss the target and we're going to need to take carbon dioxide out of the air. A combination of biomass and carbon capture could be a good way to do that, certainly a lot cheaper and easier than just purely filtering it from the air. But at this point we don't believe that that technology should be receiving the bulk of the funding as it appears to be lining itself up for in certain bills and with backers in Congress.

Monica Trauzzi: But coal is so plentiful, doesn't it make sense to go that route because we have a lot of it in this country?

John Coequyt: Coal is plentiful, but that doesn't mean we should pursue it. And nothing is as plentiful as renewable energy resources. The sun shines down on all the states. The wind blows all over the country, offshore. The Midwest has at least three times the wind resource that we need to power America. So we don't think that just because there happens to be a lot of coal in the ground is any reason to pursue that technology. And particularly when you look at the environmental destructiveness that's caused by, say, mountaintop removal and even the coal mining in the West. It's not a good thing to be doing. It's not something we want to be pursuing. You know, coal kills about 24,000 to 30,000 people a year. It's a bad technology. Renewable energy is a much better way to go.

Monica Trauzzi: Are the safety issues associated with nuclear a concern to you? Is that one of the reasons why you're not pushing that in the report?

John Coequyt: Yeah, the safety issues have always been at the top of the list, but there's a growing number of concerns now. I mean certainly what we saw in Russia in Chernobyl reminds everyone of the dangers, but nuclear proliferation is a huge problem. There's concerns about terrorist attacks on existing power plants. In fact, there was just an NRDC decision -- or NRC decision the other day that maybe we don't need to harden these facilities anymore because we're not concerned about airplanes flying into them. But the fact that the industry has to respond to these things shows that the list of concerns is growing. And, again, we still don't have a solution to the long-term storage of nuclear waste.

Monica Trauzzi: Some critics of your report call it wildly optimistic. Is what you lay out really feasible?

John Coequyt: We certainly think it is. We've been working with DLR, our German aerospace industry, for about five years now trying to figure out how to make this work. What we've seen is in Europe and parts of Germany and parts of Denmark 40 percent of the electricity comes from renewable resources, mostly wind. And they feel that they can go higher than that, so we don't think that that's the problem. The problem is that the grid right now is set up for large, basically baseload power plants and we need to move in a different direction. We need to distribute our energy resources. We need resources that are more flexible and we need to move away from these large coal and nuclear power plants. If we do that renewable energy can meet the needs of all our electricity.

Monica Trauzzi: In his State of the Union address the President called for an increase in the supply of the renewables and alternative fuels, and a decrease in the use of gasoline. How well do his remarks jibe with what you say in this report?

John Coequyt: Well, the rhetoric is consistent with what we say, which is that we need to reduce oil consumption. But the actual numbers that he laid out are backwards. He should have put the emphasis on reducing the demand of oil through more efficient vehicles, which is what we do in our report. And he should have put the biofuels later, 2017 is too soon for the new technologies that are coming onto the market now. Particularly cellulosic ethanol, which is this new breakthrough technology that would allow us to create ethanol from the entire plant and not just the kernels of corn in the case of corn-based ethanol. But that technology is not going to be available for anywhere near the goal that he set, in that timeframe. So we should be talking about biofuels coming on and solving part of our oil problem in 2020, 2030. And in the meantime we need to be focused on expanding the market for hybrids, creating better hybrids, cars that are more efficient, potentially plug-in hybrid technology. And that would go a lot further towards reducing our demand for oil, reducing our demand for imported oil than what he put out there.

Monica Trauzzi: There's broad support in Congress for increasing renewables and alternatives and efficiency, but there's also support for clean coal technology and nuclear. How do you convince Congress that the findings in the report are valid, that they need to step away from going after clean coal and nuclear power? What steps are you taking to reach out to Congress members and educate them about what's in the report?

John Coequyt: Well, we see the report as laying down a marker. This is the first time that there's been a large analysis of the United States showing that we can meet all of our needs, we can solve global warming, we can avoid dangerous climate change using just renewables and efficiency. So that's the start and we're not the only ones. There's a report coming out tomorrow by the Solar Energy Society saying exactly the same thing. That was done with the support of NREL, the National Renewable Energy Lab. So we think that there's a growing number of environmentalists, of architects of green buildings, organizations that are ready to step up and start promoting this vision of the future. And we think with their help we can make some progress on Capitol Hill. But you're right, there are a lot of people on the Hill who are very tied into the coal industry, the nuclear industry. We're going to put our vision forward and we're going to argue that that isn't the right way to go, but only time will change some of those opinions.

Monica Trauzzi: What about our growing economy? Does the report take into account that our population will continue growing and the economy will continue growing? Do you account for that in the report?

John Coequyt: Yeah, certainly. What we started with was the International Energy Association's baseline, which calls for -- it basically take census data, shows the population growing, the economy growing, all of those things are the starting point for our analysis. And then from there we applied the renewable and energy efficiency numbers and reduced CO2 emissions as a result. What our results show is that deploying this, moving in this direction, saving people money through efficiency and then bringing on the renewable energy will save customers about 40 percent off of the generation costs of an alternative scenario, where you're relying on coal and particularly oil where the costs are going up tremendously. And I think everyone can remember last year when what they were paying at the pump, what they were paying to heat their homes was incredibly high. Renewable energy is a hedge against that. It protects customers. It protects consumers from those price increases. And we think, over time, it will do that tremendously well.

Monica Trauzzi: We're expecting the IPCC report to come out at the end of this week and we're expecting that it's going to emphasize the link between humans and climate change. How much of an impact do you think the IPCC report, combined with your report, will have on the legislation that we're going to see?

John Coequyt: Well, we think certainly the IPCC report is going to have a tremendous impact. In fact, we released our report the week before the IPCC partly because we wanted to show that there was a solution. I mean what the IPCC report is going to show is that climate change is happening quicker than we thought before. As we become more certain about it the chance of avoiding dangerous climate change is getting more difficult and not easier. So this is going to be basically a fairly grim picture of the science of global warming. What we wanted to interject into that process is a vision of hope. Here is what can be done and what should be done to avoid dangerous climate change. In fact, just yesterday we put that message up on the Eiffel Tower for everyone in France to see.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We'll end it there. John thanks for joining me.

John Coequyt: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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