If the world is going to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to accelerate the pace of the energy transition towards decarbonization. So, as 2019 begins, it’s worth looking at the state of play. Easing into things, I’ll take a look at the dead horses: nuclear and “clean coal”.
AFAICT, hardly any nuclear plants started construction in 2018, continuing the trend of recent years. At the beginning of the year, lots of reports suggested China would start 6-8 plants, but (again AFAICT) the actual number was zero. Elsewhere, the massively delayed Vogtle project in the US just avoided scrapping. At this point, the best hope is to limit premature closures of existing nuclear plants and keep the focus on ending coal.
“Clean coal” is a deliberately ambiguous term, encompassing carbon capture and storage, which would eliminate CO2 emissions, if only it worked, and ultrasupercritical or “High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) technology, a marginal improvement on existing technology.
CCS was an obvious dead horse a year ago, and nothing has changed that. Bob Burton gives a good summary.
But at least CCS would have made a difference if it had worked. The marginal improvement in efficiency going from 1990s “supercritical” technology to more modern “ultrasupercritical” isn’t worth worrying about. In any case, it’s come too late. Although there’s still a big pipeline of coal projects using older technologies (most of which will have to be cancelled if we are to achieve climate goals) there aren’t many new ones. Outside China, the number of HELE plants we are ever likely to see can be counted on fingers and toes: one in the US, a few in Europe, a few more in India, and a handful in developing countries.