A lot has changed in the US energy mix over the past ten years. The shale boom gave America a new source of oil and halved the price of natural gas. This new flood of cheap gas has undercut other energy sources, hitting Old King Coal especially hard: the US is burning less of its own coal and exporting record quantities of the decidedly dirty resource abroad.In that sense, the shale boom has been green. Natural gas emits roughly half the carbon that coal does, so to the extent that it displaces coal, it is decreasing US emissions. But the economic ripples are also hitting nuclear power—a zero-emissions energy source: This week a Vermont nuclear plant was forced to shut down. The Financial Times reports:
The plant was expected to break even in 2013 and would have fallen into loss in subsequent years, the company said.It is the fourth closure of a US nuclear plant to be announced this year, as utilities decide that investing in older reactors is no longer commercially viable.
Nuclear energy occupies an odd space in the green-brown spectrum. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. Yet it earns the ire of environmentalists for the radioactive waste it produces, and in the wake of disasters like Fukushima many are wary of the worst-case scenarios that accompany it. In that context, it’s not surprising that some greens are heralding this as an “opportunity” to focus more on renewables, even though the nuclear plant’s closure is going to lead to an increase in emissions in the short term.But leaving aside the emotionalism of public opinion about nuclear power versus, say, coal, the Vermont shuttering is a reminder that economics rules the energy roost. If natural gas stays dirt-cheap, we will see more nuclear plants close unless researchers figure out a way to cut down on the capital and operating costs of such facilities. Similarly, cheap gas will continue to undercut wind and solar, given current technologies. Leaders interested in weaning nations off of dirty-burning, high-emitting energy sources would do better to invest government dollars in research and development rather than fighting market currents with subsidies.[The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the Connecticut River as seen from the New Hampshire side of the river January 5, 2004 in Vernon, Vermont. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.]