The head of the nation’s largest nuclear power plant owner decried America’s lack of an energy policy Monday night (Oct. 6) and laid out a five-point plan featuring a mix of new regulations and financial incentives for coal, nuclear, and renewable power sources as a way to ‘green’ America’s energy supply.
John Rowe, chairman and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Exelon Corp., which runs the nation’s largest fleet of nuclear reactors, told a packed Science Center lecture hall that Exelon views climate change as a serious problem that needs immediate attention.
Resolving the problem, however, will be a challenge, Rowe said, as will keeping costs low for consumers. The cost of energy, Rowe said, is something that Exelon is very sensitive to, since as a power company, it is responsible for collecting money from consumers and yet is also answerable to legislators working to reform the nation’s energy system.
Despite the popularity of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, Rowe said the cost of those alternatives is higher than many people think. Wind is the cheapest renewable and most ready for market, he said, while solar, though most expensive right now, has the greatest potential for a technological breakthrough.
Absent a transforming breakthrough, however, Rowe said the nation will have to make do with reforms to its current power mix, including coal and nuclear. His five-point plan includes financial support for low-carbon electricity generation, such as clean coal and next-generation nuclear power. It also includes support for energy efficiency and conservation programs, extensions of tax credits for renewable energy sources, competitive electricity markets to spur innovation, and federally mandated carbon legislation, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system designed to encourage low-carbon power generation.
“We at Exelon take the need for action as a given, and feel the sooner the better,” Rowe said. “Without a proper public policy framework, there is no way to deal with a challenge as large as climate change.”
Rowe spoke at the Science Center as part of the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s Future of Energy lecture series. Center Director Daniel Schrag, professor of Earth and planetary sciences, said Rowe has been active on the national energy policy scene for some time, co-chairing the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of energy experts.
“John gives us a sobering view of the challenge ahead as we try to decarbonize our electrical system,” Schrag said.
Rowe said the nation faces more than one energy challenge. The problem of climate change — which he said gets worse with each report — is coupled with an increasing reliance on foreign oil.
Goals for a national energy policy should include meeting the nation’s energy needs, decreasing dependence on foreign oil, keeping costs as low as possible, and addressing climate change, Rowe said.
To meet those guidelines, Rowe presented a plan drafted by Exelon as a blueprint to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the company and by its customers, communities, suppliers, and markets. Called “Exelon 2020,” the plan was initially unveiled in July.
The key in reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from the nation’s energy consumption is to enact a nationwide regulatory system that creates incentives for reducing the chemical element in the power supply. Alternatives that would fit the bill include a carbon tax that would raise the price of power generated by carbon-rich sources, and a cap-and-trade system that would set a limit on the total amount of carbon released in the United States, letting those who can make their operations more efficient sell the right to emit more carbon to other businesses.
By creating an incentive to reduce carbon-intensity in the power supply, Rowe said, the market can respond with creative solutions that policymakers may not have considered.
“Economy-wide carbon legislation is essential, but not enough,” Rowe said.
Energy efficiency and conservation are also important, he said, proposing tighter standards and subsidies to encourage conservation.
Renewable energy supplies will be a bigger part of the energy mix, Rowe said, but he cautioned against thinking they will be a cheap, easy solution. Most renewable sources, he said, are more expensive than conventional alternatives.
“It’s clear that renewables have to be part of the picture; it’s not at all clear how big a part of the picture they will be,” Rowe said.
With so much of our energy generated by coal-fired plants, Rowe said that the federal government has to invest in technology that will separate carbon from emissions and then sequester that carbon so it can’t be released into the atmosphere.
“It is hard to imagine a solution without dealing with carbon from coal,” Rowe said.
Increased power from nuclear plants is another alternative, Rowe said. Though carbon-free, nuclear power generates waste that must be stored. New plants also have difficulty being sited as neighbors often oppose building near their homes. Nuclear can be a significant part of the solution, but only if the public favors it, he said.
“We will need not some of the above, but all of the above,” Rowe said. “It is clear to us that we simply must meet the clear and present danger of climate change. … I believe we have to come up with a new vision backed up by hard realities.”