Editor’s note: When global warming and energy concerns are being described, opinions can be heated. Following are two pieces on the subject. The first, by David Crane, the CEO of NRG Inc., the national power generation company based at Carnegie Center, and an advocate of nuclear power, among other energy options, is definitely controversial. The second, by the noted physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study, is — to use Dyson’s own word — “heretical.”
So herewith some controversial and heretical — but certainly not final — words on energy and global warming.
I am a carboholic. As Americans, we are all carboholics, but I am more so than most. The company I run, NRG Energy, emits more than 64 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year — more than the total man-made greenhouse gas emissions of Norway.
And we are only the 10th-largest American power generation company. Imagine the CO2 emissions of Numbers 1 through 9.
Why do we do it? Why does America’s power industry emit such a stunning amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in this age of climate change?
We do so because CO2 emissions are free. And in a world where CO2 has no price, removing CO2, before or after the combustion process, is vastly more expensive and problematic than just venting it into the atmosphere.
Congress needs to act now to change our ways. Lawmakers should regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by introducing a federal cap-and-trade system, which would put a cap and a market price on CO2 emissions.
If Congress acts now, the power industry will respond. We will do what America does best; we will react to CO2 price signals by innovating and commercializing technologies that avoid, prevent, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
I emphasize the word “now.” We are not running out of time; we have already run out of time. Decisions we make today in the United States power industry will have a significant impact on the size of the problem we bequeath to our children.
Without a price on CO2, our industry will build a veritable tidal wave of traditional coal-fired power-generation facilities. Traditional coal plants are, and will be for some time to come, the least expensive and most reliable way to generate electricity on a large scale in the United States, China, India, and much of the rest of the world — that is, so long as the CO2 emissions associated with burning coal in these countries remain free.
We absolutely need to use coal for power-generation purposes. We probably even need to build a few more traditional coal plants in fast-growing parts of the country where there is no practical alternative. But we need to move as quickly as possible toward implementing the low-emissions ways of combusting coal that are under development or, in the case of “coal gasification” technology, are ready for commercial deployment.
A federal cap-and-trade system would push the power and coal industries toward deployment of CO2 capture and sequestration technology, which is essential to reducing our domestic emissions and, ultimately, to weaning China and the rest of the fast-growing (and emitting) developing world off traditional coal technology. Effective incentives for these new technologies could easily and readily be included in a cap-and-trade regimen. Lawmakers need to provide both the carrot and the stick to get the CO2 out of coal.
Energy legislation under consideration in Congress focuses almost exclusively on renewables and conservation; both are worthy initiatives that deserve our support. But in a world where a CO2-emitting traditional coal plant is built every week, renewables and conservation are a sideshow at best.
The vast amount of CO2 being emitted worldwide by coal-fired power plants is the heart of the global warming issue. Progress against those emissions depends on three critical initiatives: replacing traditional coal with “clean coal” plants, displacing additional traditional coal plants with new zero-carbon-emissions nuclear plants, and implementing a federal cap-and-trade system on greenhouse gases.
Global warming should be at the top of Congress’ agenda — because action by this Congress will turn the tide of climate change around the world. Never before have we faced the prospect of fundamentally damaging our global ecosystem by the day-to-day activities of each and every one of us. A cap-and-trade system is the place to start. America must act now to protect our future.
David Crane, a 1981 alumnus of Princeton University who also earned a law degree at Harvard, is the CEO of NRG Energy Inc., a wholesale power generator, which owns power plants capable of serving 20 million households.
In September, 2007, NRG applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to build the first nuclear power stations in the United States in 29 years. The firm joined forces with the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company and is looking to build two plants there. The firm’s reasoning: it is time to rethink the value of nuclear energy and the true cost of cheap, carbon-heavy coal.
In March of this year NRG and Toshiba Corp. formed Nuclear Innovation North America, a venture seeking to develop nuclear plants — including the two in southern Texas — using Japanese technologies.
The move was a major step in NRG’s efforts in recent months to introduce and reintroduce forms of power production that drastically limit the amount of carbon emissions. A month after forming NINA, NRG appointed Michael Liebelson, a 25-year veteran of developing independent power projects, as its person in charge of developing low-carbon technologies. On June 11 an NRG-proposed 50-megawatt “clean coal” plant in Jamestown, New York, received a round of support by the state, which agreed to supply $7 million (of an anticipated $285 million overall price tag) to help fund it. The plant is intended to use advanced technologies to lessen carbon emissions from burning coal.
NRG also bought a wind farm in California in 2006 and is building another in Texas.
The essay above originally was published in the Washington Post on October 14, 2007.