things i've changed my mind about, v. 735: it is time to tax carbon

In response to what looks like an increasingly big mess at the Fukushima Daiishi plant, Gino throws his lot in with the hippies, Barry wants us to do the math, and Yglesias wants to defend nuclear power but doesn't want to be the "pro-nuclear guy".

Actually, I think all of this points to one thing.

The difference between nuclear power and coal is this: nuclear power has very infrequent, but very real and very scary negative externalities. Coal has negative externalities that are less scary, but that are a sure--and constant--thing. The main reason that coal costs so much less than nuclear is that the real, full cost of fossil fuel consumption is not actually born by the producers.

There needs to be a carbon tax.

We can't nuke our way off fossil fuels. But we can level the playing field for nuclear and other renewable resources by bringing the price of fossil fuel-derived energy in line with its actual cost.

Prices change behavior, which is why I sit in an apartment that is rarely heated above 65 degrees in the winter. If my power bill was half the price, I'd be sitting here in shorts and a T-shirt instead of jeans and a sweater.


Dave said...

Nuclear power won't go away because it cannot go away. Frankly, other non-hydrocarbon electrical generating models cannot provide the power density and scale required to reasonably generate electric power. Solar/wind power is viewed as ideal because it has no perceived negative consequences, but they both fail the "always on" requirement. Solar and wind also take up way too much real estate to be realistic options. Both Nuclear and Hydrocarbons come with risk ... with risk properly defined as the probability of a miship coupled with the severity of the mishap. Nuclear power carries a high mishap severity but a very low mishap probability. That probability is currently being misrepresented by current events, but ultimately we must accept that the benefits of modern civilization require us to accept some amount of risk in order to realize the benefits of electric power. With regards to a carbon tax, there is ZERO reason to believe that electric power demand will ever decrease. People inevitably use more electricity as their standard of living increases *and that is a good thing.* No amount of reasonable carbox tax is going to change that. Accordingly a carbon tax will just remove previously useable capital from the economy and, without nuclear power, will make ZERO impact on the amount of hydrocarbon is emitted into the economy. If you want to reduce the amount of hydrocarbons emitted into the atmosphere to support electric power generation, then you must accept the risk associated with nuclear power.

Brian said...

Dave--I actually agree with almost everything you've said here.

I think nuclear is the most realistic way to get us off hydrocarbons (or at least to drastically reduce our use of them) absent some serious innovation in some other form of "clean" energy.

The problem is the scale. Depending on whose numbers you believe, number of new, top of the line reactors it would take to replace hydrocarbons at current usage is conservatively around 120, and maybe as many as 300, or between 20 and 50 plants.

Before we even address the issue of paying for this, you have to consider where to put them close enough to water (for cooling), far enough away from fault lines, and where the NIMBYs are going to let you build. It's a big country, but that narrows it down considerably, particularly if you assume we want these somewhat distributed in a way that the population is.

Anyway...no power company is going to build out that kind of capacity (or even a substantial chunk of it) when they can do coal and natural gas so much more cheaply. So, either the government steps in and builds it or they incentivize it through the tax structure. Or wait for fossil fuels to run out.

The argument for the carbon tax is that it is a way to offset the negative externalities of hydrocarbon-based production, the assumption being that these are not currently reflected in the market price. The extent to which you accept this is dependent on the extent to which you agree such negative externalities are real. I don't buy the worst-case scenarios myself, but I don't think that they are negligible, either, particularly in the long run.

Anyway, I'd plow the carbon tax into developing nukes. If it has the effect of lowering demand, all's the better. But even if it doesn't, it's still probably worth doing.

I just don't see a long-term solution to our energy needs that doesn't involve paying a lot more for energy, one way or another, eventually.

None of this should be construed as an endorsement of anyone's particular carbon tax proposal, just that I've come around to the general idea of it.

Bike Bubba said...

I'm not big on a carbon tax, but John Taylor Gatto does demonstrate that a big goal of our government schools is to get us to consume more. So I'd be all for a tariff on imported fuel (10-15% or so, a revenue tariff) and possibly an excise on all fuels--and a huge, corresponding reduction in the income tax.

Gino said...

i'm of the mind that govt takes enough money already.