What this really says, albeit buried deep in the article, is that all the world’s non-hydro “renewables” amount to less than 5% of power-starved China’s coal-fired generation. “Insignificant tokenism” springs to mind.
Whenever the conversation turns to greening the world’s energy supply, a lot of the ideas tend to emphasize new and futuristic sources of power. Build more wind turbines. Stack up more solar panels. Make sure fresh coal plants don’t get built.
But Catherine Wolfram, an economist at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says that we too often ignore simpler solutions, such as wringing more efficiency out of our existing fossil-fuel and nuclear plants. Many of those power plants, after all, are likely to stick around for decades to come. And there are quite a few minor tweaks that can be made to these plants that can cut greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically — tweaks that can have as much impact as building hordes of new wind farms or solar panels.
Here’s an example: In a recent column for Bloomberg, Wolfram described what happened in the 1990s after some U.S. states began deregulating their electricity sectors. Utilities sold off their nuclear reactors to private operators. And, Wolfram found in a recent paper with Lucas Davis, electricity output at these newly privatized reactors increased 10 percent compared with those that stayed in the hands of tightly regulated utilities. That small boost in carbon-free power, she notes, “helped offset more greenhouse gas emissions in the 2000s than all of the wind and solar generation in the country combined.”
How did these nuclear plants magically become so much more effective? It all comes down to incentives. After deregulation, Wolfram told me in a phone interview, plant owners could now make a profit by selling as much electricity as possible on the wholesale market. That gave the owners incentives to make small tweaks like reducing the amount of time that the reactors needed to be shut off for refueling. That involves a lot of tricky organizational maneuvers, and until deregulation, operators rarely felt the need to figure it out.