A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization

In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. We have aimed to place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.

In Coal Killer: How Natural Gas Fuels the Clean Energy Revolution, we summarize the observed climate and environmental benefits of gas over coal and place natural gas in the context of long-term decarbonization. No other nation has achieved recent emissions reductions to the degree the United States has by replacing dirty coal with cheaper, cleaner natural gas. But as we write in the report, "the natural gas revolution is best understood as a moment in the process of energy modernization and innovation, not its end point." Both the origins of natural gas from public-private innovation investments, and the dividends afforded by low-cost flexible gas generation, underscore the potential and need for accelerated innovation in zero-carbon technologies including renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture technologies.

In How To Make Nuclear Cheap: Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency, we offer a set of policy reforms to dramatically accelerate innovation and cost declines in advanced nuclear technologies. As the technological driver of the most rapid decarbonization ever experienced by any country, and with global nuclear generation expected to increase by a larger absolute amount this decade than even quickly growing solar energy, we consider nuclear energy an absolutely essential and perhaps even leading energy technology in long-term efforts to accelerate decarbonization and expand energy access globally. But without safer, more efficient, standardized, and market-ready reactor designs, nuclear energy faces large obstacles to cost reductions and scaling. As is detailed in the report, the US energy innovation system has significant potential to drive these technology and cost improvements across a range of advanced reactor designs.

A complex and productive conversation over the role of natural gas and nuclear has clearly begun. The two reports have been featured in stories at Time, E&E TVForbes, the Associated Press, the National JournalConservation MagazineKQED's ForumSea Change Radio, the American InterestIEEE Spectrum, Ensia Magazine, and SmartPlanet. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hosted an exciting, standing-room-only briefing for the release of How To Make Nuclear Cheap, with speakers including MIT's Richard Lester and Nobel Prize-winner Burton Richter. Throughout his time in office, President Obama has gradually adopted the exact climate strategy outlined in Coal Killer, leading up to last month's announcement of the Administration's executive climate goals. 

The promise of natural gas and nuclear for energy access, decarbonization, and energy innovation do not replace hopes and efforts to expand renewables like wind and solar. Indeed, from our publications Fast, Clean and Cheap to Post-Partisan Power to Beyond Boom and Bust, we have consistently advocated for broader federal support for R&D, demonstration, and deployment of renewable energy technologies. The accelerated expansion of current renewables and pursuit of next-generation renewable technologies remains a critical element of making clean energy cheap. But given both renewables' short-term obstacles to major emissions reductions and long-term limitations for providing abundant zero-carbon energy on a high-energy planet, we believe it is crucial that natural gas and nuclear gain more than reluctant acceptance by environmentalists in the ongoing climate discourse.

Despite signs of progress on energy innovation and rapidly growing nuclear and renewables around the world, coal remains the fastest growing energy source globally. Progress on decarbonization has actually stagnated in recent decades, despite massive government efforts to boost renewable energy and in some cases nuclear. It should be abundantly clear at this point that we are nowhere near on track for our global climate and clean energy goals, and that much better and cheaper technologies are needed to scale zero-carbon energy. With all this in mind, it is high time for a more productive discourse and effort on climate change and energy innovation that eschews technology tribalism, embraces modernization, and does not promise simple answers to fundamentally wicked problems. We look forward to engaging in this conversation on energy solutions for a high-energy planet.