Column: US must supply efficient power generation tech to Asia

Jim Constantopoulos
The Daily Times

How can we best protect ourselves from the dangers of Asia's steady rise in global warming emissions due to increasing fossil-fuels use?

The answer is U.S. energy technology — supplying Asian countries with designs for more efficient coal plants and innovative equipment for the sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide from electricity generation. And providing advanced nuclear technology for the production of zero-carbon power. Such an alliance between Asia and the United States would go a long way toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to safe levels.

Asia currently accounts for nearly half of all global carbon emissions, a share that has increased steadily in recent years. The International Energy Agency projects that without policy changes, Asia alone will account for 46 percent of carbon emissions by 2030, an amount more than three times as large as the projected contribution by the United States.

Asia's use of coal isn't going to stop anytime soon. Of the 2,177 coal plants proposed, planned or under construction around the world, most are in Asia. China and India account for the lion's share. And although demand for coal outside Asia declined from 2008 to 2013, gains in Asia more than made up for the difference.

As Michael Levi, an energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, the United States cannot come close to successfully fighting climate change without Asia.

As natural gas and renewables replace coal in the United States, there has been less interest in carbon capture-and-storage technology. But that's not the case in Asia. Recent developments have underscored the technology's importance. Of particular interest to Asian countries is the Southern Company's Kemper carbon-and-capture facility in Mississippi, which is scheduled to open soon.

Nuclear power must play a key role in carbon mitigation. Worldwide, there are 438 nuclear plants in operation, and another 70 plants under construction, mainly in Asia. Nuclear power produces electricity reliably without releasing global warming emissions or polluting the air.

James Hansen, a former head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies who in the late 1980s alerted Congress to the growing danger of global warming, co-authored a study showing that using nuclear power instead of fossil fuels has prevented some 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths globally and could save millions of more lives in coming decades. He says countries should continue to rely on and expand the use of nuclear power in place of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change.

China's aim is to quadruple the amount of electricity it obtains from nuclear power.

Asian countries are looking to the United States for designs of advanced nuclear power plants. Among the most promising is the traveling wave reactor that produces electricity from depleted uranium. Other options include the high-temperature reactor that uses liquid sodium instead of water for cooling purposes and the pebble-bed reactor that encases fuel in small pellets. Meanwhile, China is building several Westinghouse AP1000 reactors using new advances in nuclear technology, and several Asian countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, are preparing to build their first nuclear plants.

By confronting climate change, the United States can use its know-how in carbon capture-and-storage and advanced nuclear systems to help Asia control carbon emissions, something that is good for the world.

Jim Constantopoulos is a professor of geology and chairman of the Department of Physical Sciences at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M.