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Dutch nix their nukes, commit to coal with carbon capture

Talk about not shying away from a challenge. At a time of skyrocketing energy costs, the Netherlands has switched off all but one of its nuclear plants and will build no more. Instead, the Dutch are betting their long-term electricity needs on renewables and on unproven carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that promises to make coal as emission free as nukes, according to the

The move is doubly surprising. It comes at time when going nuclear is easier than it has been in decades. Plus, here in the US efforts to jump start CCS technology are all but dead with the collapse of FutureGen, a private-public project to build a demonstration facility. Jim Miller, CEO of Allentown (Pa.)-based PPL utility reflects a mood that’s common in the industry today: “In my lifetime, I’m certain we will not see large-scale CCS.”

Such fatalism is deeply worrying. Without CCS, coal’s survival as a future fuel source is seriously imperiled. Realizing this, the Dutch—not coincidentally a flood-prone, low-lying country—are pouring resources into the challenge. Just when the US ought to be doing likewise, it seems we’re drifting into miasma of indecision. The spin wars about carbon policy are already beginning to engulf all energy discussions, and are likely to do so for years to come. Maybe once they’re settled—in how many years?—will the chase for CCS resume.

In comparison, the Dutch plan shows the sort of leadership that’s going to be required of energy planners and politicians in years ahead, as super-high energy prices collide with global warming worries and force major energy market restructuring. The Netherlands plan is especially bold given that it’s not one of the coal-rich nations—such as the US, Germany, Australia, or even China—that should logically be leading the chase for CCS. What’s more, the Dutch offer a reminder that nuclear energy’s safety and waste problems haven’t gone away.

The pragmatic Dutch have other reasons for taking such a big gamble: there’s big money to made by whoever gets CCS right. It’s common knowledge that the US lost its lead in solar and wind energy in the 1980s to Germany and Japan. CCS is set to be next, and the lost prize will be bigger than any of today’s renewable energy industries very quickly, likely by orders of magnitude. CCS is more desperately needed by China, India and other fast-growing emerging economies who see no choice but to burn their coal.

Fact is, the US already lags behind Europe in CCS pilot projects, research and development and is losing ground. And great as our potential may be to perfect this technology, the vision seems to be loosing its way as policy makers and the (highly profitable) coal and utility sectors are distracted by squabbles over who should fund this basic research. Maybe they’re not so worried because they believe, in a few years, they can just import the solutions from Europe.

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