Fracking boomed, and gas got cheap. After hydraulic fracturing hit the scene, it opened up vast stores of previously unobtainable gas. That led to a big ol glut, and it’s already had a huge impact on coal—mostly, by killing it off. Until recently, coal power kept half the nation’s lights on. Last year, for the first time, enough power plants switched to natural that coal was down to providing a third of the nation’s power.
Good riddance. Coal is the filthy, asthma-inducing, globe-warming fuel of the past. It’s the single worst way to generate power, if you give two shits about airy notions like preserving a climate fit for humans to maintain a civilization. But the gas glut is having other unintended consequences. It’s edging nuclear power out, too.
Earlier this month, Scientific American’s David Biello reported that a number of aging nuclear power plants, in Florida, Wisconsin, Maryland, and elsewhere, are shutting down. They’re old, damaged, and in need of expensive repairs. Since those repairs can cost billions of dollars, utilities are deciding it's cheaper just to mothball the nuke and pick up the slack with natural gas—seeing as how the stuff’s currently getting pumped out of the Marcellus Shale faster than oxy from an OD’s gut.
The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer notes that
Since 2010, the amount of electricity generated from America’s nuclear reactors has fallen about 3 percent, or 29 billion kilowatt-hours. That’s a sizable drop … we’d need to quadruple the number of solar installations in the United States just to make up the loss of that carbon-free electricity.
Both Plumer and Biello point out that the shale gas boom isn’t just shuttering existing plants, it’s leading utilities to put the kibosh on plans for future reactors, too. Two reactors planned for Texas have already been scrapped.
Here’s the thing, though: Nuclear power has always been exorbitantly expensive. Every reactor requires staggering loan guarantees from the government and comes with massive upfront costs. That’s partly why that between 1978 and 2012, just one new nuclear power plant was approved for construction in the United States. One. Uno. And it is expected to cost $14 billion.
So there’s a pretty obvious reason that far more wind and solar projects are getting built than nuclear, and why that will continue to be the case—they’re cheaper, safer, and come in more manageable shapes and sizes. Speaking of which, if nuclear power is to survive the gas boom, experts reckon it will do so in downsized form: smaller, modular reactors that are both more efficient and don’t cost ten billion bucks a pop. Bill Gates is a fan. But we’ll see—the tech is still untested, and big questions (re: safety, waste disposal, et al) remain unanswered.
Until the dawn of the mini-nuke plants, I guess we’ll sit back and watch as the fracking fields swallow up and price out every other energy source we’ve got. Fortunately, it seems that we’re dealing with a bit of a bubble here, that the gas deposits are almost overstated, and that prices already seem to be bottoming out. Otherwise, America would run on 100% fracked natural gas by 2020. That's not going to happen—but coal and nuclear are definitely going to take a hit.