A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization


A complex and productive conversation over the role of natural gas and nuclear, one that contrasts the simplistic conception of decarbonization as a shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, has emerged in the public discourse. In our two recent reports, ‘Coal Killer’ (left) and ‘How to Make Nuclear Cheap’ (right), we aim to show that 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. Rather, given renewables' short-term and long-term obstacles 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.

July 25, 2013 | Breakthrough Staff,

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.


  • Dear BTI,

    Natural gas power plants burn clean, and they can be ramped down quickly when the sun shines or when the wind blows. However, methane leakage from gas production makes baseload gas only a marginal improvement for the climate. Even if leakage was reduced to zero, scaling up gas would not allow us to meet our 2C climate commitment. Taking a closer look, politically and technically expedient solutions to the climate crisis may not be solutions at all. We can and must do better.

    Safe affordable nuclear with responsible waste management is a very attractive option. Unfortunately, such technology is not available today, which was recently demonstrated by Duke’s cancellation in Florida. We should support R&D to make this technology available, but we must also embrace today’s solutions.

    BTI’s claim that today’s technologies cannot scale is pessimistic and misleading. Silicon, reinforced polymer, and lithium technologies are improving dramatically as they scale, and we should celebrate these successes. Solar photovoltaics are reaching an inflection point where low costs create phenomenal growth. Wind power has demonstrated its potential for rapid growth and massive scale with policy certainty. Plug-in vehicles are also growing exponentially, providing flexible demand for higher renewables penetration.

    Solar, wind, and electric vehicles are scaling rapidly. Let’s celebrate their successes as we welcome new low-carbon technologies.

    Best regards,
    David Snydacker
    MatSci PhD Candidate
    Northwestern University

    By David Snydacker on 2013 08 14

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  • Why is there no mention of population growth in any of the BTI documents? I agree we should celebrate successes in energy technology, but those gains will be cancelled out by population growth. If we reduce our carbon footprint by 10%, and population grows 10%, we’ve gained nothing except more of the other miseries caused by overpopulation. Mother Nature does not care about per capita damage. “A Deeper Climate Conversation” falls short of its promise when it ignores population.

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