The hardest part of combating climate change is, predictably, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels as a power source. Currently, fossil fuels like coal and natural gas account for around 60 percent of our energy production, and while this number is shrinking, it’s not shrinking nearly fast enough.
But while you may think of the renewable energy as wind and solar, that's not yet the case. Most of the clean energy produced in the U.S. comes from nuclear power, and while renewable energy will likely surpass nuclear over the next few years, we still depend on it to generate electricity without harming our environment.
That’s why the recent news from energy company FirstEnergy is so alarming. In late March, the company , two in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio. According to , closing these and other at-risk nuclear plants could set back progress on clean energy by more than a decade.
The group focused on nuclear reactors that, like FirstEnergy’s, are being closed before their full 60-year lifespans. With 24 such reactors either scheduled to close or already shuttered, Third Way calculates that closing all of these plants would set back progress on clean energy by up to 13 years.
So why don’t we just keep these nuclear plants open? Mostly, it’s because it’s impossible for these plants to make money anymore. With operating costs for aging plants skyrocketing and increased competition from cheaper natural gas plants, anyone still running a nuclear reactor in 2018 is just sliding further and further into the red.
This, of course, is the main struggle we face when it comes to clean energy in general: It's absolutely crucial that we limit emissions in the long term, but in the near term, it's hard if not impossible to compete with traditional, dirtier forms of energy on the open market. In the case of FirstEnergy, it seems the only way to keep nuclear power afloat is with help from state or federal governments, in the form of tax breaks or subsidies, or by implementing some form of carbon tax. None of these options are likely to be popular, but they might be necessary in order to avoid losing the progress we’ve already made.