As a union with thousands of members working in the energy industry—and with thousands more whose jobs depend on reliable and affordable energy across other sectors—the Boilermakers are acutely aware of the uncertain future of fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Concerns about carbon emissions and nuclear accidents have driven many governments, NGOs and climate activists to urge abandoning fossil and nuclear power as rapidly as possible.
But are nations moving too fast? Are we sacrificing energy security today in pursuit of perceived avoidance of climate and nuclear risks tomorrow? Can fossil and nuclear power still have a role in the world’s energy mix?
The brutal and criminal war on Ukraine brings those questions into sharp focus.
Nations of the European Union, in particular, have led much of the world in the so-called green movement. But that leadership has come at the expense of skyrocketing energy costs for many European citizens and dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal during the transition to wind and solar energy.
With many billions of Euros spent on green energy, the goal of achieving 100% renewable power remains elusive. And instead of becoming energy independent, the EU finds itself reliant on a brutish regime and an evil tyrant for a substantial portion of its fossil energy requirements.
The EU meets about one third of its fossil fuel needs from Russian exports. Unfortunatley, those sales help finance Russia’s military aggression and leave EU nations handcuffed in their ability to immediately and fully impose sanctions on Russian energy.
As a consequence, European leaders are now reassessing the energy policies that have seen fossil power plants scrapped and nuclear facilities decommissioned—some even before the end of their useful economic lives. Today there is talk of building new gas plants, new nuclear power generation and new LNG terminals. Even fracking, which has been banned in Germany, France and other European nations, is getting renewed attention.
It remains to be seen whether EU nations shift back to a more balanced mix of energy sources or double down on more renewables, as some demand.
Russia’s war on Ukraine should prompt all freedom-loving nations to rethink their energy policies and dependencies, including the United States and Canada. Over-reliance on a few energy sources and providers can lead to an uncertain future in which geopolitical crises interrupt supplies and lead to economic calamity.
Even a 100% renewable power system (if achievable) is no guarantee of energy security. Solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries all rely on rare earth materials that are mined and processed in a handful of countries. And China dominates the global market.
Future geopolitical disagreements and belligerent actions could quickly disrupt exports of rare earth metals with dire consequences for importing nations.
As the global population continues to grow and developing economies expand, the demand for rare earth metals and other energy sources will only increase. And likely so will their cost.
The position of the Boilermakers union has long been that an all-of-the-above energy strategy is needed, a strategy that does not pick winners but instead maximizes the strengthts of every available energy source while at the same time pursuing low-carbon and carbon-free solutions.
The Boilermakers’ long history in the fossil fuel industry has shown that once-problematic emissions in the coal industy, including particulates, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide have been addressed successfully through new technologies like electrostatic precipitators, scrubbers and hot gas filtration systems. Newer supercritical and ultrasupercritical boilers have made power generation more efficient.
Today’s focus on carbon emissions likewise demands technological innovation, not only in fossil fuel extraction, processing and use but also in high-emitting industries like cement and steel production.
Breakthroughs in carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) offer promising solutions to carbon emissions for legacy power sources and heavy industies. More investment in research and development along with supportive government policies is needed to bring these technoloiges into widespread commercial use.
Nuclear power, with its remarkable safety record (despite the headline-grabbing incidents at Fukishima and Chernobyl), remains a reliable zero-carbon energy source. New, smaller and safer nuclear power systems that produce less radioactive material offer more flexibility and lower cost than traditional large, centralized facilities.
As the world grows ever more populous and energy hungry, we must consider all available sources, even as we address the very real threats of climate change. Renewables alone cannot get us where we need to be. Blindly pursuing an all-solar/all-wind energy future while railing against CCUS-adapted fossil energy as well as nuclear power is counterproductive to achieving climate goals. We will need wind and solar, yes, but also fossil fuels, nuclear, hydrogen and other options.
The horrific and barbaric war on Ukraine should be a wake-up call for energy security. We should rethink the role that fossil fuels and nuclear power can play in the global energy mix. And we should continue to support investments and policies that make these reliable and proven sources part of a cleaner, low-carbon and net-zero future.
• Headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers, AFL-CIO, CLC represents North American workers engaged in field construction and maintenance, shipbuilding, cement making, railroads, manufacturing, mining and other industries.
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