Nuclear could be a powerful tool to address rising greenhouse-gas emissions. But to get there, the industry needs to raise its game. Photo via Pexels

I argued previously that nuclear power can help the world deal with two related challenges: energy security and climate change. I still think that is the case.

McKinsey & Company, where I worked for more than 30 years, also recently turned to the topic. The authors agreed that nuclear can play a significant role in decarbonization, and noted that there were some encouraging trends, even in markets, such as the United States, where new plants are thin on the ground. And then the authors asked a critical question: “Can the industry reverse the trend of exceeding budgets and timelines while scaling up fast enough to rise to the climate challenge?”

That query got me thinking. To me, the case for nuclear is clear and compelling. Given that electricity demand could triple by 2050, the need for low-emission and constant power is acute. Nuclear fits that bill. Other sources either emit much more (coal, gas, oil) or are intermittent (wind, solar). Little new hydro is being built. Nothing else is at anything like scale.

But clearly, nuclear has not carried the day, particularly in Europe, Japan, and the United States. These markets are, at best, wary of nuclear power. They are willing to invest some money in next-generation technologies or maybe to extend an operating license. But they are not doing much about the conditions that make new construction so costly and difficult.

For that to happen, I think we need to go deeper—to change mindsets among two very different sets of players.

Anti-nuclear green activists. As the Rolling Stones wisely noted, “You can’t always get what you want.” To deal with something as complicated and wide-ranging as climate change, there will be trade-offs. But if you want reliable power and lower emissions and if you don’t want thousands of square miles of land coated with wind and solar farms, something has to give.

Consider France. It gets more than two-thirds of its power from nuclear, which is a huge part of the reason it ranks 60th in the world in per capita carbon-dioxide emissions (4.46 tons), a much better performance than global peers like Japan (8.5), Belgium (8.1), Germany (7.9), and Austria (7.3). Those four countries have all dialed back on nuclear. Here is the Austrian energy minister, Leonore Gewessler: “The attempt to declare nuclear energy as sustainable and renewable must be resolutely opposed.”

If the goal is to reduce emissions, though, why should that be the case? Well, one response is that championing nuclear power could reduce investment in renewables. But again, if the goal is to reduce emissions, then why not embrace technologies that do exactly that? Whether nuclear can be considered “renewable” seems to me to be almost a theological question, not a technical one. And certainly not a useful one. The goal should not be X or Y percent of renewables, but how to promote an energy transition that delivers reliable, low-emission power. Somehow that point is lost, or dismissed. Instead, major environmental groups such as the Sierra Club (“unequivocally opposed”), Greenpeace (“say no to new nukes”), the Climate Action Network Europe, the European Environmental Bureau (“We advocate for an exit from nuclear energy”) and so on don’t see a place for nuclear.

The mindset shift needed among these and other green groups is to see nuclear as one component of a diversified energy system that can be part of the climate solution, and then to turn their considerable power and creativity toward convincing the public. I just don’t see how shutting down nuclear plants before their time, and replacing them with higher-emissions sources, as is often the case, helps to reduce emissions.

I am not holding my breath on this, but stranger things have happened. Heck, nuclear has found an unlikely advocate in film-maker Oliver Stone. His new documentary, “Nuclear,” argues that the public “has been trained, from the very beginning, to fear nuclear power. The very thing that we fear is what may save us.”

Nuclear could be a powerful tool to address rising greenhouse-gas emissions. But to get there, the industry needs to raise its game. Stone’s nuclear-could-save-us scenario would be likelier if the industry made a better case for itself. Not in safety or reliability, where its record is remarkably good, but in frustration and economics. The stereotype of huge delays and budget over-runs is no myth. Georgia is the only US state building plants, and they are both running years and billions beyond the initial projections.

Granted, some things are beyond the industry’s control: legal challenges plus complex and shifting regulation add up. Some countries clearly do better than others on this. South Korea, for example, gets a third of its power from nuclear, is building three more plants, and is expanding its export market. It will be interesting to see if it could develop something like a nuclear assembly line that drives down its costs, which are already much lower than in the United States.

Like any other sector, nuclear needs to excel at competitiveness, cost control, and innovation—and it hasn’t. In the United States, the typical template has been to build really big plants, each unique, and each very expensive because of the size. The McKinsey report noted a number of things that the industry itself could do better, such as learning and applying best practices for large-scale projects; establishing standard designs; and using modular construction techniques. US construction productivity has stagnated for decades; the use of digitization and automation could help.

There are reasons to believe that the industry is improving. A cluster of companies is developing smaller, salt-cooled reactors; these are cheaper and safer. In January 2023, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified NuScale’s small modular reactor that uses natural water circulation, obviating the need for pumps and thus lowering capital costs. Compared to the 1,000 MW Georgia plants, NuScale’s are about 77MW, but can be added onto. No such plants have been built yet in the United States, though; advanced fission and fusion are even further away. So at the moment, this is all about potential. As one Department of Energy official put it, “It becomes truly real when electrons go on the grid.”

McKinsey concluded: “We believe a nuclear scale-up is achievable. It’s time for the industry to meet the challenge.” I agree,

Nuclear could be a powerful tool to address rising greenhouse-gas emissions. But to get there, the industry needs to raise its game. And it could use a little help from its enemies.

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Scott Nyquist is a senior advisor at McKinsey & Company and vice chairman, Houston Energy Transition Initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership. The views expressed herein are Nyquist's own and not those of McKinsey & Company or of the Greater Houston Partnership. This article originally ran on LinkedIn.

Students from the University of Houston are celebrating a win at a national competition focused on carbon innovation. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston team places in prestigious DOE collegiate challenge

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A team of students from the University of Houston have placed in the top three teams for a national competition for the Department of Energy.

The inaugural American-Made Carbon Management Collegiate Competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, or FECM, tasked the student teams with "proposing regional carbon networks capable of transporting at least one million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from industrial sources," according to a news release from DOE.

“With this competition, DOE hopes to inspire the next generation of carbon management professionals to develop carbon dioxide transport infrastructure that will help drive technological innovation and emissions reductions, new regional economic development, and high-wage employment for communities across the United States,” Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary of fossil energy and carbon management at DOE, says in the release.

GreenHouston, the University of Houston team mentored by Assistant Professor Jian Shi from the UH Cullen College of Engineering, took third place in the competition, securing a $5,000 cash prize. Sequestration Squad of University of Michigan secured first place and $12,000 and Biggest Little Lithium of the University of Nevada won second and a $8,000 prize.

The UH team's proposal was for an optimized carbon dioxide transportation pipeline for the Houston area. The presentation included cost analysis, revenue potential, safety considerations, weather hazards, and social impact on neighboring communities, according to a release from UH.

“We chose the greater Houston metropolitan area as our target transition area because it is a global hub of the hydrocarbon energy industry,” says Fatemeh Kalantari, team leader, in the release.

“Our team was committed to delivering an optimized and cost-effective carbon dioxide transfer plan in the Houston area, with a focus on safety, environmental justice, and social engagement,” she continues. “Our goal is to ensure the health and safety of the diverse population residing in Houston by mitigating the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions from refineries and industries in the area, thus avoiding environmental toxicity.”

With the third place win, GreenHouston will get to present their proposal at DOE’s annual Carbon Management Research Project Review Meeting slated for August.

"We are thrilled to see the exceptional work and dedication displayed by the GreenHouston team in this competition," said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. "The team’s innovative proposal exemplifies UH’s commitment to addressing the pressing global issue of carbon management and advancing sustainable practices. We wish the students continued success."

The team included four Cullen College of Engineering doctoral students from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – Kalantari, Massiagbe Diabate, Steven Chen, and Simon Peter Nsah Abongmbo – and one student, Bethel O. Mbakaogu, pursuing his master’s degree in supply chain and logistics technology.

The prize money will go toward funding additional research, refining existing technologies, addressing remaining challenges and raising awareness of CCUS and its project, according to the release, as the team feels a responsibility to continue to work on the GreenHouston project.

“The energy landscape by 2050 will be characterized by reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air quality, and a more sustainable environment,” Kalantari says. “The transition to green energy will not only mitigate the harmful effects of carbon dioxide on climate change but also create new jobs, promote economic growth, and enhance energy security. This is important, and we want to be part of it.”

The team of students plans to continue to work on the GreenHouston project. Photo courtesy

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

There's no silver bullet for clean energy. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach, writes Scott Nyquist. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: When it comes to the future of energy and climate, think 'all of the above'

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People in the energy industry don’t have the Oscars. For us, the big event of the year is CERAWeek — a conference stuffed with CEOs, top policymakers, and environmental and energy wonks held annually in March.

CERAWeek 2022, with the theme“Pace of Change: Energy, Climate, and Innovation," meant the return of in-person activations, panels, and networking. Walking and talking between sessions and around the coffee table, it occurred to me that the unofficial theme of the event was “Maybe now we can find middle ground on energy.” This idea came up time and time again, from all kinds of people.

As with too many other issues, the discussion of the future of US energy has become polarized. On one end of the spectrum are those who want everything renewable and/or electrified by ….. last week, whatever the cost. Their mantra for fossil fuels: “Keep them in the ground.”

On the other end, are those who dismiss climate change, saying we can always adapt and that it doesn’t much matter, anyway. Just keep digging and drilling and mining as we have always done. And in the middle are the great majority of Americans who are not passionate either way, but want to be responsible consumers, and also to be able to visit grandma without breaking the bank.

I believe that the transition toward an energy system that is cleaner and less reliant on fossil fuels is realand will ultimately bring substantial benefits. At the same time, I believe that energy security and economics also matter. At a time when inflation was already running high, paying an average of $4.25 a gallon at the pump is piling pain on tens of millions of US households. Ultimately, over decades, the use of electric vehicles will reduce the need for oil and that lower-emissions sources, including renewables, will provide a larger share of the power supply, which today depends largely on gas and coal. But that moment is not now, or next week. Indeed, fossil fuels continue to account for almost 80 percent of US primary energy consumption, and a similar figure globally.

Here is one way to think about the interplay between the energy transition and energy security: “We need an energy strategy for the future—an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.” No, that isn’t some apologist for Big Oil; it was President Obama. In 2014, the Obama White House also noted the role of US domestic oil and gas production in enhancing economic resilience and reducing vulnerability to oil shocks. In short, the White House argued, US oil and gas production can bring real benefits for the country. I think that is still true.

Does that mean throwing in the towel on the energy transition and climate change? Absolutely not. There are a variety of ways to pursue the goal of reducing emissions and eventually getting to net-zero emissions. I’ve touched on many of them in previous posts—including reducing methane emissions,pricing carbon, hydrogen, renewables, electric vehicles, urban planning, carbon capture, and negative emissions technologies. In other words, an “all of the above strategy” makes sense in this regard, too.

I don’t know how, or if, a middle ground can be captured. But from what I heard at CERAWeek last year, from people of otherwise widely divergent views, there just may be momentum to get there. A middle-ground consensus rests on three premises. First, we need fossil fuels for energy security and reliability now and until the time when technologies are in place to secure the energy transition. Second, at the same time, we need to be investing in the energy transition because climate change is real and matters. And third, for sustained and systematic progress, government and industry need to work together.

Or, in a phrase, “all of the above.”

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Scott Nyquist is a senior advisor at McKinsey & Company and vice chairman, Houston Energy Transition Initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership. The views expressed herein are Nyquist's own and not those of McKinsey & Company or of the Greater Houston Partnership. This article originally ran on LinkedIn.

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

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A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

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ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.