The Earth Policy Institute (EPI) is a fascinating organization. The brainchild of its brilliant founder, Lester Brown, EPI offers insightful and reasoned analysis of important topics, including food, water and energy supplies. The EPI was founded in 2001 to “provide a vision and a road map for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy.”
Most recently the EPI issued one of its most interesting reports concerning China, pointing out the fact that in 2013, Chinese wind power exceeded power generated from Chinese nuclear power plants. As EPI points out, “The 135 terawatt-hours of Chinese wind-generated electricity in 2013 would be nearly enough to power New York state.” The extraordinarily rapid rise of wind power over nuclear is steady and dramatically pulling away with time.
As noted here on many occasions, the Chinese are deploying large-scale wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants at a pace that exceeds virtually everything being done elsewhere in the world, and they continue to accelerate their efforts.
EPI points out that, even in China, six years is required to build a single nuclear power plant, whereas only a few months are required to deploy a wind farm. This reality has enormous practical and logistical implications with respect to both the transformational speed of the electrical grid and the realistic opportunities available to more rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The rapidity with which direct-conversion technologies, such as wind and solar PV, can be safely deployed is remarkable. The physical risks associated with deploying wind power and solar PV are minuscule compared to those associated with nuclear power, especially in light of the amount of waste and the time required for tending the waste and decommissioning the facility. We currently store radioactive waste at every nuclear power plant.
My quip: If a nuclear power plant were a human worker, after a 50-year productive, operational life, what follows is like 19,000 years of Social Security payments to employ bored keepers to watch over an ornery, cantankerous “friend” you cannot ignore!
Nuclear power is often touted as a useful source of electricity, even as it relies upon 20th-century steam generator technology. Steam technology is tried and true, but it requires heavy maintenance and wastes an enormous amount of heat energy in producing steam and then cooling it in order to create a rapid flow through the generator turbines. This same kind of energy waste does not attend direct-conversion technologies, though manageable issues of intermittency exist.
EPI points out that “as wind power opens up an even greater lead over nuclear [power], it is showing the potential to emerge as the safe, scalable, water-sparing backbone of a low-carbon Chinese energy economy.”
A recent “draft” commentary by famous climatologist, James Hansen, inter alia, and despite a quirky disavowal, makes a spirited and elaborate argument in favor of cooperating with China and rapidly deploying nuclear power. He cites France as an example of a nation that obtains 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
Hansen also advocates for a policy of imposing “a rising carbon fee or tax.”
“A carbon fee is likely to be acceptable to the public and conservative thought leaders in the U.S., provided that it is revenue neutral and thus is not used to make the government bigger and more intrusive,” Hansen argues. “A carbon fee will drive all of the important tools for reducing fossil fuel use: energy efficiency, renewable energies and nuclear power.”
Without too detailed a discussion, I disagree.
First, the logistics for nuclear power, compared to direct-conversion technologies, are slow and formidable, as even the Chinese experience demonstrates, and its real long-term cost of post-production care is mind-boggling. Better to rapidly deploy renewable energy resources and develop physical and chemical energy storage capacity.
Second, for a tax or fee on carbon to be “revenue neutral,” it must be paired with a reduction in taxes or fees from elsewhere, including from personal income taxes on the wealthiest. That reduction will ipso facto introduce a strong pressure to sustain the use of carbon to keep the carbon tax in order to continue generating revenues to the government. This political reality tends to seriously undermine the hope that fossil fuel use will be rapidly reduced.
“Abundant affordable energy is essential to address the world’s economic and environmental problems,” Hansen observes. “Energy is needed to achieve adequate living standard and a stable human population.” Amen.
It is for those exact reasons that we must rapidly deploy direct-conversion technologies, as are the Chinese, and gather unto our own nation the benefits available from embracing large-scale wind and solar PV. The technical learning curve and benefits of deploying energy technologies that do not emit greenhouse gases, pollution or radiation, will reward generations now and even more so in the future.
Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.