We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
The controversy surrounding a proposed high voltage transmission line in El Centro, CA, which would potentially deliver wind, solar, and geothermal energy to San Diego, is instructive on the difficulties that will surround future renewable energy development.
El Centro has 110 degrees plus temperature, high wind, and readily available geothermal resources neat the San Andreas Fault. All told, there ate 16,000 MW of potential renewable energy in the area. However, some environmentalists want the utility to forego the project and simply develop rooftop solar in San Diego. Other critics worry about the fact that existing natural gas energy will be transmitted over the same line, and that the renewable energy claims are merely a smokescreen for a government-subsidized investment that will have a large ROI.
Michael W. Howard, president and chief executive of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif., said that while the potential for exploiting renewable energy remains huge nationally, “you’ve got to get it from somewhere,” he said. “If you’re going to have renewables, you’d better love transmission.”
In the end, rooftop solar deserves development, but so does an area as resource rich as El Centro, especially with its low population. If we can’t build a transmission line in El Centro, we will certainly be unable to do it in more populated areas.
Canadian venture capitalist Tom Rand produced this great video, where he talks about how renewables can play a much bigger role.
Here Rand talks about his Toronto hotel, which he calls the greenest hotel in the world, at TEDxToronto. His hotel includes geothermal and other renewable power, which he says cost less than 5% of the cost of his building.
Nuclear power was never an emotional issue for me. Personally, I know the general theory of nuclear reactions, and have friends in the Nuclear Navy, an institution I always respected and valued. I grew up near Harrisburg, PA, where the Three Mile Island Reaction #2 melted down. So, you could say I was aware of both nuclear power’s advantages and dangers.
Nuclear power is, as always, in the news. Last year Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant in Vernon, VT, discovered an underground leak of tritium, a low-level byproduct of nuclear plants. Tritium did not get into drinking water or the Connecticut River, but it was close. I go to school near the plant, and when I heard about the tritium leaks, I did not understand what tritium was, but assumed that it was bad. However, when I looked over some of the critical data being used by environmentalists to oppose the extension of the plant license beyond 2012, I could not make heads or tails of it. It looked bad. Entergy Corp., based in Louisiana, did not seem to be running the 38-year-old plant in a safe manner.
Recently I read environmentalist icon Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist’s Manifesto, and I was struck by his unflinching support of Nuclear power. Brand is best known as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was designed to market goods and tools to counter-cultural, back-to-the land people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Brand’s new book begins with an update: “We are gods and we HAVE to get used to it.” Nuclear power is one of the tools that he prescribes to battle the big problem of our day, anthropogenic-induced global warming. Brand says of nuclear power, like other technologies that environmentalists often fear, that “those who know the most fear the least.”
Well, despite my background, I felt that I had a lot to learn about nuclear power. Brand recommended a book by journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. My trimester break, which ends Friday, seemed the perfect opportunity to take Brand’s challenge. Cravens is a novelist and a journalist, and she tells the story of nuclear power in a very clear and persuasive manner. She grew up in Albuquerque, near the home of the atomic bomb. In the 1980s she was an anti-nuclear protestor, and helped prevent a Long Island nuclear plant from opening. However, she met a man that helped change her mind about nuclear power.
Cravens follows Rip Anderson around the world of nuclear power. Anderson is a scientist with Sandia National Laboratories, and an environmentalist. He is a world-renowned nuclear safety expert, so impressive that the Soviet government selected him to head a team of scientists examining Chernobyl after the meltdown there. The book follows the journey of nuclear power, from old uranium mines in New Mexico, to working plants in the Carolinas, to the Yucca Mountain National Repository and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). I encourage everyone to read this book.
Like many environmentalists I am an advocate of alternative energy like wind, solar, and hydropower. However, only nuclear power can replace coal, because only nuclear can provide reliable baseload. In fact, compared to nuclear power, coal is much more dangerous. You wouldn’t think it, but coal, which provides over half of our electricity in the United States, exposes people to more low-level radiation than a nuclear plant; a 1000-megawatt coal plant freely disperses 27 metric tons each year, in fact. On top of that, coal plants are the leading polluter of mercury. Coal plants are not regulated like nuclear plants are, and that is why I would much rather live near a nuclear plant than a coal plant.
Cravens debunks misconceptions about radiation, waste, terrorism and safety. It was heartening to know that after living through the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the design of the plant made up for poorly trained operators and prevented any harm to Pennsylvanians. Next generation nuclear plants also offer great technological advantages that will help to make nuclear power even more safe and efficient.
Much controversy in nuclear power revolves around a hypothesis known as Linear Non Threshold (LNT). It is the assumption that the known health effects from high doses of radiation “may also be occurring at the same rate – or perhaps even a higher rate, in the low-dose realm.” In other words, this hypothesis states that radiation affects humans in a linear fashion, to the lowest possible dose. However, of a recent survey of 1,737 Department of Energy scientists, only 36% subscribe to this hypothesis. The majority believes that below a certain threshold, radiation does not affect the body. However, LNT underlies regulations about the management of nuclear plants and nuclear waste facilities. Low-dose radiation studies, which Anderson and many others in the industry advocate, may occur soon. Those studies will tell us a lot about the future of nuclear energy.
Just learning about all the naturally occurring background radiation gave me a lot of perspective. Now, when I look over the information about the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee, it no longer gives me pause. Sure, Vermont Yankee is an aging plant, and Entergy Corp. could have been more forthcoming with information about the plant, but that does not mean that a coal plant would be preferable to Vermont Yankee. This book deserves your attention.