When climate scientists and some energy policy analysts take a "tough-minded" look at the numbers, many come to the conclusion that the only technology now available to replace fossil fuels is nuclear power. Eduardo Porter of the New York Times made that argument last week when he wrote:
...nuclear power remains the cheapest and most readily scalable of the alternative energy sources.
As I indicated this past April, I disagree. There are a number of reasons that nuclear power is a bad solution to the climate crisis. The first is that the technology is really not available. Nuclear power plants are capital-intensive, technologically complex to manage, and difficult, if not impossible, to site. These are not minor issues. Investors would rather put their money elsewhere and communities intensely resist siting a plant in their backyard.
This means that even though we know how to generate electricity this way, and we have many decades of experience doing it, in the U.S. these plants will never be built in sufficient quantity to reduce global warming. In other parts of the world, we might pay attention to the lessons we should be learning in Iran. There is a thin line between the technology of nuclear power generation and the technology of nuclear bomb development. While it's too late to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, let's stop pretending that human political systems or organizational processes can manage the risks of this technology.
There are other issues associated with current nuclear technologies that render them problematic as well. The toxicity of its fuel and waste, for example, should not be ignored. Catastrophic accidents may be rare, but when they occur, their impact is intense and long-lasting. While a well-managed plant poses little real danger, it is difficult to judge the danger posed by a poorly managed one. One also cannot dismiss the possibility of sabotage. Terrorists taking over a plant and threatening to allow an accident to occur could hold a city hostage.
Electric utilities, like water and sewage utilities, are natural monopolies that require government regulation. The investment in infrastructure to generate and transmit electricity is so massive that it makes little sense to allow more than one system per city. This investment in infrastructure and equipment reinforces the tendency of electric utilities to be highly centralized, vertically integrated organizations. These utilities tend to be rigid, unimaginative and monopolistic. While most other elements of our economy have moved into decentralized networks of organizations, the energy sector remains highly centralized. This is true of oil companies as well as electric utilities. These organizations outsource, but they are far less network-dependent than many other private organizations. It should not surprise us if the energy sector is insular and resists innovation. Instead of embracing renewable energy, many, though not all, are fighting it.
Renewable energy could change the energy business. While some large-scale organizations will always be part of the energy industry, we are seeing the start of decentralized, distributed generation of energy. Although the conventional wisdom tells us that solar power, battery technology, and smart grids are far in the future, we are only a breakthrough or two away from a new age of decentralized energy technology. While none of us can predict the future, and technological breakthroughs cannot be assumed, the risk of nuclear power is not difficult to predict.
The price of solar energy continues to come down, as the number of solar cells continues to grow. Breakthroughs in nanotechnology have the potential to shrink the size of these cells, making it possible to imagine smaller, more inexpensive installations of solar arrays. While some of the discussion of solar technology imagines utility-scale centralized power stations, my own view is that improved solar cells coupled with improved battery technology makes it possible to imagine a far more decentralized approach to energy generation. Even without breakthroughs, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has projected that:
Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's recently published 2012 Renewable Energy Data Book reported that:
• Renewable electricity represented 14 percent of total installed capacity and more than 12 percent of total electric generation in 2012...
• The installed global renewable electricity capacity, including hydropower, doubled between 2000 and 2012, and represents a significant and growing portion of the total energy supply both globally and in the U.S.
• In 2012, wind energy and solar photovoltaics (PV) were two of the fastest growing electric generation technologies in the U.S. Cumulative installed wind energy capacity increased by nearly 28 percent and cumulative installed solar photovoltaic capacity grew more than 83 percent from the previous year.
• Renewable electricity has been capturing a growing percentage of new capacity additions during the past few years. In 2012, renewable electricity accounted for more than 56 percent of all new electrical capacity installations in the U.S. -- a major increase from 2004 when renewable electricity installations captured only 2 percent of new capacity additions.
These data provide evidence of the growth of renewable energy in the United States, with modest, incremental improvements in technology. Large-scale implementation of smart grid technology would make it possible to accelerate this trend. This indicates a latent market that could expand rapidly following a major technological advance in solar receiver or storage technology. While windmills have generated political opposition due to impacts on views and birds, solar home installations have not generated much of any political opposition.
An important advantage of decentralized, distributed generation of energy is that it is less vulnerable to catastrophic, large-scale disruption. As our lifestyles require more and more energy, even a few days of disrupted supply can have a significant negative effect on quality of life. After Hurricane Sandy, many suburbanites in the Northeast went out and bought electric generators and gasoline tanks to keep their homes powered during and after storms. A solar system in the home, with an advanced storage battery, would be a more convenient and cleaner way to do the same job.
The Obama Administration's non-strategic "all of the above energy strategy" is a piece of political pandering that persists and continues to emphasize nuclear power and more extensive use of fossil fuels. At some point in the future, renewable energy will be able to underprice fossil fuels and they will fade away. Unfortunately, the toxicity of nuclear energy and its waste stream will last forever -- or at least for a few hundred thousand years. I urge nuclear advocates to focus their attention on the very human organizational and political systems that we rely on to manage these technologies. The nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is built but cannot be opened due to political opposition. International agreement and global pressure is required to try to dial back Iran's nuclear project to keep it focused on electricity instead of bomb making.
Nuclear remains a problematic technology. We need a focused, well-funded national effort to implement smart grids and decentralized renewable energy. We need leadership from the White House and an energy strategy that makes choices. This is not an argument made from a fear of all things nuclear. There are plenty of examples of nuclear facilities that are safe and well-managed. But political and organizational experts necessarily focus on human failures as well as successes. Even though the probability of nuclear failure is low, the certainty of occasional failure has already been demonstrated. The cost of those failures has been too high. Nuclear power is not the answer; the answer is renewable energy. Let's accept that and get to work.