Thursday, December 26, 2013

It is not Nuclear Power but Renewable Energy: the answer to climate change

There are a lot of people who assumes that the sole technology that is now available to substitute fossil fuels is nuclear power especially when climate scientists and some energy policy analysts take a “tough-minded” look at the numbers. 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.

There are many reasons why nuclear power is a bad solution to the climate crisis. The first reason is that the technology is not available. Nuclear power plants are capital-intensive, technologically complex to manage, and difficult, if not impossible, to site. These issues are not minor, investors chose putting their money somewhere else and communities are greatly against sitting a plant in their backyard.

As a consequence, despite our knowledge on how to use electricity this way plus our years of experience practicing it, in the U.S. these plants will never be built in enough amount to reduce global warming. There is a slight difference between the technology of nuclear power generation and the technology of nuclear bomb development. It is now hard to put things back the way it used to be, let us admit that human political systems or organizational processes cannot manage the risks of this technology.

Other issues associated with current nuclear technologies that cause them to become problematic. For instance, the toxicity of its fuel and waste should not be ignored. Dangerous accidents are rare but once it happened, the impact is intense and long-lasting. It is hard to judge the danger posed by a poorly managed one while a well-managed plant poses little real danger. There is also a possibility of sabotage. Terrorists taking over a plant and threatening to plant accident could hold a city hostage.

Electric utilities are natural monopolies that necessitate government regulation. The investment in infrastructure to produce and send out electricity is so enormous that it makes slight sense to permit more than one system for each city. This investment in infrastructure and equipment strengthens the chance of electric utilities to be greatly centralized, vertically incorporated organizations. These utilities have a propensity to be firm, dull and monopolistic.

Renewable energy has the chance to change the energy business. There could be the start of decentralized, distributed generation of energy while some large-scale organizations will always be part of the energy industry. Even though the predictable wisdom informs us that solar power, battery technology, and smart grids will take time, the technology is only a breakthrough or two away from a new age of decentralized energy technology.

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.

In the United States, these data grant evidence of the growth of renewable energy, with modest, incremental improvements in technology. Large-scale completion of smart grid technology would make it possible to hurry this trend. This signifies a latent market that could inflate quickly subsequent to a major technological advance in solar receiver or storage technology.

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