It’s Past Time to Invest in the Real Future of Energy

Once upon  a time, when I was in elementary and junior high, we took a lot of field trips, mostly to Washington, DC and Philadelphia, although there were a couple of trips that could only be described as “indoctrination” into the wonderful world of nuclear power. The first, when I was about 11, was to Calvert Cliffs, ostensibly to hunt for fossils. But in addition to the fossil hunt, we were taken to a “visitors center” for a nuclear power plant that was under construction. Nuclear power was sold to us as “clean” and “cheap.” Two to three years later, we were taken to Peach Bottom, in southern Pennsylvania. that plant was already open, and they had a really elaborate visitors area, complete with cartoons and colorful brochures explaining to us kids that nuclear power would save us from all of that smoke pollution emanating from coal and oil-fired plants (they had a point at the time, frankly).

The indoctrination didn’t really take, but I didn’t really think about nuclear power until 1978, when I was living in Los Angeles and I started protesting the profoundly stupid concept of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which was located within a few miles of two fault lines. Yes, I said TWO. Between 1978 and 1983, I was involved in a number of protests with the Abalone Alliance, and I was even arrested twice. In 1979, the Three Mile Island disaster woke a lot of people up, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which rendered a large portion of Russia (then the Soviet Union) uninhabitable, made it clear that nuclear power was too risky. Unfortunately, it took the Fukushima disaster in Japan two and a half years ago to quite possibly kill the concept of nuclear power once and for all, although it will take a long time – and a Congress and state houses with as few Republicans who are beholden to the nuclear lobby as possible.

This year, so far, plants in California, Florida and Wisconsin are going offline, although closing a nuclear plant isn’t like junking a car. The San Onofre plant in California is one of those being decommissioned, in part because of its population and because Barbara Boxer took the lead. Around 8 million people now live within a 50 mile radius of the plant.  Unit 1 was decommissioned in 1992. Now, Units 2 and 3 will go down, a process which will take years. However, there is another dilemma; where to put the waste. Yes, folks. This country has a nearly 60-year history, and we kept building plants, without having a plan as to what to do with the nuclear waste generated; waste that will continue to emit deadly radiation for up to thousands of years.

This post is not about nuclear power. It’s about doing things before we think things through.  It’s also about suppressing good technology that could conceivably be used to replace bad technology. Worse, it’s about continuing to do those things long after we realize how bad they are, especially when we don’t have to.

There has never been a good reason to build nuclear power plants in this country. In fact, the only reason they even exist in the first place is because of the Cold War. Eisenhower wanted to build a bunch of nuclear bombs as a “deterrent” to the nuclear Soviet Union, and saw building a bunch of nuclear plants as a way to reduce costs to the government. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (another Republican “triumph”) basically turned nuclear power into a consumer product, and encouraged the building of plants, without even testing a few first. over a period of just over 20 years, we built 65 nuclear power plants in 31 states. And 59 years after the passage of the Atomic Energy Act, we still have no idea where to put the radioactive waste.

Do you know what else happened in 1954? The invention of the first silicon solar cell, which is the basis for solar power nearly 60 years later. Here’s a copy of the original patent. In other words, at the same time the government was encouraging the development of nuclear power, so they could make cheaper bombs that we hopefully would never use, Bell Labs made the first major foray into modern solar power. In other words, we had a choice; to pursue a technology that could potentially lay waste to huge sections of the country if something went wrong, or to promote solar power, which is the most plentiful energy source on the planet, as well as one of the safest. We chose the most dangerous course, because it was “easy.” As a result, we have 65 nuclear plants spread all over the country, hopefully, they’re not sitting ducks, but who knows, really?

Imagine, if you will, that we had started to invest in renewable energy, beginning with solar, from the very beginning of the modern era. With small investment from the government (almost none during the 1980s), amazing progress has been made. By 1992, with almost no real public investment, except a little during the late 1970s (still think Carter sucked?), solar cell efficiency had risen from 6% to about 16%. Two years later, with a little more investment, the first 30% efficient solar cells were developed, and the first 40% efficient solar cells were developed in 2006. The 40% threshold was crucial to making solar energy viable, and now, the costs of solar power are competitive with fossil fuels. In fact, the cost of what is euphemistically referred to as “clean coal” is so high, it is virtually even with solar power. And that’s without a massive investment and adoption of solar power.

Here’s a report to examine, which came out in 2011. In particular, check out the charts on pages 18 and 29. The government’s investment in solar (and wind and hydro) has been dwarfed by investment in oil and gas power, which is the largest investment, and nuclear power, which is second. Oil and gas and nuclear combined receive an average of more than $8.3 billion per year in subsidies, while biofuels and renewables have averaged $1.4 billion per year, and only in the last 20 years. And let’s get real; most of the biofuels money goes to Archer Daniels Midland for ethanol production, because they tend to bri- er, invest in Republicans. Biofuels are NOT the future, anyway. We simply have to get away from burning things for fuel, and do we really want our food supply to be intertwined with our energy supply? Look at what’s happening with corn and grain prices in recent years.

Think about it; what are we really investing in when we subsidize oil and gas, or nuclear, which are mature technologies? Why would we not invest heavily to develop solar, wind and geothermal power? Oil is running out. Natural gas will eventually run out. If we ever run out of solar or wind power, we’ll have bigger problems than electricity to worry about. Screw the oil and natural gas companies; we should be plowing our money into building factories to build millions of solar panels, and more into constructing solar farms all over this country. If solar power is competitive now, imagine how cheap it will be after that. We should also be investing in development and deployment of wind turbines. Every new home and/or housing development should be as self-sufficient as possible, equipped with solar panels and/or wind turbines, and our emphasis should move away from humongous power plants, except in large cities. where individual energy plants are less practical. And we should be moving to replace oil, coal and gas-powered plants with solar, wind and geothermal power generation. We should also be conservation junkies. If we can figure out how to run an iPhone for 47 cents per year, and to get the same light from a 20-watt bulb that we used to get from a 100-watt bulb, then we can figure out how to use even less in the future. Imagine a future where we use half the energy, and we’re selling excess power back to the utilities, instead of paying them $300 per month.

And needless to say, we should not allow one more nuclear plant to be built until we can figure out what to do with the waste, and until we actually dispose of the waste safely. We are investing in the wrong technologies. And in the process, we’re making ourselves obsolete. China and most of Europe are already way ahead of us with regard to renewable energy technologies, while we continue to waste our time and money protecting a 19th Century technology that is running out fast, and a 20th Century technology that has the potential to destroy us. These are not smart choices. We need to make smart choices.