The Future of Energy is NOW: Vote Blue

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 accurately 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 as possible, since the entire party has always been beholden to the nuclear lobby as possible.

Over the past few years, a number of plants nationwide have gone offline, even though closing a nuclear plant isn’t the same as junking a car. The San Onofre plant in California is one of those decommissioned, in part because of its population and because former Senator Barbara Boxer took the lead. Around 8 million people lived 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 industry has a nearly 70-year history, and for almost 40 years, we kept building plants, without a plan for the nuclear waste that would be generated; waste that will continue to emit deadly radiation for thousands of years.

This post is not about nuclear power. It’s about this country’s penchant for doing things before we have managed to 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 again, almost 65 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 so many 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 as a way to make cheaper bombs we would hopefully never use, Bell Labs had made the first major foray into modern solar power. In other words, way back then, we had a choice; we could pursue a technology that could potentially lay waste to huge sections of the country if something went wrong, or we could promote solar power, using the most plentiful energy source on the planet, as well as one of the safest. 

Imagine 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 ethanol production, because large companies like ADM tend to “invest” heavily in Republicans. Biofuels are NOT the future. They’re only marginally better than fossil fuels for the environment, and we really have to get away from burning things for fuel. Also, do we really want our food supply to be integrated into our energy supply? Look at what’s been happening with corn and grain prices over the past decade or so.

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.

We have been investing in the wrong technologies under Republican rule 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 with the potential to destroy us. These are not smart choices. We need to make smart choices. Many Democrats are leading the way on the development of future energy sources, and even those who are not are open to the possibilities. On the other hand, we can’t get Republicans to even discuss this. They are so beholden to the oil and gas industries, they seem completely unable to even consider moving this country forward.

Coal, oil and natural gas will always have a place in the energy landscape, but we cannot continue to depend on them to the degree we do. Yet, with Republicans in charge, we are allowing other countries to lead the world in the use of renewable energy, which is the future. In other words, not only are we killing our air and water and quite possibly our climate without our overuse of fossil fuels, but we are ceding a huge market to countries like China, Russia and Europe, among others, which means we are giving away more of our economic leadership, as well. At a time when Republicans have taken a $900 billion national debt and in 38 years have increased that by 2200%, can we afford to cede economic ground to our largest competitors? 

This is another reason to vote Democratic on November 6 and beyond. It’s time we moved into the future, and the current GOP simply cannot do that. 


Also published on Medium.