No One Has "The Solution" to the Energy Crisis

by Lorna Salzman

We all have ideas and opinions. Whether these constitute valid solutions to the energy crisis is what the debate is about of course but the outcome is still unknown. For purposes of a debate we need to offer more than faith to substantiate our opinions.

This means more than technical knowledge. It means facing up to the reality of things like available funding, human fallibility, institutional incentives or obstacles, clarifying and acknowledging risks, the limits of knowledge, and recognizing the role of self-interest and political biases. Not least, the definition of the character and extent of the crisis is crucial to intelligent and honest debate.

Much of the ongoing debate, even among allies, has been based on the same assumptions. The reason for this is obvious. Many professionals, government regulators, and private business have a stake in assuring their own survival. Since they were founded on and presently operate within our existing energy economy and policies, it is only human nature to define problems and solutions that will not challenge or disrupt Business As Usual.

As a result, those outside of these sectors who suggest that radical systemic transformation is needed are called, variously, radicals, utopians, anti-capitalists, revolutionaries, subversives, and social misfits. Their ideas are seldom taken seriously if they are read at all, even when they are scientifically sound and substantiated.

The Business As Usual assumptions are that our present consumer society, based on unlimited production and consumption of natural resources and energy, is both desirable and necessary since (the proponents say) it is the only system that takes social and economic equality into account and therefore has the potential for improving the quality of human life (which of course has traditionally excluded non=human life at worst, and at best given it token attention to the extent that this does not adversely impact humans).

Consequently, in the energy debate, even the most ardent renewable energy champions talk only of how their proposals will benefit humans, by creating "green jobs", aiding poor and minority communities, and advancing social justice through "clean energy" technologies. Absent is any recognition of the limits to untrammeled economic growth and energy consumption. And when global warming is mentioned at all, again the same answer - renewable energy - rather than cutbacks in energy use - rears its head. Huge efforts go into avoiding anything that reeks of hardship or sacrifice, including the specific impacts of global warming that are imminent and which threaten that social and economic system they are trying to perpetuate.

So any debate on our energy future must, to be honest, take into account ecological reality as well as political and social constraints on our preferred
solutions to the energy crisis. In turn these circumscribe and constrain the questions we must ask ourselves. If we don't ask the right questions, we will not get the right answers.

In light of the hanging sword of global warming and its spawn, the crises of biodiversity and the global commons, we need to recognize some hard truths: there are limits on the money available; there are shrinking limits on the time remaining to head off collapse; there is the unstarted task of matching the type and scale of energy to the kind of work we want it to perform; there is the question of payback time for investment; and not least there is the open question as to which energy technologies have the best chance of mitigating the early impacts of global warming so that we have some breathing space to take further action.

It is beyond argument that reducing energy consumption, through mandatory efficiency standards and measures and possibly through higher prices and rationing, is the first choice. Studies indicate that energy efficiency alone could reduce total energy use by 30%. Anyone looking at our inefficient vehicles, car-dependent communities, exurban sprawl, skyscraper lights burning all night, jet-travel food imports, extravagant uninsulated building construction, overheated and overcooled rooms, and mismatched energy-work relationship, could hardly disagree.

This is not trivial, by itself or in relation to our other energy concerns. The more we save via efficiency, the MORE money and resources we have to expend to produce NEW sources of energy. Smart businesses have already saved huge sums of money because it was in their interest to do so. Why are we, as a nation, not committed to this same kind of rational behavior? Whatever happened to frugality?

OK, so we have now cut our energy use by nearly one third. What remains? The two big question marks pertain to the two main forms of energy: liquid fuels and electricity. The latter provides about 20% of our END USES of energy, which are, except for some electric trains, stationary sources. Liquid fuels comprise the balance, with about half going towards transportation. Clearly the crisis we face is largely with finding substitutes for liquid fuels. Electricity isn't going to run our cars (assuming we still rely on cars), and it is completely and absurdly inefficient for space heating and cooling.

Today coal provides most of our electricity. This is going to end, hopefully sooner than later. So the hard question is: what is going to replace coal? Enter the nuclear power proponents. Having sat around for decades, itching for a chance to enter the game again, behold the "4th generation" of nuclear reactors. If you believe them, they come without any problems whatsoever! No radioactive waste, inherent safety, no proliferation risk, nada.

The science doesn't quite fit this rosy picture however, and if you argue with the self-styled experts, they will throw the book at you and you won't understand a word; consequently you will be silenced and/or intimidated. But you can't let them define the terms of debate, which go far beyond safety. They go to the much more important question: how can we scale back and re-design our society, our economy, to survive under the constraints of Nature and social stability, within our budget, within the parameters of democracy and social justice... can we do this soon enough to head off disaster? And can we afford it? Subtext: what energy choices will give us the biggest (non-lethal) bang for the buck, in the shortest period of time?

Private investors are shunning nuclear utilities like the flu because of two things: the inherent safety risks, and the time frame involved, which is so protracted that their profits are invisible. So nuclear utilities have gone begging again to the federal government, asking for loan guarantees, meaning that if they manage to get someone to loan them the $10 billion it will cost to build one reactor, and the venture fails, the taxpayers will pick up the bill.

This isn't exactly a vote of confidence in nukes if you ask me. If the nuclear industry is so certain that its product is cheap, fast, benign and necessary, then why do they have to have US insure THEM? Why can't they convince private investors of this anyway? This is why we have federal flood insurance, by the way; people living in flood plains and coastal zones can't get private insurance because insurance companies are uncannily clever and understand (as befits a business dependent on risk assessment) the risk.

To replace our entire coal-based power plant system with nuclear power would take decades. You couldn't shut the whole thing down at once obviously, so you would have to do it one or two plants at a time. So once you get the money (somewhere, somehow), you start the process of getting a license and then, much later, construction. Ten years later one plant comes in line and you can shut down a coal plant.

Oh, you think you can speed things up and replace a bunch of coal plants all at once by building MORE nukes simultaneously? Well, then you have to raise $10 billion per plant...$100 billion for ten plants. $1 trillion for a hundred. (Hey what about Medicare and Social Security?). And you still wait ten years. (As of today nothing has been started). If you are lucky, you will get permission from a sympathetic state utility commission to charge present electric customers the cost of that nuke BEFORE IT IS EVEN BUILT OR STARTS OPERATING. At least one utility is trying this scam.

Mind you, this is all pie in a future tangerine sky. Meanwhile the months and years are passing by. Now, credible scientists say we have to reduce CO2 emissions 50% by the year 2020. Some say 80% by 2050. There isn't much difference because even if you started one new nuke today, it won't come on line much before 2020. By that time the heat has hit the fan, say most scientists. Incidentally, the Waxman/Markey energy bill now before congress is talking about a 17% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020. That and the proverbial buck will get you a ride on the subway (more or less).

If you think $100 billion or $1 trillion isn't much for a new nuke system, then look at it this way: that is $100 billion that could have gone into energy efficiency, wind turbines, solar thermal, solar collectors, photovoltaics....all extant technologies, especially wind power. And these are technologies that are not only "shovel-ready", with a few years to recoup costs, but green and renewable and which create and sustain jobs..lots more jobs than a nuke. And if your plumber falls off your roof fixing your solar collector, that isn't exactly as bad as having a nuclear meltdown.

These are the broader implications of energy policy. They have societal implications that go far beyond the issue of safety. Historically we didn't need to think about them because energy was cheap (though the nuclear energy they promised as "too cheap to meter" didn't pan out). Cheap energy is what created our crisis. If we are going to have to pay more for energy - which we should and must - we should at least insure that it is spent frugally, wisely,and sustainably, and that it is provided to us free of hype and promises of a consumer utopia where we can be as profligate as we have been. And we as citizens should be the ones to define that future, not the so-called experts.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.