Many people who are concerned about fossil fuels and climate change argue for nuclear power as a viable solution to carbon pollution. I am not one of those people.
I am not negative on the technology, but rather on the political, environmental, and management issues it raises. Nuclear power creates significant issues of waste, safety, regulation, and capital intensity—or, as the great ecologist Barry Commoner once wrote, it’s “a hell of a complicated way to boil water.” I was delighted with the recent decision to close Indian Point, the only nuclear power plant near New York City, and was pleased to see a report by Synapse Energy Economics, commissioned by NRDC and Riverkeeper, conclude that energy efficiency measures could replace the electricity lost by decommissioning Indian Point.
According to Synapse Energy Economics:
“Under aggressive but cost-effective and potentially attainable increases in energy efficiency beyond the levels assumed in the Clean Energy Standard, all of the consumption otherwise met with IPEC (Indian Point Energy Center) station output could be met by more efficient energy use alone by 2023…”
The report estimates that aggressive energy efficiency programs could produce savings equal to twice the power generated by the Indian Point plant. A New York Times piece by Patrick McGeehan discusses the report’s analysis of energy efficiency programs in Connecticut and Rhode Island; these two states provide incentives for the adoption of energy efficiency measures and are able to produce energy savings of about 3% a year.
Ultimately, we will need renewable energy to power our entire energy system, but in the short run, we waste so much energy that efficiency can be used to meet our energy needs without using nuclear power. Some will argue that it would be better for the planet if we used nuclear power to replace electricity generated by fossil fuels, but as I wrote about a year ago:
“In theory, nuclear power can be a low risk technology; in reality it is not. The problem is that humans manage nuclear energy facilities and are responsible for the operation and maintenance of complex and aging power plants. Some may argue that nuclear technology is nearly free of errors, but everyone knows that people make mistakes. And the price of a nuclear mistake is too high to risk. While only technology will save us from the impact of our technology, nuclear power is the wrong technology to save us from global warming. It’s tempting. The scale is large, the power is immense, and it’s something we know how to build. But the toxicity of nuclear fuel and waste is simply too great to permit. The probability of failure may be low, but the catastrophic impact of failure is too great to tolerate. That is the lesson of Fukushima. The lesson of a failure at Indian Point would be even more profound. Imagine radioactive debris floating down the Hudson River. Imagine the panic in the New York metropolitan region.”
The awful truth is that some problems are worse than climate change. Nuclear contamination is one of them. In addressing environmental problems, we need to understand that no single problem can be addressed in isolation from others. Cross-media pollution is a real issue; the solution to an air pollution problem can easily cause a water pollution problem. A refrigerant used to reduce damage to the ozone layer of the atmosphere can end up being a potent greenhouse gas that causes global warming. The major problem with radioactive contamination is that the time scale of damage is so long that for all practical purposes it is irreversible. The contaminated soils must all be treated as highly toxic waste products. We should not try to reduce greenhouse gases by adding to the nuclear waste problem.
Using energy efficiency to replace nuclear power, as proposed by NRDC and Riverkeeper, is an elegant solution to a difficult problem. New York’s Public Service Commission should work harder to incentivize energy efficiency. Utilities should make more profit when they deliver on efficiency goals. Con Ed should make more money when they sell less electricity. Homeowners should receive tax credits for demonstrating reductions in energy use. Energy audits and the capital costs of retrofits should be provided at a discount. Businesses should receive free consulting services from utilities and the state on how to incorporate energy efficiency practices into routine organizational management. The goal is to grow the economy without building new power plants—to maintain, and even improve, our standard of living while reducing our use of energy.
The idea to replace nuclear power with energy efficiency was not invented in New York. Typical of many new energy and environmental programs, it began in California. In June 2016, Pacific Gas and Electric announced an agreement it had reached with labor unions and environmental groups to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant by 2025 and replace it with energy efficiency and renewable energy. Writing in Scientific American, Debra Kahn reported that: “Environmentalists said other states could use the agreement as a template to replace other nuclear and fossil-fueled plants with renewables, especially distributed solar, in order to fight climate change.”
Renewables still require new technology to displace other sources of energy, but energy efficiency is here right now. Energy efficiency is an important source of energy because of the casual way we have treated the use of energy in the past. Energy is a central resource needed in nearly every aspect of modern life. Appliances such as refrigerators, air conditioners, heaters, vehicles, computers, smartphones, radios, cable boxes, televisions, stoves and coffee makers all require energy. In many cases these appliances have been built to ensure reliable performance, but until the past decade or two, efforts to deliver that performance did not focus on delivery with the least possible energy use. Once engineers turned their attention to energy efficiency they found they could produce new appliances that worked just as well as the old but required much less energy. Similarly, architects and real estate developers started to design structures and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems that used less energy. Old structures could be retrofitted with better insulated windows, timers, and motion-sensitive lighting, along with LED light bulbs.
Industrial energy use in data farms and other locations provide large, new targets for energy efficiency. One of the chief advantages of energy efficiency is that it is difficult to argue against it. What is the counter-argument? Let’s waste as much energy as we can and spend lots of money on energy instead of saving it for better uses? There are, however, obstacles to energy efficiency: capital costs, habit, inconvenience, risk due to reduced redundancy (eg. in information technology facilities), outmoded regulations, and so on. But there is undeniable momentum behind efficiency as a “source” of energy. It enables reductions in pollution and in the costs of energy without trading off any benefits.
While I consider the current form of nuclear energy to be too risky and capital intensive to count on, it is possible to imagine the development of other forms of nuclear energy—perhaps a form of nuclear power that does not create waste and is not capable of melting down and releasing radioactive material into the environment. We may also see new technologies based on other principles that could be used to replace fossil fuels or today’s nuclear power.
The contrast between these two states and the Trump Administration could not be sharper. California and New York are trying to make the transition to a renewable energy future. The Trump folks are trying to piece together the pipelines, oil rigs, and coal mines of our energy present and past. I, for one, am betting on the future.