Given the seriousness of the climate crisis, many thoughtful people, including Deseret Morning News Editor Joe Cannon, have argued that coal cannot be the source of our energy growth. I agree. He also advocated the revival of nuclear power as the mainstay of electricity growth amounting to 300 large power plants. This is risky, costly and unnecessary. Contrary to widely held opinion, renewable energy sources are quite sufficient to provide ample and reliable electricity for the United States.
For instance, the wind energy potential of Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states is 2 1/2 times the entire electricity production of the United States. Utah's neighbor, Wyoming, has almost as much wind energy potential as all 104 U.S. nuclear power plants combined. Solar energy is even more plentiful. The sunshine falling on rooftops and parking lots alone can provide much or most of the electricity requirements of the United States. Utah also has geothermal resources it can tap.
Wind energy is already competitive with or more economical than nuclear energy about 8 cents per kilowatt hour in very good areas. A recent independent assessment by the Keystone Center, which included industry representatives, estimated nuclear costs at 8 to 11 cents. Intermittency is not a significant issue until very high levels of penetration. For instance, a 2006 study prepared for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission found that an increase of just over 2 percent in operating reserves would be sufficient to underpin a 25 percent renewable energy standard supplied by wind.
Solar energy is somewhat more expensive today but costs are coming down rapidly. In December 2007, Nanosolar, a Silicon Valley company, produced the first solar panels costing less than a dollar a watt. When installed in megawatt chunks on commercial rooftops and commercial parking lots, the solar electricity is generated at the point of demand, avoiding the need for investments for major transmission lines, which can run into hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. At an installed cost of $2 per watt, expected in the next few years, delivered parking lot solar energy cost will be 14 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is comparable to new nuclear plants at a delivered cost 13 to 16 cents. Indeed, recent trends in solar costs indicate that nuclear power may become economically obsolete by the time the proposed nuclear power plants would come on line.
Utah's existing hydropower and natural gas resources can be integrated with wind, solar energy and an efficient smart grid to provide reliable electricity. With the maturing of energy storage technologies, even coal-fired power plants can be phased out over a period of 30 to 40 years.
New nuclear plants would add to the country's mountain of nuclear waste, at a time when the federal government has long been in default of its obligations to existing nuclear plant operators to take the waste away from their sites. Utahns are already familiar with the desperate, and so far unsuccessful, attempts of some utilities to send their waste to a "temporary" storage site in the state.
Solar and wind do not need water. The two nuclear plants proposed for Utah would consume between 30 and 60 million gallons of water per day. The 300 plants that Mr. Cannon proposes nationally would consume over a trillion gallons of water per year at a time when water supply is becoming an uncertain resource. For instance, last September, a nuclear unit at Browns Ferry belonging to the Tennessee Valley Authority had to be shut down for lack of water. Such problems can be expected to intensify in a warming world. A renewable electricity system would also be much more secure from terrorism than one that relies on nuclear power.
Last month, MidAmerican Energy Holdings (which owns Rocky Mountain Power and is owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway), dropped plans to build a nuclear power plant in Idaho, on the grounds that it could not provide reasonably priced energy to its customers. Is that why some in Utah advocate an open checkbook for the nuclear industry to come and build a power plant, whatever the cost? If not the customers, then would taxpayers provide the subsidies?
Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. He earned his doctorate degree in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley, where he specialized in nuclear fusion. Makhijani is author of "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy" and a consultant to a number of electric utilities including the Tennessee Valley Authority.