Solar NOT Nuclear

It Doesn't Add Up

Photovoltaic cells are 1/50th their price in the 1970s.

Wind energy is 80 per cent cheaper than it was 15 years ago.

Nuclear energy, once promoted as the cheap energy source of the future, is now the most expensive commercial energy option in the United States.

Australia could generate far more 'wealth and jobs' by re-directing subsidies that support uranium mining and nuclear energy towards our renewable energy industry.

Source : Financial Review, June 21, 1996.

Alternative, Safe and Sustainable Sources of Energy

In our modern industrial society we have grown accustomed to having energy 'on tap'. In Australia, since the 1950s, energy consumption has tripled.

Energy utilities and road builders have encouraged us to use energy as if the supply were limitless and most of us have been only too willing to go along. The reality is that almost all energy used to run our consumer society comes from fossil fuels ­ coal, oil and gas ­ and these are finite and non-renewable resources.

Because fossil fuel resources are limited the high rate at which they are extracted cannot be sustained for much longer. Neither can our planet sustain the consequences of extracting and burning them at an increasing rate without ending in ecological disaster.

We are just beginning to appreciate the extent of the environmental problems created by the energy extravagances of wealthy industrial countries. Australians are among the greediest consumers of energy in the world.

In Europe forests are dying from acid rain laden with sulphur and nitrogen oxides from burning coal. Marine and bird life are blighted by innumerable accidental and intentional oil spills.

Urban populations are often smothered in a haze of unhealthy smog. The 'convenience' for some to commute by car poses a life threat to others with respiratory weaknesses.

Now we find we are being overtaken by a more far-reaching consequence of burning fossil fuels. The emission of great volumes of gases is adding to the natural greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, trapping more of the sun's energy and causing the earth to become warmer. This is destabilising the climate of our planet. Carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming.

Established systems of food and water supply, and forestry and fishing industries are put at risk by the likely destabilisation of the climate. As ocean waters expand with warming, coastal lands could be inundated by rising sea levels forcing communities to withdraw to higher ground. People living on Pacific islands would have to migrate en masse to the continents.

A quarter of the world's population consumes the lion's share of world energy supplies. The average person in a rich country uses more than ten times as much energy as a person in a very poor country though averages disguise inequities between rich and poor within the same country, city and even street.


Alternative, Safe and Sustainable Sources of Energy
Alternative sources of energy are considerably more attractive in many ways than nuclear power. These sources include solar power, wind, wave and geothermal energy. Energy efficiency is also critically important in delivering an economically and environmentally acceptable but sustainable source of energy for the 21st century.

To raise energy use in the world's poor countries to the level of the rich industrial countries using fossil fuels would require increasing their supply five times. That could be done only by destroying the biosphere on which we all depend for our existence.

If we are to have a more equitable sharing of natural energy resources, without further endangering the environment, then wealthy nations will have to cut back greatly on their fossil fuel consumption. Global warming is the spur to doing what should have been done long ago:

Efficiency Or Nuclear Power

Australia adopted the recommendation of the Conference on Changing Climate: Implications for Global Security, held in Toronto in 1988, that "nations reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions by 20 per cent by the year 2005". In the same year a World Conference on Climate and Development in Hamburg called for a more drastic "60 per cent reduction by the year 2015". Australia has since reneged on its commitment.

It is generally agreed that the short term strategy should aim to achieve the Toronto target or, in the view of environmentalists, a very much higher target.

By far the cheapest and easiest way to reduce demand for fossil fuels will be to introduce more energy efficient technologies. While improving the efficiency of using fossil fuels alternative energy sources could be phased in.

Because coal-generated electricity is a major source of carbon dioxide (half of Victoria's emissions) the efficiency of using electricity to operate appliances has to be given particular attention.

Centralised generation of electricity in conventional power stations wastes 70 per cent of the fuel's primary energy. Electricity is uniquely suited for lighting, electronics, public transport, electric motors for hand tools, appliances and larger machines. These account for about eight per cent of an industrial society's energy demand. Using electricity for water and space heating is very wasteful. It is more efficient to burn the fuel at the location where the heat is needed.

The nuclear industry argues that since nuclear power reactors release no carbon dioxide a large number of nuclear power stations should be built.

Should we settle for nuclear power or energy efficiency to combat global warming? One of the wider considerations is that nuclear power is limited to replacing fossil fuels used to generate electricity whereas energy efficiency can make savings over a whole range of uses from operating road vehicles to building houses which use more of the sun's light and heat. But there are other still more persuasive arguments against nuclear power.

A study by the International Energy Agency shows that to increase nuclear power generated electricity to 70 per cent in OECD countries alone would require building a large nuclear power station every nine days from now until 2010. Even so carbon dioxide emissions would be only 7 per cent less than if this crash reactor building program had not been undertaken.

Another study found that to replace coal in the world economy over 3000 reactors would have to be built in just three decades. Not even the wealthy nations could afford the investment let alone the developing nations.

In the United States it has been estimated that "...each dollar invested in efficiency displaces nearly seven times more carbon [as coal] than a dollar invested in nuclear power".

More From Less

The notion of traditional energy policy-makers that to live better requires more energy is fallacious. Sweden uses about half the energy per capita as does the United States. No one would suggest that a Swedish citizen is only half as well off as an American.

In OECD countries economic activity, between 1973 and 1984, increased 20 per cent with no overall increase in energy consumption. Energy consumption per capita in the major industrial countries has decreased to about 75 per cent of that in the early 1970s.

Despite the large energy savings already made there remains an enormous potential to do more with still less energy. One analysis indicates that given the necessary investment in existing energy efficient technologies, the entire world could live at the standard of European citizens by the year 2020 with global energy use increasing only 10 per cent.

To entice greater effort towards energy efficiency Germany, in 1993, tried to persuade the European Community to impose a 'carbon' tax on fossil fuels. The tax was also debated within the Australian Labor Government. So far, however, the oil multinationals have successfully lobbied against such a tax.

An alternative, or complementary, approach is to reward cleaner energy supply systems by paying a subsidy to balance the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels.

Energy is not what we want but the services it enables us to have. If we use an 18-watt compact fluorescent, instead of a 75-watt incandescent, globe we get the same light using a quarter the energy and so at only a quarter the cost. And back at the power station less coal is burnt.

To repair and recycle goods can save energy as well as materials. The highest energy consuming industries are those producing glass, cement, plastics and metals. The energy 'congealed' in just one aluminium can keep a 60 watt globe alight for 24 hours.

Electric motors are responsible for the consumption of about half the electricity used in an industrial economy. With the most efficient motors, run only when doing work and rated for power to match the work they do the electricity used is reduced by half.

Utilities have seen their job as suppliers of energy ­ the more the better. When the idea of 'least-cost planning' (spending as little as possible on energy to achieve the same end) was first advocated by public interest groups it was resisted by utilities. Some have come to see it pays better than building new facilities.

In 'least-cost planning' investing in new supply facilities and improving the efficiency of customers' energy use are compared. Improving energy efficiency usually proves the least costly.

New England Electric, in the United States, began paying customers for the cost to install efficient lighting, cooling and heating in old commercial buildings. The customers saved $100 million a year. The utility recovered 20 per cent of the savings, a much better return than it would get from investing in a new power station.

The same utility has used house roofs to locate photovoltaic cells which feed surplus electricity into its grid during the day. At night householders use electricity from the grid. They pay only for the extra current used, which is shown on a meter.

This 'give and take' between utility and customer is becoming more common. Industries generate electricity from steam, putting any surplus into the national grid, and using the hot water condensate to provide heat for production processes. The industry pays for the difference between the electricity it supplies to, and draws from, the grid.

Australian utilities have found it hard to accept that their customers should sell them electricity as well as buy it or that they should help customers to use less energy not more. Slowly both are beginning to happen.

Nuclear Power Or Renewables

Efficiency will have limits; new supply facilities will have to be built. Energy efficiency is just the cutting edge for renewable energy systems. We need to start now to phase in an ecologically sustainable energy structure to run the world economy next century.

Some nuclear proponents grasp the logic of improving energy efficiency in the short term. They see the folly of crash programs building thousands of nuclear reactors. Nonetheless they foresee a 'second nuclear era', using 'safer' reactors, when nuclear electricity will play its part in the halting of global warming.

Nor has nuclear industry altogether given up hope of reactors breeding plutonium fuel from its stocks of depleted uranium (uranium-238), left over from the enrichment process. In theory fast-breeder reactors could by breeding plutonium multiply the released energy from the small proportion of fissionable uranium-235 by as much as a hundred times.

Breeder reactors have failed to produced plutonium in the way promised. And of course, waste problems would also multiply .

But the white hope of nuclear proponents is to imitate the sun's nuclear furnace by fusing small atoms of deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen). The energy released by fusing the deuterium to be had from just one cubic kilometre of seawater would be equivalent to half the world's oil reserves.

In theory at least the breeder and fusion reactors are a source of virtually unlimited, if not truly, renewable energy. Promise, or mirage, it is alluring enough for governments to allocate the biggest share of energy research funds to the nuclear venture.

While nuclear energy can be conceived as potentially renewable by breeding plutonium or fusing light atoms, the sun's radiant energy reaching the earth is forever replenished to sustain human activities; it is truly renewable. And no fuel means no toxic waste.

Solar radiation can be harnessed directly to produce heat or electricity, or indirectly through biomass, wind, wave, and falling water. Environmentally friendly solar technology is available to provide electricity and low and high temperature heat at any location independently of any supply authority.

Enormous quantities of solar energy are available dwarfing the quantities of energy used to run the world economy. According to the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development), published as Our Common Future, "given innovative development, they [the renewable sources] could supply the same amount of primary energy the planet now consumes".

Development of renewable sources will depend not so much on being competitive as on political and institutional willingness to move to a reliance on these sources. Investment of vast sums of capital and employment of human talent by governments in the nuclear venture was a wrong political decision that will have to be reversed before nations can afford to fund the renewables adequately.

The potential of the renewables should not be judged simply in money terms such as the number of years to pay back the invested capital. External factors ­ health, environment, research, subsidies, government regulation, long-term security of supply (millions of years for solar), diversity ­ must be taken into account in energy decision-making.

Nuclear and Solar Societies

 Nuclear (high energy)

 

 Solar (low energy)

Large scale; complex; centralised; high energy.

Technology 

Small scale; simple; decentralised; low energy.
Capital intensive industry; monopoly.

 Economics

Small scale enterprise; community orientated.
High impact; radioactive polution

 Environment

 Low impact
Stress; wasteful consumption; inequity; expert dominated.

 Society

 Community; self-management; durable goods.
 Routine; alienation

 Employment

 Related to social need; skilled; innovative.
 Environmental disease.

 Health

 Reduced incidence of environmental disease.
 Traffic congestion; stress; restless mobility.

 Transport

 Public transport; equitable travel opportunities.
 Technocratic; undemocratic decision-making

 Politics

 Active community involvement in decision-making.

Nuclear Or Solar Society?

The choice between nuclear and solar involves ethical as well as technical issues. Energy is pervasive of all we do; our choices will be influenced by social values.

The complexity, huge scale and high capitalisation of nuclear industry puts it firmly in the grip of large corporations. No small nation can hope to develop a reactor. A small nation which buys reactors with foreign credits henceforth is a client state of a large nation and dependent on a foreign corporation for the security of its energy supply.

Because plutonium gives access to nuclear weapons it must be vigilantly guarded. Once a common fuel is under constant military guard society is destined to come under military control.

In 1972 Alvin Weinberg, one of the more thoughtful nuclear proponents, said : "We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand we offer...an inexhaustible supply of energy but the price we demand of society for this magical source of energy is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions to which we are quite unaccustomed...In a sense we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons...and upon which we all depend for our survival".

Reliance on diverse renewable sources offers the opportunity to decentralise control of energy production. The dispersed and diverse nature of solar energy presents problems. But these qualities also offer opportunities to employ people with diverse skills and innovative talents.

Small increments of energy growth from diverse sources avoids risks of high capital investment required for large facilities. Small scale energy projects are technically and organisationally more appropriate to rural communities than nuclear power. They are more manageable financially and help developing countries keep down foreign indebtedness.

Dispersed energy sources and a concomitant production of socially useful and durable goods offer the potential for, though not inevitability of, devolution of economic and political decision-making which must inevitably prevail in a nuclear society.

Renewable Energy Systems

Solar Heat

The sun's radiant energy is the oldest energy source. It dries clothes, crops, heats heat and distils water and cooks food.

Black plate collectors heat water. They could provide about three-quarters of Australia's domestic and industrial hot water. Parabolic mirrors concentrate sunlight to turn water into steam for industrial heat and electricity.

Photovoltaics

Silicon captures sunlight and converts it directly to electricity. Photovoltaics are used to power equipment in remote places. Roof photovoltaics power houses and feed daytime surplus electricity into the grid.

Wind

Windmills have pumped water and done other mechanical work for 2000 years. Today wind turbines on windfarms feed electricity into grids. The winds on Australia's southern coast make windfarms economic.

Water

The first water wheel was used in ancient Greece. Hydroelectric power already contributes significantly to energy supplies. Small hydroelctric schemes are more environmentally friendly than large schemes and provide a local power supply,

Tidal power is available from barrages in river estuaries.

The energy potential of waves is enormous. Floats bobbing up and down push fluid through turbines to generate electricity. Sites for wave power exist along the mainland southern coast and the west coast of Tasmania.

Biomass

Biomass energy comes from plant material by burning to obtain heat directly (fuel wood) or by fermenting it to obtain alcohol which can be used to power vehicles. However, fuel alcohol competes with food crops for arable land and so is environmentally sound only for waste from forests or crops.

Fermentation of plant matter, together with animal excrement, produces biogas which contains methane (natural gas). A high grade fertiliser is produced at the same time.

Passive Solar

Buildings consume half the energy used by industrial society. By insulating and sealing against draughts, heat losses are reduced by 80 per cent.

Buildings which trap the sun's energy and use efficient space heating reduce the energy demand still further.

Further Reading

The Energy Alternative - Changing The Way The World Works,
by Walter C. Patterson; Boxtree Press, London, 1990.

Living in the Greenhouse - What To Expect - What To Do,
by Dr Ian Lowe, Scribe Publications, P.O. Box 287, Carlton North, Vic. 3054;
e-mail: [email protected]


Information from the MAUM public education sheet on alternative energies.
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