Back From The Grave
issue 206 - April 1990
3. Boost alternatives
Getting off the petroleum treadmill (and consequently producing less C02) means putting research and resources into clean, non-polluting sources of renewable energy. At the same time we need to pursue energy conservation (cutting down on our overall use of fuel) and energy efficiency (making sure we squeeze as much work as possible from the fuels we do use).
Back from the grave
Nuclear power is being dusted off and given new life as a sure-fire
escape from the greenhouse. Stephen Hall argues that this is not only illusory
but dangerous - it may distract us from infinitely more effective options.
Advocates of nuclear power see the threat of global warming as a golden opportunity to resurrect their dying industry. The reason is simple: nuclear plants don't produce carbon dioxide (C02), the main greenhouse gas.
Politicians like French Environment Minister Brice Lalonde, a founder of Friends of the Earth, are suggesting it's time to 'revisit the nuclear option'. And Canadian Energy Minister Jake Epp believes nuclear power needs to be considered for 'environmental reasons'. Even respected research centres like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Institute have jumped onto the nuclear bandwagon.
Despite attempts to paint nuclear power green, the technology is still plagued by three unresolved issues: how to store deadly radioactive materials for thousands of years; how to prevent serious accidents (Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have not faded from the public mind); and a confident, reclusive nuclear priesthood who treat their technology as inherently safe.
These nagging worries have led to a worldwide collapse of confidence in nuclear power. There are now fewer nuclear plants being built than at any time in the history of the technology. Sweden is phasing out nuclear power altogether; the country will start closing its reactors in 1995 and finish by 2010.
New efforts to revive the industry centre on the development of a second generation of so-called 'inherently safe' reactors based on passive safety systems. Passive systems cool the reactor core without human or mechanical intervention. However as one industry newsletter, Nucleonics Week, comments: 'Experts are flatly unconvinced that safety has been achieved - or even substantially advanced - by the new designs.'
But suppose the nuclear industry could suddenly solve all its problems and rush a new safe reactor into production. Would an all-out nuclear construction program be enough to slow greenhouse warming?
Not likely, says the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a Colorado-based think-tank specializing in energy policy. RMI researchers found that backing nuclear power was a poor alternative to investing in increased energy efficiency - improving the ways in which we already use electricity. According to the RMI study, even if a thousand-megawatt nuclear plant was built every two days for the next 40 years, overall CO2 emissions would still increase. This is because nuclear power can only displace coal-fired electricity plants and not the bulk of CO2 emissions which come from automobiles, factory smokestacks and home furnaces.
The researchers also looked at the costs of nuclear versus improved energy efficiency. The results? They found that every dollar invested in energy efficiency displaces nearly seven times more carbon than the same investment in nuclear power. 'To the extent that investments in nuclear power divert funds away from efficiency,' the study concluded, 'the pursuit of a nuclear response to greenhouse warming would effectively exacerbate the problem.'
Unfortunately, according to RMI Research Director Amory Lovins, politicians choose energy options based on the 'Chinese-restaurant-menu' approach - buying one option from Column A, one from Column B and so on, until all constituencies are satisfied. However, notes Lovins, 'on today's energy menu all the best choices may be in column A (efficiency) with column B (supply expansion) only a bad second best'. Since his 1976 book Soft Energy Paths, Lovins has been a key advocate of energy efficiency: an approach which turns conventional supply-and-demand theory on its head.
Lovins and other energy-efficiency supporters believe the trick is to wring the most work out of the energy we already produce. In fact, studies worldwide (including reports done for Canada'senergy ministers and Britain's Association for the Conservation of Energy) confirm that energy efficiency is the simplest, cheapest and fastest way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
One tiny example is the spread of high-efficiency compact fluorescent lamps. These use 60-80 per cent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, last 10-13 times longer and use half a tonne less CO2 and eight kilograms less sulphur dioxide over five years. When a homeowner saves a kilowatt hour of electricity with an energy-efficient light-bulb, it's a kilowatt hour the power company doesn't have to generate. When the saved kilowatt hours from all possible sources are added up, the need to build new coal plants or oil rigs is eliminated. In fact the savings are so great that Southern California Edison gave away over half a million of these super-efficient lights to their low-income customers because it was cheaper to do that than to operate existing power plants.
Super-efficient appliances, motors and windows are also widely available and spreading very quickly. High-performance windows combine invisible metallic coatings and inert gas between the panes to double or triple the efficiency of a conventional, double-glazed window. If these windows were installed in homes and offices, the energy equivalent of one North Sea oil deposit could be saved in Britain alone. In the US, improved standards for domestic appliances will eliminate the need to build 22 large power plants by the year 2000, according to Howard Geller of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
Energy efficiency and conservation can dramatically slow global warming, allowing us time to make a transition to a renewable energy future. That seems clear. What is less certain is whether renewed interest in the nuclear option will retard the choice. We need to make sure it doesn't - because our energy future will determine the future of our planet.
Stephen Hall is an energy consultant and a connoisseur of vegetarian restaurants.
The sun also rises
On an ordinary night in the village of Bella Vista, near Sosua in the Dominican Republic, a domino game is usually in session on the porch of Medrano's store. In the bright light inside people are shopping. Gregorio Medrano is pleased with the solar photovoltaic system he purchased in 1986: 'If the store is dark, the business is slow. But with a lot of light everybody gathers and spends money.'
Richard Hansen, a Boston-based solar-energy enthusiast, began selling photovoltaic (PV) electric systems in 1984. Felipe Martinez was the first to invest in one - two of his sons have since trained as technicians. 'I've often said that we should gather people from all the towns around here to tell them about solar energy so they can take advantage of it,' says Felipe.
One of Hansen's systems costs $500 and will run for at least 20 years with no fuel costs. It includes a 40-watt photovoltaic panel, storage battery, control box, two 15-watt incandescent lights, a 15-watt fluorescent light and outlets for television or other home appliances. Advertised by word of mouth, there have been over 600 systems installed since 1984 - and there's a continual waiting list.
Solar energy has taken off in the Dominican Republic because it meets people's needs. In rural areas 70 per cent of the people live beyond the reach of power lines. PV can be installed anywhere and is cheaper than the kerosene and batteries people normally use for lighting or to power a radio or television. It eliminates the weekly trip into town to recharge batteries, and it provides jobs for the local technicians who install and repair the systems.
Living and working closely with Dominicans over the past six years, Hansen designed a system tailored to local needs. As the demand increased, he created a local infrastructure to meet it: training technicians, setting up a revolving loan fund, running a small-part store, even helping to establish his competitors.
Despite its commercial success in the Dominican Republic solar power is still struggling to overcome its image as a second-rate energy source. The reason is that many solar projects have been funded, built and abandoned in a top-down development style. Often they are intended more as demonstrations than as functioning systems. Or they are aid projects which don't involve local people, rely on parts and technology not available within a hundred miles, and are monitored and maintained for only a short period.
A typical example was the centralized photovoltaic village power system installed in 1984 on Utirik in the Marshall Islands. Financed jointly by the Utirik Village Council (with $100,000 from its atomic-test reparations payments), NASA and the US Department of Energy (with an additional $180,000), the project was supposed to put a solar electric system in place that could easily be duplicated elsewhere.
Three years later, an independent study by California-based Energy Resources International found the system was riddled with problems. 'Residents have now been separated from the energy resources they know, understand, and have traditionally been very close to,' the study concluded. 'They have a complex technology they don't understand... The central power plant moves them further from any individual or personal contact or responsibility for how they use energy... The complexity of the system raises the possibility that the island will continue to be dependent on the US to keep the plant running...'
Comparing Utirik with the Dominican Republic is instructive. In both cases PVs proved to be the cheapest option. But while Utirik required $280,000 up front, Hansen set up a financing system with an original grant from USAID of $2,000 and an additional grant two years later of $3,300. He took advantage of the fact that a single PV system can be installed as cheaply as a large, centralized system. This allows for gradual, dispersed growth and is well suited to Third World economies.
The Dominican model shows how solar technologies can increase self-sufficiency and improve the local economy. Because each household manages its own power supply, there is an incentive to use the electricity judiciously. If a family wants to increase their supply, they simply add another photovoltaic panel to their system. Although the panels are purchased outside the country, the other components as well as the installer's labor are local. Once the system is paid for, the supply as well as the cost is assured - not true of systems relying on imported fossil fuels. In addition, the foreign-exchange value of a typical system is recovered in half its 20-year lifespan.
So the success of solar electrification in developing countries depends on how well it meets the specific needs of its users: careful planning and design are more important than pots of money. Richard Hansen believes that the key is community participation. 'If the people are going to use this technology, the same people have to develop it, right from the word go.'
Teal Derrer is a solar-energy enthusiast and writer. She lives in San Francisco.