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A Clean, Green, Energy Machine

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A Clean, Green, Energy Machine

Golden, Colo.

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Matt Bivens
Matt Bivens has covered energy, environmental and nuclear issues for www.thenation.com and a range of other...

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There's been scant notice of refugees being brutally driven out of Chechnya.

American nuclear power plants are in serious danger from an easily fixable problem.

I enjoyed Matt Bivens's April 15 "Fighting for America's Energy Independence," which is important in getting the vision and possibilities of renewable energy sources to the public. I have one small correction. Bivens says, "The Union of Concerned Scientists says 100 square miles in Nevada could produce enough solar electricity to power the nation." The actual land area is more like 10,000 square miles (a square 100 miles on a side) and the photovoltaic panels cover only half that land. My explanation of the calculation of that number is in the July 30, 1999, Science. Since then our energy use has grown, and the area is now almost 12,000 square miles (110 miles on a side)--still not a large area, when compared with the 45,000 square miles of land we've covered with paved roads.

It is interesting to note, given the Freedom car announcement, that if you wanted to supply hydrogen for 200 million fuel-cell vehicles (current US fleet), you would need an area of only 3,600 square miles. This is not necessarily the way we should do it, but it is important to note that we have the technologies in hand to utilize the solar resource, should we wish to exploit it.

JOHN A. TURNER
National Renewable Energy Laboratory


Chicago

Matt Bivens's implicit assumption that so-called renewable energies have negligible external costs in relation to nuclear power is an often repeated canard. According to an exhaustive study by the European Union, the externalities of nuclear power are comparable to those of wind- or solar-generated electricity. The study calculates external costs on a euros-per-megawatt-hour basis for several means of generating electricity and finds that the basic premise of Bivens's article cannot be supported in Europe. Naturally, nuclear power also has the tremendous advantage of not being beholden to the weather and being able to provide a reliable base load, night and day, 24/7, 365 days a year. Many US nuclear power plants routinely operate continuously for more than a year without a glitch (see www.externe.info).

Simply put, to produce relatively small, unreliable amounts of electricity, renewable energies must consume large amounts of materials (some toxic, like selenium or cadmium for solar panels), land, natural resources and person-power. Nuclear power produces abundant power from small amounts of material, at small external costs, even when one accounts for the vanishingly small probability of accidents and the cost of waste disposal.

BORO MALINOVIC


Houston

Matt Bivens does not mention battery-powered vehicles, which have zero pollution and are now available as fleet vehicles (e.g., buses, trucks, rental cars). One company, Electric Fuel Corp. (www.electric-fuel.com), has demonstrated an electric bus using zinc/air batteries, which will power a loaded, air-conditioned bus over a full day's bus route.

While the battery-powered (electric) bus is now available, a vehicle will not be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell in the near future. The current hydrogen fuel cell is many times the cost of an internal-combustion engine, and it is likely that the hydrogen fuel will be generated on board the vehicle from an oil derivative (e.g., methane), which will emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. It is high time that someone recognized the high cost and limited usefulness of the hydrogen fuel cell and the availability (today) of a zero-emission (all-electric) fleet vehicle (see the MIT January/February Technology Review).

BILL KING


Belchertown, Mass.

Matt Bivens leaves out the single most effective method of reducing dependence on fossil fuels: increased taxes on all types of fossil fuels (with tax rebates/credits for low-income households). History shows that the only truly effective way to reduce consumption of any good is to raise its price. Increased fossil fuel taxes will get all businesses and consumers to look hard for energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy. Look at the gasoline tax in Europe and then look at the types of cars people drive. Taxes on fuels will drive innovations in efficiency and alternative sources of energy more directly and efficiently than subsidies. Increased taxes will also reflect the true environmental costs of fossil fuels, something the "market" does not do now.

JOHN MATTAR


Sarasota, Fla.

Here in Florida (one of the most pesticide-polluted states in the nation) it is almost impossible to produce your own electricity with photovoltaic cells because it is too expensive. FP&L, the bandits making electricity, using a very polluting plant, don't want it to happen. Until March 18 you couldn't have a system because it was prohibited, prohibitive and you couldn't connect to the grid. Now you can, but it takes an investment of about $40,000. We subsidize the polluters while the program that offered about $16,000 back to people installing a solar system will not be renewed.

Florida's governor, like his brother, is not an environmentalist. The only reason he doesn't want drilling along the coast of Florida is that it would be bad for tourism. I hope they will drill along the coast, as close as possible to the pristine beaches. Maybe then people will wake up and abandon their SUVs (Stupid Ugly Vehicles) and start thinking about the legacy they're leaving their kids. (I just exchanged a minivan for a Toyota hybrid.)

Like most of the country, we are having a drought, but no one wants to force new constructions to install water caption from roofs with cisterns. My roof will collect 90,000 gallons of water a year, more than my wife and I need, with enough left over to irrigate our fruit trees. The stuff we do to our earth is crazy. Future generations will curse us all the way to hell, with good reasons.

JEAN RENOUX


Lincoln, Ill.

Matt Bivens's article is a "breath of fresh air." With Texas leading the way in windpower plants, and several states following, I am anxious to see the results of the two wind plants that are on the drawing board here in Illinois. To a citizen in a small community of 15,000-plus residents, this seems like a logical and safe way for our state, and our country, to get our energy. The obvious worry is of the reliability of wind to keep the turbines going, but with the billions upon billions the government spends on slowly killing us all, I think we should take a chance on it.

JOSH BRUNS


Shoreline, Wash.

Your cover graphic perfectly illustrates the behavior of most Americans regarding energy consumption/consumer habits. They're addicts. It says that the masses of Americans indulge in an orgy of consumption while engaging in a level of collective denial that would delight a totalitarian regime. Every day I see them: overweight Americans (usually alone) sucking on cigarettes and gobbling Big Macs while they careen down the ever-expanding highways in their gas-guzzling, pollution-belching SUVs. They're often waving American flags--their statement to the world that they are somehow entitled to binge on the world's finite resources.

As Bivens points out, we have the knowledge to take another path, of energy independence, a much cleaner environment, a more sustainable economy, lives saved, other countries not exploited, wars averted--but one of reduced profits for the few in power. There's knowledge but lack of will. And such is the denial of the addict who lies, cheats, exploits and is hellbent on self-destruction. Such is the tragedy of the America that is unfolding in the twenty-first century.

GLENN REED


BIVENS REPLIES

Washington, DC

Please follow the advice of Boro Malinovic, and check out the Externe research project he cites. There you'll read: "A major EU-funded research study undertaken over the past 10 years has proven that the cost of producing electricity from coal or oil would double and the cost of electricity from gas would increase by 30 percent if external costs such as damage to the environment and to health were taken into account."

So, this study backs up a key assertion
of my article: Renewables are already cost-competitive, provided the market gets the prices right. Unfortunately, our market doesn't get the prices right, and instead subsidizes oil, gas and coal with billions of dollars of tax breaks and pork funding out of Washington, and less directly, by shifting to you and me the financial burden for illnesses and property destruction caused by pollution.

The text then asserts that "nuclear power involves relatively low external costs due to its low influence on global warming and its low probability of accidents in the EU power plants. Wind and hydro energy present the lowest external costs." In other words: Even if you use a very forgiving methodology that assumes no nuclear accidents, wind power still beats nuclear power. Malinovic and Externe are too boosterish in arguing the low probability of nuclear accidents. After all, we have repeatedly heard since 9/11 that terrorists may hit our nuclear plants. And a Chernobyl comes with a helluva price tag.

Even without acts of malice, our fleet of reactors is aging poorly. Perhaps Malinovic and Externe are unaware of the spate of nozzle cracks at reactors across America that have the NRC frightened; or of the six-inch hole discovered in the reactor vessel head at Ohio's Davis Beese nuclear power plant, where boric acid had eaten through the reactor roof. Yes, in March Ohio was three-eighths of an inch from a chain of possibilities ranging from bad to meltdown. A "vanishingly small probability of accidents"? Then let the nuclear industry buy its insurance on the open market like the rest of us instead of wheedling it out of the government like a bunch of Soviet-era factory directors.

Malinovic worries about solar power's "large amounts" of toxics, like cadmium and selenium. Irresponsible nonsense. (Whenever a nuclear-power booster frets about "solar-power-generated toxic waste," hold on to your wallet.)

George Douglas of the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) puts that into perspective. Even if we got a whopping 20 percent of our energy from solar power, he says, we would still come nowhere near to using as much cadmium for that as we do now in cell phone and digital videocamera batteries. In fact, cadmium we now toss away in the form of dead or obsolete rechargeable batteries can instead be recycled into solar panels--where it will sit, inert and safe, for the thirty-year life of the panel. Bottom line: Toxics are already out in the world, and dealt with routinely at levels many times that produced by solar power production. Malinovic is welcome to pursue his concern about cadmium proliferation and launch a campaign to mandate background checks and five-day waiting periods for purchasing cell phones. Perhaps next he will tackle a far scarier menace: the highly toxic and occasionally explosive mix of sulfuric acid--which eats through skin and clothing--with lead dioxide plates and molded polypropylene, otherwise known as the car battery, an institution that will dwarf, for all time, all hazardous-material disposal problems associated with solar power.

Josh Bruns is hopeful for wind but worried about its being an intermittent power source. This is a drawback for both wind and solar power. But as John Turner of NREL observes, we could use solar-generated electricity to zap water and create hydrogen--which is another way of saying we are technologically prepared to store electricity. The hydrogen generated by wind farms at night could be poured into fuel cells by day, and the fuel cells could churn out electricity for everything from cars to factories. (I gratefully accept Turner's correction and update of the figure I cited from the UCS.) It's also worth noting that we have a grid that mixes electricity generated from all sorts of sources. So as the EPA has observed, a kilowatt-hour of solar PV capacity at work represents somewhere from 1,300 to 5,000 pounds of CO2 kept out of the air each year.

Bill King says there are zinc/air battery-powered buses on the road, and that's a fine thing. But he is incorrect in asserting there are no fuel-cell vehicles; in fact, fuel-cell-powered buses are everywhere, from California to Chicago to Vancouver. (The January/February Technology Review has tons of articles about the rise of the fuel cell; nothing about zinc/air batteries.) The municipal bus is a very specific animal, however: It doesn't go fast, it has lots of room for monster engine structures, and no one minds plugging it in for several hours overnight. The real test will be personal autos, and the industry and science consensus is that fuel cells are the next step. King is correct in noting the debate over where the hydrogen comes from. Will it be made from water by wind-powered electrolysis? Someday, yes, but later is better than sooner for the oil-and-gas oligarchy. Will it in the meantime be made from hydrocarbons like methane and natural gas? Probably, because, again, that suits the oil companies. Will this happen at a factory--with resulting hydrogen pumped to filling stations and then to cars--or will it happen on board the car itself, with methane or natural gas pumped into the tank and then "re-formed" to hydrogen? Either way, harvesting hydrogen from natural gas or methane creates carbon dioxide pollution. But it creates far less than burning gasoline in internal combustion engines, it doesn't create other automobile exhaust pollutants, and it's still a huge step toward the wind-and-sun-fueled emission-free car.

I appreciate the ire of Jean Renoux and Glenn Reed and the tax argument of John Mattar. It's good to be pissed off about these things. We are paying extra for the privilege of being made sick; we should demand a refund. But where I part ways with the left is in condemning SUVs, or thinking of ways to make people do what we want by taxing them. There's a much more positive argument to make: Charge the oil and gas companies and nuclear power utilities the full cost of their revenue-generating activities. Let them pay for at least some of the asthma hospital bills, the catastrophic nuclear accident insurance, the cleaning up of uranium mine tailings and for honest-to-goodness post-9/11 security along pipelines, at refineries and at reactor facilities. Phase those charges in at the right pace, and you'll see a pretty smooth market-driven, job-creating transition to a twenty-first-century, clean, terrorist-proof energy infrastructure.

MATT BIVENS

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