Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Graham Nash are again singing the praises of solar energy. But it’s a hard song for reactor backers now desperately seeking more than $50 billion in federal loan guarantees.
The nuclear energy industry is selling “new generation” reactors as a cheap fix for global warming. But a booming renewable energy industry now makes the atomic option sound even more nonsensical than it did when the musicians first sang “No Nukes” three decades ago.
At an October 23 press conference in Washington, Raitt, Browne and Nash delivered 120,000 signatures demanding that Congress strip reactor loan guarantees from this year’s energy bill. The industry wants $25 billion in 2008, $25 billion more in 2009 and a blank check for the future. But the rockers’ rapid-fire Internet-based campaign–complete with a music video–may have put a serious crimp in their plans.
Joined by Democratic Representatives Ed Markey and John Hall (a fellow musician), backed by a wide range of environmental organizations and gathering support through their NukeFree.org website, the three musicians followed their press conference with a series of visits to Congressional leadership and an intriguing new message.
In 1979, when Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) staged a legendary series of five concerts in Madison Square Garden (90,000 attended) and a rally at Battery Park City (which drew 200,000), their argument was that nuclear power was dangerous (Three Mile Island had just melted) and that renewable energy would be cost-effective “someday soon.”
Today, the musicians and their environmental cohorts can still say that nuclear power has failed. But what’s different is that the renewable energy industry has come of age. “Wind power is booming,” says Brian Parsons of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
No new reactors are currently under construction in the United States. But Parsons says about $6 billion worth of wind farms are in “various stages of development,” representing “between one and 1.5 years’ worth at the current pace,” a number that towers over what was happening thirty years ago. Worldwide, the industry is in the $15 billion range annually, according to the American Wind Energy Association. With turbines costing less than $2 million a megawatt, and with fuel perpetually free (operation and maintenance costs run about 5 percent per year), wind energy can leave nuclear reactors in the radioactive dust.
The same can now be said for photovoltaic (PV) cells. Major breakthroughs in amorphous (flexible) applications have allowed American factories to pour out ever-cheaper roofing laminates that can power the buildings on which they sit. Assembly lines longer than football fields now produce them by the mile, at production costs that continue to plummet.
The Michigan-based United Solar Ovonic claims to have doubled its annualized production capacity in the past year to fifty-eight megawatts and will have another threefold expansion by the end of next year. Company officials predict the capital cost of machines to be $150 million, for an annual capacity of 100 megawatts. Industry experts predict an annual market of more than ten gigawatts in 2012, the equivalent of ten nukes per year. The cost of solar electricity is coming down rapidly, according to Ovonic, and with “suitable infusion of money to build new plants,” industry experts and Energy Department officials predict “grid parity” by 2015, the very earliest new reactors could come on line under optimum conditions.