Energy Solutions Must Meet Individual Needs

Posted March 2, 2007 at 10:46am

America’s power problem is simple, and so are our choices. Our country must generate 40 percent more electricity in the next two decades just to keep up with people’s daily needs. Either the economy stagnates to obviate that requirement, or generation expands to fill it.

We live lives powered by electricity to a degree unknown to history, including very recent history. If you grew up in a house where

Dad fought the fuse box to keep the Christmas tree lit, you know what I mean. If you didn’t, picture what happens when a thunderstorm knocks out power. Life deprived of ample, affordable electricity is an unhappy slide back to an age lit only by fire, and hardly anyone wants that.

We’re the ones responsible for our needs, of course. Thanks to advances in technology, manufacturing, communications and consumer products, we are individually and collectively more productive than ever. Each of us also consumes more power than ever, and unless we’re ready to accept job losses, rolling brownouts and scheduled blackouts as useful forms of conservation, we’ll need even more.

Right now, coal supplies half our power and we’ve got a 300-year supply of it sitting in the ground. That’s the good news. The bad news is that coal also emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy output than any other fuel. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but it is not a pollutant, and new clean-coal technology promises to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.

Another domestic fuel is natural gas, which meets 20 percent of our current electricity needs. Its supply is limited, and if we turn on the gas to get power, Americans will pay for it with sky-high utility bills and lost jobs. Over the past five years, rising natural gas costs have been a big part of the reason that some 3 million manufacturing jobs now are overseas.

We do have lots of hydroelectric power, but its potential to expand is limited. The best dam sites are taken already, and production may begin to decline as older dams shut off power production rather than endure the regulatory hassle of getting relicensed.

Some say sun, wind, waves, geysers and/or trash will do the trick. Those methods can help, and we should not stop trying to make them work, but after millions of dollars and decades of research, each contributes just 2 percent of our electricity. And every time a windmill smacks a passing bird or annoys a wealthy landowner on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., political controversy erodes their promise.

All that is left is a source of energy that kills no birds, obstructs no ocean views, emits no gases and works like magic all across Europe — nuclear power.

I don’t quote Greenpeace much, but something that Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore told the Senate recently has implications for the future. Nuclear energy accounts for 90 percent of all electric utility reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since 1973, he said, and “the life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy are lower than coal, natural gas, hydropower, biomass and solar. The only electricity sources with lower life-cycle emissions are wind and geothermal.”

Moore even cited Power Partners, the Department of Energy’s program with the electric power industry, to make the case that through today, the carbon-dioxide-free power produced by nuclear energy is “the equivalent of taking 100 million automobiles off the road.”

About 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity comes from our old fleet of 103 nuclear power plants. Just to maintain that share in the face of growing demand requires that we keep all 103 running and build 50 more. And, if we say “no” to new clean-coal power plants, the requirement for new nuclear power plants goes to 125.

The first barrier to nuclear power is bureaucracy. Just to add a new reactor at an existing plant — one that’s already licensed — consumes 10 years from planning to completion, and that’s with a pre-approved design. Heaven help you if you want a new design.

The second barrier is nuclear waste, and it’s been piling up for years while the political foes of a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., have dawdled and stalled. President Bush formally recommended the site for development as a repository in 2002, and the House and Senate then affirmed that decision. Americans have spent about $8 billion to prepare the Yucca Mountain facility.

Congress has failed to enact enabling legislation, and opponents have reached from the sublime to the ridiculous for their methods of delay. For example, it was decided that the Environmental Protection Agency’s 10,000-year radiation standard just wasn’t good enough. The EPA would need to start over and write a million-year standard instead.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) finally asked the pertinent question during a hearing last year: “If you can’t put nuclear waste in the middle of a mountain in the middle of a desert, where can you put it?”

Our growing electricity needs are a national problem, but they’re a different kind of problem for people who want energy but don’t want to see where it comes from. Cape Cod residents don’t want wind farms intruding on their ocean views. Boston residents don’t want liquefied natural gas delivered to their port. Californians don’t want the oil that is off their coast. The list of people and places that want their energy clean, safe, cheap, right now and from somewhere else goes on and on.

Powering up America’s future requires a different approach, however. A rational nuclear power policy that will keep the lights on and the jobs here would do these things first:

• Quit stalling: License and build the Yucca Mountain repository.

• Accelerate research and development on new nuclear power technology.

• Keep the safety and lose the bureaucracy in licensing new nuclear plants.

With these steps, the nuclear power plants we critically need can get sited, built and operated in line with the highest safety standards in the world. In the process, Americans will be able to keep their jobs, heat their homes and pay their electric bills.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.