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Publication Date: 02/1/2008
Archive >  February 2008 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

It's Time to Get Real
Walter Salm, Editor
The cost of energy has been getting downright outrageous. With oil recently topping out at over $100 (US) per barrel, there are now some serious constraints on just about every aspect of our lives. It is most noticeable in the price at the gas pump, but every phase of our personal and business lives is being affected.

This latest round of energy increases is being felt worldwide. The British press, for example, is absolutely outraged over the latest 15 percent increase in gas and electricity, while in France, the increase was only 4 percent and in Germany, energy costs have actually shown a slight decrease.

One of the underlying problems today is not only the cost of energy, but the environmental price we must pay for continuing to use fossil fuels as our principal source of energy. As these fuels become increasingly costly, so too does the cost of reducing carbon emissions and other environmental contaminants. Even "clean" low-sulfur coal burned in a power plant with highly efficient stack scrubbers still has a price to pay in carbon emissions. The only carbon-free power sources today are nuclear and renewable, and the renewables aren't always that reliable, since they depend on a certain amount of sunlight or wind each day.

We are now approaching the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, and seemingly are only inches closer to a viable solution to the energy crunch. Nuclear energy, which waned in popularity during the late decades of the last century, is on the rise again, although many environmentalists are still highly suspicious of splitting atoms for their energy.

On a practical level, what we need most is a good, reliable and inexpensive source of electricity which is borne home to me every time I fire up the Diesel generator on my coach to get an hour's worth of power in exchange for a gallon of fuel. And yet, as costly as it is to run, the sound of that generator purring is music to my ears, because I know the alternative is to do without a lot of life's necessities and conveniences. I see a number of coaches with solar cell banks on their rooftops, and that may be a next step for me, but I have to wonder how practical they are for people like me who don't stay in one place for too long — especially when you consider the extra fuel cost to overcome the added wind drag on the highway.

A few weeks ago, we drove through California's Coachella valley which appears to have the highest concentration of windmill farms in the U.S. These things are costly — running approximately $1,000 per kilowatt of power. This a 1 MW turbine will cost about $1 million. Plant 100 turbines in a farm, and the cost is $100 million. The Coachella turbines, mostly concentrated near Palm Springs, contain several sections of old, non-operating windmills. These date back to a period in the early 90s when there were a lot of cut-rate windmills being sold, and many of them are no longer worth the expense of needed maintenance and service. It's rather disappointing to see hundreds of these impressive creatures sitting still, not turning, in spite of a hefty wind blowing through the valley. A short distance away, in the newer sections of windmills, the turbines are happily turning, generating much-needed renewable power for the grid.

Wind power is about on a par with coal in cost per kilowatt-hour, but even the cleanest coal is a dirty fuel. Nuclear power is also at the low end of the cost spectrum. Highest cost is for oil- and gas-generated electricity. Yet there is still a large gray area of both environmentalists and industrialists, each suspicious of the other's favorite power sources. Wind power, by its very nature, comes and goes. It can only be used to supplant power from more "conventional" sources. At one time, nuclear power was considered to be "revolutionary". Today, it's a mature technology that is really waiting to be rediscovered. It is ranked as one of the cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable energy sources available.

So why are so many people against it? For one thing, there's the "not in my back yard" syndrome, which seems to attract an especially vocal following. In this case, a nuclear power plant only 50 miles away is considered to be in someone's back yard. This attitude then manages to combine with the "China Syndrome" — a fear of a catastrophic nuclear accident, with a meltdown so severe, it melts its way through the center of the earth all the way to China. Then there's the fear of the used fuel, exhausted uranium rods that are still radioactive and have to be buried someplace "safe". There is no place that is 100 percent safe, not even those concrete-lined tunnels in Nevada where spent nuclear fuel has been going for years. All it takes is one major earthquake to expose radioactive material to the atmosphere. While the chances of this happening are minimal, certainly within the life expectancy of intelligent life on planet Earth, it can happen. But most of all is the hue and cry that arises when a well shielded shipment of spent fuel rods crosses the country on its way to Nevada. People simply don't want that truck going down Main Street or even on the nearby Interstate. "Something might happen." What might very well happen is that we are going to run out of energy sooner than later, given all of this anti-nuclear attitude. For that matter, the "Not in my backyard" syndrome appears when a new windmill farm is planned. Nothing nuclear about that, but that doesn't change the attitude of people whose minds are made up. We need energy now, and we need lots of it. It's time to get real.  

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