June 17, 2024

Economix: Renewing Support for Renewables

Today's Economist

Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The biggest positive result of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi could be renewed public support for the development of renewable energy technologies.

Many influential policy makers, including President Obama, continue to insist that we must expand nuclear power to help meet our energy needs. But plenty of experts disagree.

As the chart below illustrates, renewable energy sources (including hydropower and biofuels) already account for almost the same share of total energy consumption in the United States as nuclear power.

United States Energy Information Administration, “Annual Energy Review 2009,” Table 1.3, “Primary Energy Consumption by Source, 1949-2009.

More important is the rate of change in the cost and utilization of these technologies, particularly those that rely on wind, water or solar power and will not contribute to global warming.

The cost per kilowatt hour of generating electricity from wind and solar power has declined steadily in recent years and is projected to decline further. Energy Secretary Steven Chu predicted that they would be no more expensive than oil and gas by the end of the decade.

The cost of nuclear power, by contrast, has increased, even without factoring in the huge social costs imposed by accidents. These costs include the disruptive effects of major evacuations such as those under way in the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi, as well as ominous — and difficult to measure — health risks.

In “Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly,” Amory Lovins, a physicist with the Rocky Mountain Institute, and two colleagues argued that expanded nuclear power does not represent a cost-effective solution to global warming and that investors would shun it were it not for generous government subsidies lubricated by intensive lobbying efforts.

In The Wall Street Journal, Prof. Benjamin K. Sovacool of the National University of Singapore recently argued, in “The Business Case Against Nuclear Power,” that subsidies for nuclear power during its first 15 years of use in civilian power generation far exceeded those provided to solar power and wind power in their initial years.

The private sector is clearly moving rapidly in the renewable direction. Clean Edge, a research and advisory group, asserts that the clean energy market grew 35 percent in 2010, and global installation of photovoltaics doubled.

Still, the big question remains. Can wind, water and solar power be scaled up in cost-effective ways to meet our energy demands, freeing us from dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power?

Yes, they can, say two highly respected scientists, Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University and Mark A. Delucchi of the University of California, Davis. In 2009 they published “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables” in Scientific American.

The article persuasively addresses a number of concerns, such as the worldwide spatial footprint of wind turbines, the availability of scarce materials needed for manufacture of new systems, the ability to produce reliable energy on demand and the average cost per kilowatt hour.

A more detailed and updated technical analysis can be found in a two-part article (see Part I and Part II, recently published in the journal Energy Policy.

As Paul Krugman pointed out in his New York Times blog, projections of energy cost and supply are always hypothetical, based on assumptions that may or may not be borne out. This objection applies to all energy supply and demand projections.

The proven dangers of nuclear power amplify the economic risks of expanding reliance on it. Indeed, the stronger regulation and improved safety features for nuclear reactors called for in the wake of the Japanese disaster will almost certainly require costly provisions that may price it out of the market.

The role of the market, however, is small relative to political battles over relative levels of subsidy to fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy. While both the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries are dominated by large companies with considerable political clout, renewable energy is a more decentralized, small-business-oriented sector that often finds itself outmaneuvered on Capitol Hill.

As Professors Jacobson and Delucchi put it, “The barriers to a 100 percent conversion to wind, water and solar power worldwide are primarily social and political, not technological or even economic.”

Research like theirs will help energize new efforts to overcome those barriers.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=c2ec0b90ce316320f0aaa30ea1b4bc9c

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