Wind vs. nuclear: a false choice

February 09, 2011

I've enjoyed reading letters and articles by Ajax Eastman for several decades now and generally found them grounded in progressive thinking and well reasoned. I was surprised to read her article "Wind power and hot air" (Feb. 7) in which she presents an argument in favor of nuclear power but against wind and solar power. Nuclear power should be considered in addition to, not instead of, wind and solar power generation.

Her biggest fault with wind and solar energy is the intermittent nature of these energy sources. Isn't this really is a problem of energy storage, not generation? There's far more wind and solar energy available right now than will ever be available as nuclear fuel. And we know how to collect it and convert it to electricity. What's missing are mechanisms to store this energy and make it available when the wind dies down and it's dark outside.

But guess what? We have that same problem right now with coal and nuclear plants. They have to continuously operate at a capacity able to meet peak demand requirements and simply waste unconsumed power during periods of lower demand. Developing technologies to utilize this wasted power will dramatically change our energy needs as well as expand the realm of energy solutions.

Nuclear power plants come in one size only — enormous. Not much scalability there. Large, centralized facilities also lose considerable energy just through transmission over large distances. Wind and solar generators are infinitely scalable and can be placed on existing structures. They can be placed wherever there is a need.

Large, centralized facilities are as much the problem as they are the solution. I suggest that meeting our huge energy demands lies not in a single best solution but rather in implementing many different (and mostly smaller) solutions. Ms. Eastman offers as comparison to a nuclear power plant a wind solution consisting of 2,400 turbines on 8,500 acres. Those 8,500 acres could also be pasture, wheat fields or wetlands. How about on 8,500 acres of land poisoned by uranium mining?

Finding the technologies to efficiently store energy for relatively short periods makes all power generation solutions better, even old technologies such as coal and nuclear. Chemical batteries are just one of many ways to store energy. Hydrogen gas could easily be a viable method of storing and transporting energy.

Three decades ago I suggested (to a senior electrical engineer) that we should be able to capture and reuse energy lost when braking our cars and idling at traffic lights. He laughed and said "it couldn't be done efficiently enough to be practical." Today I drive a Toyota Prius that does exactly that! Cars like mine could easily become part of a solution to the problem of wasted energy during non-peak consumption times. And it could happen today!

Many new technology initiatives have high initial costs. But as they become more commonplace, the inputs become more relevant to making cost comparisons. Along with wasted electricity and transmission costs of a large centralized plant, we should factor in the ever increasing costs to mine and process nuclear fuel and manage nuclear waste in our comparisons with wind and solar power. I predict the raw costs of wind and sun to remain the same (free) well into the future. No cleanup superfund required either.

Nuclear power plants took decades of development and billions of dollars to become viable sources of energy. If we task engineers with the goal of developing solar and wind powered energy systems that are scalable and efficient and can deliver continuous power on demand when input is intermittent, we will have many more tools than just the nuclear option.

Richard Masters, Gwynn Oak

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