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Seven Myths About Alternative Energy

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:58 pm
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Nuclear lobbyists do have one powerful argument: If coal is too dirty and nukes are too costly, how are we going to produce our juice? Wind is terrific, and it’s on the rise, adding nearly half of new US power last year and expanding its global capacity by a third in 2007. But after increasing its worldwide wattage tenfold in a decade—China is now the leading producer, and Europe is embracing wind as well—it still produces less than 2 percent of the world’s electricity. Solar and geothermal are similarly wonderful and inexhaustible technologies, but they’re still global rounding errors. The average U.S. household now has 26 plug-in devices, and the rest of the world is racing to catch up; the US Department of Energy expects global electricity consumption to rise 77 percent by 2030. How can we meet that demand without a massive nuclear revival?

We can’t. So we’re going to have to prove the Department of Energy wrong.

5. “There Is No Silver Bullet to the Energy Crisis.”
Probably not. But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn’t induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn’t depend on the weather. And it won’t take years to build or bring to market; it’s already universally available.

It’s called “efficiency.” It means wasting less energy—or more precisely, using less energy to get your beer just as cold, your shower just as hot, and your factory just as productive. It’s not about some austerity scold harassing you to take cooler showers, turn off lights, turn down thermostats, drive less, fly less, buy less stuff, eat less meat, ditch your McMansion, and otherwise change your behavior to save energy. Doing less with less is called conservation. Efficiency is about doing more or the same with less; it doesn’t require much effort or sacrifice. Yet more efficient appliances, lighting, factories, and buildings, as well as vehicles, could wipe out one fifth to one third of the world’s energy consumption without any real deprivation.

Efficiency isn’t sexy, and the idea that we could use less energy without much trouble hangs uneasily with today’s more-is-better culture. But the best way to ensure new power plants don’t bankrupt us, empower petrodictators, or imperil the planet is not to build them in the first place. “Negawatts” saved by efficiency initiatives generally cost 1 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour versus projections ranging from 12 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour from new nukes. That’s because Americans in particular and human beings in general waste amazing amounts of energy. US electricity plants fritter away enough to power Japan, and American water heaters, industrial motors, and buildings are as ridiculously inefficient as American cars. Only 4 percent of the energy used to power a typical incandescent bulb produces light; the rest is wasted. China is expected to build more square feet of real estate in the next 15 years than the United States has built in its entire history, and it has no green building codes or green building experience.

But we already know that efficiency mandates can work wonders because they’ve already reduced US energy consumption levels from astronomical to merely high. For example, thanks to federal rules, modern American refrigerators use three times less energy than 1970s models, even though they’re larger and more high-tech.

The biggest obstacles to efficiency are the perverse incentives that face most utilities; they make more money when they sell more power and have to build new generating plants. But in California and the Pacific Northwest, utility profits have been decoupled from electricity sales, so utilities can help customers save energy without harming shareholders. As a result, in that part of the country, per capita power use has been flat for three decades—while skyrocketing 50 percent in the rest of the United States. If utilities around the world could make money by helping their customers use less power, the US Department of Energy wouldn’t be releasing such scary numbers.

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