By Norman Meadow
12:01 PM EST, January 31, 2013
The primary motivation among environmentalists for developing wind energy is legitimate concern about the effects of climate change. Wind is alleged to provide important relief from the emission of carbon dioxide from electricity production. But without this alleged benefit, wind's unpredictability, cost, environmental damage and intrusiveness would make it a poor choice. The Maryland General Assembly has debated offshore wind's merits for two sessions but has not been persuaded to approve a way to finance a facility, and is about to debate it once again.
Wind's advocates dissemble three critical factors about clean energy. First, they brush aside wind power's primary weakness by denying its need for a way to overcome its unpredictability. They argue that by building wind plants over wide areas, wind in one region will take up the slack when it fails in another. We've heard statements like: "If the wind dies off Maryland's coast, the wind off South Carolina's will replace it." Wind occasionally dies over very large areas, so to make the electricity supply reliable, every region would have to be equipped to supply all the other regions, which would be very uneconomical.
This view is supported in several reports from the National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering (among the most respected of professional organizations) and the Department of Energy (in a report co-authored by staff of the National Renewable Energy Lab). These state that when wind capacity approaches the market share mandated by the typical Renewable Portfolio Standard, "renewable sources of power ... would ... require fast-responding backup generation and/or storage capacity, such as that provided by natural gas combustion turbines, hydropower, or storage technologies," and that "non-wind generation is needed to maintain system reliability when winds are low." Natural gas turbines produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide; hydropower is not an option in the East, and is environmentally damaging wherever it is used; and storage technologies are a long way off — and may never materialize.
Secondly, the Academies' reports state that carbon dioxide emissions must ultimately be reduced to essentially zero because it is removed from the atmosphere extremely slowly. For example: "emissions reductions larger than about 80 percent ... are required to approximately stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations for a century or so and even greater reductions in emissions would be required in the longer term." Gas turbines cannot be used by a zero-carbon society in the long term.
The third point, and one denied by many renewables advocates, is that nuclear power is essential for building a carbon-free society. The Academies reports state: "Nuclear power is one of the key options for meeting large-scale electricity demand without producing [greenhouse gases]," and "Nuclear power is an established technology that could meet a significant portion of the world's energy needs."
Building nuclear reactors may be unpalatable to some, but most opposition to nuclear power results from exaggerated fear of small doses of radiation from accidents at reactors or spent fuel storage facilities. This risk, which is small, must be compared to the risk from continued climate change. Severe heat waves in Europe in 2003 and 2010 and high-intensity hurricanes, combined, have already resulted in about 120,000 premature deaths. There is no credible scientific evidence that the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima will have caused remotely that many premature deaths. Had construction of reactors not been virtually stopped for the past 30 years, these climate-related deaths might not have occurred, because the unbuilt reactors would have offset a significant fraction of carbon dioxide emissions.
Climate science now proposes that it will take thousands of years to abate the effects of climate change once they occur, meaning that we cannot afford to delay becoming a carbon-free society. Environmental advocates are doing a disservice by downplaying wind power's weaknesses while exaggerating nuclear power's danger.
By issuing 20-year extensions of operating licenses for many reactors built about 40 years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has acknowledged their safety and durability. By turning to nuclear power, we won't have to wait for the unpredictable appearance of the technologies essential for the full implementation of wind power. Our decision makers would do more good trying to find a way to build a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs.
Norman Meadow is a retired principal research scientist in the Johns Hopkins University's Department of Biology and is first vice president of the Maryland Conservation Council. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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