The energy answer

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's Allegheny Energy recently mailed two compact fluorescent light bulbs to each of its customers. Imagine the indignation when those customers noticed a $12 charge for the unsolicited mailing.

Despite promises that the bulbs would save money, help the environment and prevent blackouts, Allegheny's customers were peeved. They wrote letters to editors and lit fires under local politicians. Allegheny relented and agreed to pay for the bulbs.

Why was a power company compelled to pull a stunt that predictably raised the ire of its customers? Because utilities are faced with a serious problem. Electricity demand is projected to increase by 40 percent by 2030, according to government estimates. Meanwhile, efforts to expand energy capacity are hindered by overzealous regulators and an unreasonable fear of the most promising source of power: nuclear energy. As a result, power companies are left with few options.

Unfortunately, instead of loosening regulations to encourage building or expanding power plants, state and federal governments are moving toward rationing electricity. Gov. Martin O'Malley, for example, wants a 15 percent reduction in electricity use by 2015 (based on 2007 usage rates) and for state utilities to produce 20 percent of their energy from solar, wind and other renewable fuels by 2022.

Proponents make it sound so simple. Just buy a new dishwasher, build a couple of windmills, put some solar cells on the roof and - voila! - energy problem solved.

Not really. Maryland would have to reduce its electricity consumption by about a fifth of today's use to meet Mr. O'Malley's objective. Since Maryland produces only 1.3 percent of its electricity from renewables, increasing that to 20 percent in the next 14 years would be daunting, to say the least.

Some may ask: What's wrong with some aggressive conservation? Well, there's a lot wrong when it's unjustifiably forced upon consumers.

Think about it. The legitimacy of these draconian efforts is rooted in the notion that there is an energy shortage. Conservation, after all, makes sense when there is a shortage of something.

But energy is not in short supply. There are fossil fuels, and lots of them, right here in America. Yet America is one of the few nations that chooses to leave much of its own reserves untapped. Yes, wind and solar power are options. But the technology hasn't advanced yet to the point where these are affordable enough or reliable enough to satisfy our growing energy demands.

Then there's nuclear power. It is emissions-free, affordable, proven and safe. It already provides the U.S. with 20 percent of its electricity, and it has the advantage of being recyclable.

To create power, reactor fuel must contain 3 percent to 5 percent burnable uranium. Once the burnable uranium falls below that level, the fuel must be replaced. But this "spent" fuel generally retains about 95 percent of the uranium it started with, and that uranium and other components can be recycled, making it essentially limitless.

Nuclear power has the added benefit of solving many of the problems used to justify faulty conservation plans. It's abundant, environmentally friendly (when properly stored), CO2-free and domestically produced. Yet officials continue to ignore its advantages.

If they're genuinely concerned about the threat of greenhouse gases or America's dependence on foreign energy, they should seek ways to expand nuclear energy. A few simple policy changes would do it.

Licensing the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste storage, recycling spent fuel, ensuring regulatory certainty and protecting nuclear-power operators from overzealous litigators would all facilitate the near-term construction of nuclear power stations. If we started now, the first plants would come online in about eight years (three years for licensing, five for construction) and would last six to eight decades. This life-span makes nuclear energy a true long-term solution.

Yet there are too few politicians clamoring to advance such an agenda. While nuclear energy is coming back, it is not quite back yet. The old days of anti-nuclear fear-mongering may be over, but we haven't fully recovered from 30 years of such propaganda. As a result, many continue to distance themselves from the technology. But U.S. interests are best served by an energy mix that includes fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energies.

In Maryland, planners are itching to build a nuclear power plant that would solve the state's energy supply problem and help meet its CO2-reduction goals. Unfortunately, obstructionists in the General Assembly and the state's Public Service Commission are getting in the way.

The nation needs a brighter idea than light bulbs in the mail. Officials should step aside and allow American ingenuity to finally solve our energy problems.

Jack Spencer is a research fellow in nuclear energy and Nicolas Loris is a researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

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