Safer than Nuclear – Renewable Energy, Natural Gas, Energy Efficiency

“In 88 minutes, the sun provides 470 exajoules of energy, as much energy as humanity consumes in a year.” In Scientific American, Ramez Naam adds, “In 112 hours – less than five days – it provides 36 zettajoules of energy – as much energy as is contained in all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas on this planet.”

We have no shortage of energy. Fortunately, we are increasingly producing and delivering more renewable energy at lower cost. At the same time we are more efficient about using energy for everything from lighting, to buildings, to transportation. Most promising is the trend to make energy cheap when plentiful, more expensive at peak, and use intelligent energy management to level the use. The grid is starting to get smart.

With a smart grid and national network of high-voltage lines, solar and wind power that are intermittent in single locations become predictable sources of steady power with a smart super grid. Renewables such as hydro, bioenergy, geothermal are already used as base load. The most cost-effective way to meet most of our base load needs is with efficient combined-cycle natural gas power plants.

As nations around the world rethink their plans for nuclear energy, better alternatives are seen in energy efficiency, renewable energy, natural gas, smart grid, and intelligent energy management.

Workers in Japan are heroically risking their lives to prevent a Chernobyl-type disaster. Earthquake exposed cores are tenuously contained hour by hour. Onsite spent fuel rods are being prevented from melt down minute by minute. Most problematic are nuclear plants that are over 30 years old. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has called for a temporary shutdown of all nuclear plants built before 1980.

Such dangers should give us pause in the United States where over 100 plants were built pre-1977 with 40-year target lives. 59 of those plants have had their licenses extended to 60 years. The nuclear industry has campaigned to stretch these to 80-year licenses.  In almost all cases, like Japan, the spent rods are stored onsite in U.S. plants. Some U.S. reactors are located near major earthquake faults.

Fortunately, we have safer and more cost-effective energy solutions. The new Clean Energy Trends 2011 highlights strong growth in energy efficiency (including solar hot water), renewable energy, and innovative integration of natural gas and CSP. The report documents rapid progress: “The global market for solar photovoltaics (PV) has expanded from just $2.5 billion in 2000 to $71.2 billion in 2010, for example, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39.8 percent. The global market for wind power, which like solar PV we have tracked every year for the past decade, has similarly expanded from a global market worth $4.5 billion in 2000 to more than $60.5 billion today, for a CAGR of 29.7 percent.” Clean Edge research projects wind power to expand from $60.5 billion in 2010 to $122.9 billion by 2020, and solar to expand from $71.2 billion to $113.6 billion by 2020. Clean Trends 2011 also looks at innovative combination of cost-effect base load power and renewables:

The integration of natural gas and renewable energy offers an opportunity to transition smoothly away from dirty energy sources. One key trend in pairing natural gas with renewables has been the development of solar-gas hybrid systems, such as Florida Power & Light’s Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center, which recently connected a 75 MW, concentrated solar power (CSP) plant to the largest natural gas plant in the U.S. (3.8 GW). Other hybrid plants in development include an NV Energy project in Nevada and two separate projects in California led by Inland Energy. Along with tackling renewables’ intermittency issues, hybrid plants are an enticing idea because the sharing of existing infrastructure, such as turbines and transmission lines, promises to reduce upfront capital costs. Integrated solar combined cycle (ISCC) plants, which increase steam generation by adding solar heat to gas-turbine waste heat, are another example of the mixing of solar and gas.

The best solution of all is to encourage people to save money by being more energy efficient. By making energy cheap off-peak and more pricey during peak hours, consumers know when to run their energy-efficient appliances, and industry knows how to optimize electricity demand.

Twenty-seven percent of all global electricity is consumed by lighting. I write this article sitting underneath new LED light bulbs that use one-tenth the energy of the old fashioned incandescent bulbs that came with the home when we bought it three years ago. As I finish the article, no lighting is needed. Sunlight streams in to welcome a bright day and a brighter future.