Nuclear - Greener Than Wind/Solar? - Part III

One thing we hear again and again is how alternative energy sources will somehow “save” us and that all other forms of energy are bad/dangerous/icky and aren't green. But that view is shortsighted, ignoring far too many other factors that determine whether a particular energy source is truly green. For instance, what good is a green alternative energy source if it uses materials that are extremely toxic in the manufacturing process or is far less efficient than traditional energy sources meaning more of them are needed to produce an equivalent amount of energy? What if making the shift of more energy production to alternative sources in an effort to save the environment ends up destroying it instead?

The House of Representatives has passed climate legislation that started out as an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. It has morphed into an engine for raising revenues by selling carbon dioxide emission allowances and promoting "renewable" energy.

The bill requires electric utilities to get 20% of their power mostly from wind and solar by 2020. These renewable energy sources are receiving huge subsidies—all to supposedly create jobs and hurry us down the road to an America running on wind and sunshine described in President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address.

Yet all this assumes renewable energy is a free lunch—a benign, "sustainable" way of running the country with minimal impact on the environment. That assumption experienced a rude awakening on Aug. 26, when The Nature Conservancy published a paper titled "Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America." The report by this venerable environmental organization posed a simple question: How much land is required for the different energy sources that power the country? The answers deserve far greater public attention.

This is something too many alternative energy proponents have overlooked in their zeal to move the US towards more sustainable energy production. They've ignored the actual impact of some of those alternative sources on the surrounding environment, ignored the amount of land these alternative energy sources will take up to provide the amount of energy to meet the needs of the people. Simply put, alternative energy sources of the type most are talking about are what would be called low density sources, meaning the amount of energy produced for each square meter of space taken up by those sources is very low as compared to the more traditional sources of energy like coal, gas, oil, and nuclear plants. And of the more traditional sources, nuclear power has the highest density of energy produced per unit of land, above that of the other traditional sources and well above that of the alternative sources.

By far nuclear energy is the least land-intensive; it requires only one square mile to produce one million megawatt-hours per year, enough electricity for about 90,000 homes. Geothermal energy, which taps the natural heat of the earth, requires three square miles. The most landscape-consuming are biofuels—ethanol and biodiesel—which require up to 500 square miles to produce the same amount of energy.

Coal, on the other hand, requires four square miles, mainly for mining and extraction. Solar thermal—heating a fluid with large arrays of mirrors and using it to power a turbine—takes six. Natural gas needs eight and petroleum needs 18. Wind farms require over 30 square miles.


Renewable energy is not a free lunch. It is an unprecedented assault on the American landscape. Before we find ourselves engulfed in energy sprawl, it's imperative we take a closer look at nuclear power.

One must also consider the up-time and maintenance requirements of the various energy sources. Both wind and solar are primarily daytime sources (yes, wind also blows at night, but generally not as much or as steadily as it does during the day). The maintenance required is higher for alternative sources. Solar collectors, PV panels, or mirrors must be cleaned constantly to maintain efficiency. Wind turbines undergo mechanical stresses that require constant inspection and repair, with such duties often being more difficult due to the size and height of each turbine.

Traditional power sources can run 24 hours a day. Nuclear power plants can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for two or three years at 100% power. The traditional combustion-based power plants (coal, oil, and natural gas) have higher down time and require more maintenance, usually of the boiler systems for coal and oil and the combustion turbines of the natural gas plants due to the corrosive nature of high temperature combustion.

Maybe it's time to seriously look at new nuclear plants as a green source of energy and avoid the 'energy sprawl' common to alternative energy sources.

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