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That big energy study: an insider's warning

The National Academy of Sciences' long- awaited report, "Energy in Transition: 1985- 2010," was signed by 14 people comprising the academy's Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems (CONAES), and it drew on the part-time work over a four-year period of nearly 300 others. Its exploration of this nation's energy choices over the coming decades fills almost 800 pages, most of them cluttered with conditionals, qualifiers, and admissions of ignorance. Yet at times the report seems to overlook the complexities it elsewhere reveals, portraying choices as simpler and less ambiguous than those we really face. Some early news accounts homed in precisely on these oversimplifications and transformed them into generalizations more sweeping and prescriptions more clear-cut than any the report contains.

Thus was the public told, in the first few days after the study's release, that the National Academy of Sciences had decreed:

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* Nuclear power and coal are the keys to our energy future;

* This country should build the breeder reactor;

* Solar energy can't be counted on.

None of these assertions is an accurate portrayal of what the report actually contains. (This is not to say that each statement would not find supporters among the report's authors.)

What doesm the report say? First, it is emphatic in giving highest priority among all energy options to energy conservation, meaning increased end-use efficiency that squeezes more economic benefit out of every Btu. The priority and promise of energy conservation emerged from the most extensive and thoroughly documented new work undertaken by CONAES, resulting in a stronger consensus for conversation among the committee members than for any other conclusion in the report. The emphasis on conservation's huge potential, in fact, is so clear in the report, in the letter of transmittal by the CONAES cochairmen, and the academy's news release, that it is hard to imagine how some news accounts skipped over it to dwell on nuclear power.

The report gives second priority to expanding energy supplies in ways that alleviate the fluid-fuel problem, which is the real locus of our present energy squeeze. Nuclear energy can provide little direct help here for the foreseeable future: it produces only electricity, and electricity generation claims only about 10 percent of the oil the US uses and 15 percent of the natural gas. (Much of even that modest amount is in intermediate-load and peaking applications, for which nuclear plants are ill suited.) The report calls for enhanced domestic oil and gas production, supplemented later by synfuels from coal and perhaps oil shale.

When it turns to electricity, the report contends that continued reliance on both coal and nuclear power is preferable for the time being to wholesale reliance on one or the other alone. A footnote explains that committee agreement with this position conceals a wide range of opinion about nuclear power, extending from unabashed enthusiasm, on the one hand, to the view that nuclear power is the energy source of last resort, on the other.

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Concerning the breeder reactor, the committee could agree only that research should continue, notm that development should be pushed to the stage of construction of proto- type reactors. The position is completely consistent with that of the present administration.

Where the report contends that coal and nuclear power are the onlym economic alternatives for large-scale electricity generation in the remainder of the century, I found it necessary to insert a dissent. The statement may be formally correct (depending on one's interpretation of the words "economic" and "large-scale"), but it frames the issues in a way that is both oversimplified and highly misleading. Economics is not the only criterion relevant to energy choices; large-scale use of a few technologies is not the most important part of the energy problem.

Unfortunately, the report's statements on the potential of renewable energy alternatives, electric and nonelectric, are so remarkably incomplete and inconsistent that reader confusion is inevitable. The assertion, reproduced in several news accounts, that "solar energy" probably will contribute only a few percent of national energy supply by 2010 applies only to the unlikely case of low prices for competing energy sources, coupled to the absence of cost reductions or policy initiatives for solar. It also excludes hydropower and biomass. More reasonable assumptions about relative costs, and the inclusion of biomass, lead to estimates of 10 to 20 quads (quadrillion Btu) of energy from "solar" in 2010, the upper figure exceeding our massive oil imports in 1978.

The report goes on to say that a national commitment to renewables (justified , in my view, by the potentially intolerable environmental and social costs of the nuclear and fossil-fuel alternatives) could produce 30 quads in 2010, which could be as much as 40 percent of total demand. My reading of the CONAES solar subpanel, on which this conclusion is supposed to be based, suggested that the solar contribution in 2010 conceivably could reach 50 to 60 quads.

The truth of the matter, in short, is that the US energy future will be what we choose it to be. I believe, on balance, that the academy study does much to illuminate the possibilities. I hope it is not misused to obscure them.