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Energy alternatives

IN the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, there has been a steady stream of articles arguing that nuclear power is absolutely vital if we are to avoid a shortfall in electricity supply resulting in costly brownouts and blackouts. These articles are apparently intended to counteract the negative public feeling toward nuclear power that was a byproduct of the accident. Also, they often try to argue that reliance on nuclear power is the only way to avoid acid rain and the ``greenhouse effect.'' Unfortunately, the call for heroic measures, principally governmental action, to resuscitate nuclear power is seriously flawed. Invariably, nuclear power is compared to polluting coal, dwindling oil, or the most expensive solar electric technologies in order to conclude that it is a bargain too good to pass up. No mention is ever made about the enormous federal energy subsidies that disguise the real cost of nuclear power plants by underwriting half their cost. Nor the fact that the last round of nuclear reactors will cost ratepayers $200 billion more than the oil-fired plants they displaced. Moreover, these articles never compare nuclear power with the most available, least-cost energy options. Without a doubt, the most competitive energy sources now available are energy efficiency and natural gas, not nuclear power. These two sources, along with a diverse mix of renewable resources, are so plentiful that nuclear power is simply not essential.

According to recent congressional testimony, improvements in energy efficiency in buildings, vehicles, and factories since 1973 are now saving the American economy a staggering $150 billion a year. More important, high-technology innovations in electricity-consuming devices such as lights, motors, appliances, manufacturing equipment, and industrial processes offer to save American consumers upward of another $100 billion a year on their utility bills. Efficiency investments typically require one-tenth of the capital of new coal or nuclear power plants, and, quite obviously, without safety risks or waste disposal problems.

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Some experts believe these abundant low-cost efficiency options are sufficient to meet all new electrical demand. Any shortfalls could be easily met with the enormous pool of cogeneration that exists in the nation. Cogeneration, which recycles industrial waste heat to produce additional electricity or uses the waste heat from electrical production to reduce energy needs, has grown extremely rapidly in recent years. The need for large new power plants is disappearing in one state after another as cogeneration is encouraged. California now has long-term cogeneration contracts equivalent to 60 percent of its existing electricity loads. By 1988, Maine will derive 30 percent of its power from cogeneration. Industrial companies are finding their competitive positions greatly enhanced by reducing the cost of producing goods and services through efficiency measures and on-site cogeneration, an arrangement far preferable to suffering rate hikes from new nuclear power plants.

Furthermore, the recent development of highly efficient gas turbines now offers utilities ``baseload'' electricity at a fraction of the cost of nuclear power and are relatively pollution free. Even if the price of natural gas tripled, gas turbines would still remain cost-effective against nuclear power. Finally, it is becoming evident that Japan's accelerated development of solar photovoltaic cells, which is far outpacing the early lead once held by the United States, is a wild card that could become the big winner in the utility market within the 10 years it typically takes to build a new large power plant.

Strong governmental action is needed. The first step should be to phase out the nearly $50 billion a year in federal energy subsidies, one-third of which now go to nuclear power. The presence of such massive subsidies continues to steer the marketplace into the worst buys instead of the least-cost options. If our energy policy is in fact to rely on the marketplace, then the federal government is responsible for leveling the playing field.

Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island is the ranking minority member on the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Agriculture Research, and Environment.