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Efficiency Trumps Nuclear Power

ADVOCATES for the financially troubled nuclear industry have recently been campaigning hard for renewed spending on their industry because of the alleged environmental benefits of nuclear power. Their concern is not to save the environment, but to save their dying industry. Nuclear power cannot substantially alleviate global warming, since electrical generation accounts for only about 15 percent of our nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Even doubling nuclear capacity to generate electricity would reduce those emissions by less than 3 percent.

If we were to take the same capital that nuclear advocates would have us give their industry, and use it to provide homeowners and businesses with loans and incentives to invest in the new generation of highly efficient motors, lights, heaters, air conditioners, refrigerators, and other technologies, we would safely make about seven times more power available for immediate use. Putting these investments in nuclear power would provide no power for five to 10 years, and then only at the risk of a nuclear accident.

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As much as 75 percent of the electricity produced in the United States and Canada each year is wasted through the use of inefficient motors, lights, and appliances, according to scientists at the Lawrence Berkley Lab. Similarly, Minnesota's Department of Public Service estimates that 52 percent of our electricity could be cost-effectively saved through increased efficiency.

Much of the blame for the nation's massive waste of electricity rests squarely on some of the same electric utilities and public regulatory systems that are bank-rolling the campaign for new nuclear plants. According to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' Conservation Committee: ``Utilities' rate structures encourage the production and sale of as much electricity as possible because selling more electricity always adds to a utility's profits, regardless of the cost of producing the extra power or the price at which it is sold; and investments in conservation measures always hurt a utility's bottom line, regardless of their cost-effectiveness.''

Advances in lighting systems provide the best example of the potential for reducing pollution and energy costs by increasing the efficiency of electricity end use. A new compact fluorescent bulb, for instance, uses one-fifth the electricity of conventional lighting, provides equal or better lighting, lasts up to 13 times longer than incandescent bulbs, and provides substantial cost savings. The use of just one bulb prevents the emission of close to a ton of carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas), 21 pounds of sulfur (acid rain), a significant amount of nitrogen oxides (smog), a broad array of toxic emissions, and the solid waste associated with the 13 bulbs it replaces. New types of fluorescent tubes, occupancy sensors that turn off lights in empty rooms, and other new technologies can do even more. In contrast to nuclear power, investments in all of these technologies save the consumer many times their purchase price in electricity and labor.

On a larger scale, hot water heaters, air conditioners, other appliances, and industrial motors that do the same job as current models for a fraction of the energy are available. With the addition of weatherization, load-management strategies, and other methods, there is an enormous potential for energy and environmental savings in homes and businesses. Unfortunately, the higher initial cost and simple lack of understanding of the full benefits of efficiency have prevented widespread application of such means, even though lifetime-use costs are much lower and investments in efficiency yield an average of seven times more energy than the same investment in a nuclear power plant.

Some utilities in New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Wisconsin are moving ahead with least-cost strategies that provide utilities with a return on investments in efficiency incentives. California leads the way, with a plan to have utilities invest $300 million in 1991, with $200 million being invested this year. They expect savings of $1.1 billion from this investment, not including the savings from avoided environmental impacts. The second largest northeast utility has invested $65 million, and expects a savings of $160 million, not counting environmental savings.

The nuclear industry is correct on one point - most of our pressing environmental and economic concerns are directly tied to energy use. Even for those of us who do not unequivocally oppose nuclear power, investing in a nuclear future before we have taken advantage of opportunities to increase efficiency is environmentally and economically foolish. It will mean that money and energy will continue to be wasted, North America will continue to wane in competitiveness with Europe and Japan, and the environment will continue to be degraded.

The practice of giving our public trust and dollars not to the most effective technology, but to the technology with the best lobbyists, must stop if we are to address the environmental crisis.