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Nuclear Energy Fails To Live Up To Billing

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Effective Energy Alternatives: The Southface Energy and Environmental Resource Center in Atlanta

Nuclear power has suffered the greatest collapse of any enterprise in worldwide industrial history. The 20th century ended with worldwide nuclear power capacity of less than 10 percent. American public investment in civilian nuclear power has exceeded $1 trillion, yet nuclear power delivers only about as much energy today as biomass fuels produced from plant and animal waste. It is actually cheaper for a power company to close down a nuclear plant and give customers electricity-saving equipment than to continue operating the facility. Nuclear power’s main competitor was originally presumed to be gain coal-fired plants. These are now equally obsolete economically because many competing systems work better, pollute less and are cheaper to build and operate. In Atlanta, coal power plants are particularly problematic because they are major contributors of the nitrogen oxides that cause much of our air pollution.

The most viable alternative by far to nuclear and coal-generated electricity is energy efficiency - an enormous reserve of existing power available in every home and business in America. In industry and commerce, will-designed energy efficiency upgrades cost about a tenth as much as buying electricity. Moreover, the new book 'Natural Capitalism' by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins documents how in new buildings and factories, the best available lighting, motor and cooling options often pay for themselves immediately in reduced capital costs.

Furthermore, new studies show that gains in labor productivity, manufacturing output and quality, schoolroom learning and retail sales from efficient buildings are often worth far more than the direct reductions in energy cost.

After energy efficiency gains, new advanced on-site electrical generators offer the next best alternative to nuclear and coal power. These include highly efficient industrial and commercial turbines that produce both electricity and usable waste heat, plus some renewables such as wind power in appropriate locations. Such new systems also reduce capital investment in electrical transmission and distribution equipment.

Even better, on-site fuel cells entering the market within a year are poised to capture most of the power market in buildings, which use two-thirds of America’s electricity. The cost of advanced fuel-cell units is expected to drop by tenfold within a decade, but even at initial prices, General Electric and other marketers expect them to be strongly competitive. Decentralized electricity sources can increase the economic value of these clean technologies by roughly tenfold, making even solar fuel cells cost-effective today in many applications.

The many real-world examples of buildings, homes and industrial plants that use far less power than normal make any source other than efficiency gains unattractively costly. The Southface Energy Institute’s Environmental Resource Center in Atlanta is a case in point. Built four years ago using available technology, it uses less than a third of the power of a typical office building in Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s own replacement of antiquated(but common) lighting with high-efficiency products and “tuning up” mechanical systems is another local success story.

The $1 million cost was rapid in less than three years with savings on electric bills. The ACJ energy efficiency improvements saved enough air pollution to equal taking 1,196 cars permanently off of Atlanta’s roads.

Amory Lovins’ house in Colorado, using 1983 technology inferior to today’s, has a $5-a month household electric bill for 4,000 square feet, and saves 99 percent of its space - and water - heating energy. The savings paid for the extra cost in the first 10 months. The fieldwork of Rocky Mountain Institute and Southface has time and again demonstrated the strength of energy efficiency investments as a 'win-win' solution for business, the environment, and national security. Our public policy should focus on developing these technologies, especially in light of the benefits they would offer in reducing pollution and strengthening Georgia’s economy.

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