Tuesday, October 12, 2004

False Dichotomy
Having lived and worked in London for a couple of years, I probably pay more attention to news stories from the UK than the average person. As this story from the New York Times indicates, there is an interesting debate underway in Britain concerning renewable power and nuclear power. It highlights two major energy issues, one European, the other more specific to the UK.

The first deals with the challenge of a commitment, backed by a public sense of urgency, to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But this bumps up against another commitment, to reduce or eliminate nuclear power in key parts of Europe. At the moment all the large-scale alternatives, such as coal or natural gas, would increase greenhouse gas emissions. The EU and its member countries need to determine which priority is higher: climate change or de-nuclearization.

The other issue deals with the way that alternatives such as wind are being pitted against nuclear power in an either-or sort of public debate. I believe this is a false and misleading choice, because the two energy sources are so different. Wind, regardless of scale is an intermittent energy source that does best supplementing a power grid that has a lot of other incremental capacity that can be ramped up or down, as wind power fluctuates. Nuclear, by contrast, is an ideal base-load source that can run all the time, and that needs to in order to defray its large investment costs.

Nuclear plants--at least the current technology--come in 1000 Megawatt increments with large price tags and require up to a decade to build, while wind turbines are easily scalable in increments of up to 5 Megawatts and can be manufactured and installed in a matter of months. Each has environmental consequences, though neither emits greenhouse gases.

Considering all these differences, it seems clear that wind and nuclear are actually complementary technologies, rather than competitive. If the UK is serious about meeting its climate change commitments in the future, it will almost certainly need to make wide use of both of these options.

No comments: