Thrawn Rickle 9

Alternative Power

© 1990 Williscroft

Are there any realistic, viable alternatives to nuclear power?

Letís examine two that are frequently advocated by nuclear power opponents.

Solar energy, according to energy experts, could realistically supply fifty percent of current domestic hot water needs. In the United States, homes consume about twenty-five percent of all energy produced. Hot water production in homes uses about one third of that. It follows, therefore, that if everyone used solar energy to heat water, we would save a scant four percent of our national energy needs. It would take an unprecedented national research effort to increase the immediate benefits resulting from solar energy use.

The current price for corn is about $2.80 per bushel. If we apply available technology optimized for energy and cost savings, we can build a fifty million gallon per year ethanol plant that will convert corn into ethanol for about $1.12 a gallon. This distillation requires large quantities of heat, which we can generate by burning fossil fuel (this seems a bit silly, even though the resulting ethanol is a more concentrated form of energy), or from some other source. One solution is to replace corn as a feedstock with waste products such as garbage, and to use waste heat from smelters and power generation. Another source for heat is geothermal energy where it is available, or even solar energy. For the process to be practical, however, the net energy gain must be sufficiently large to offset the cost of the feedstock and the required energy.

If we were to use all food processing waste, put all existing grain land into productive crop use, and use all surplus sugar and fifty percent of all fermentable municipal solid waste, we could generate 4.7 billion gallons of ethanol in the U.S. each year. This is less than four percent of annual U.S. gasoline consumption, and less than two percent of annual U.S. energy consumption.

The bottom line, then: today in America, if solar energy were universally applied in its most economically viable form, and if every available means were used to produce ethanol, even discounting the energy required to generate these results, there would be at most a six percent annual energy savings.

There is nothing wrong with applying solar energy in economically effective ways. There are great arguments for replacing fossil fuels with ethanol in order to conserve the irreplaceable chemical resources that go up in smoke and heat when we burn them. But a maximum energy savings of six percent simply doesnít wash as an argument for abandoning the nuclear energy option.