Renewing Support for Renewables. By Nancy Folbre, NYTimes, 3/28/11. The biggest positive result of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi could be renewed public support for the development of renewable energy technologies. Many influential policy makers, including President Obama, continue to insist that we must expand nuclear power to help meet our energy needs. But plenty of experts disagree… renewable energy sources (including hydropower and biofuels) already account for almost the same share of total energy consumption in the United States as nuclear power… The cost per kilowatt hour of generating electricity from wind and solar power has declined steadily in recent years and is projected to decline further… The cost of nuclear power, by contrast, has increased, even without factoring in the huge social costs imposed by accidents... In Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly, Amory Lovins, a physicist with the Rocky Mountain Institute, and two colleagues argued that expanded nuclear power does not represent a cost-effective solution to global warming and that investors would shun it were it not for generous government subsidies lubricated by intensive lobbying efforts…

“Can wind, water and solar power be scaled up in cost-effective ways to meet our energy demands, freeing us from dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power? Yes, they can, say two highly respected scientists, Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University and Mark A. Delucchi of the University of California, Davis. In 2009 they published A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables in Scientific American. The article persuasively addresses a number of concerns, such as the worldwide spatial footprint of wind turbines, the availability of scarce materials needed for manufacture of new systems, the ability to produce reliable energy on demand and the average cost per kilowatt hour. A more detailed and updated technical analysis can be found in a two-part article (see Part I [PDF, 16 pp] and Part II , [PDF, 21 pp] recently published in the journal Energy Policy)…

“The proven dangers of nuclear power amplify the economic risks of expanding reliance on it. Indeed, the stronger regulation and improved safety features for nuclear reactors called for in the wake of the Japanese disaster will almost certainly require costly provisions that may price it out of the market. The role of the market, however, is small relative to political battles over relative levels of subsidy to fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy. While both the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries are dominated by large companies with considerable political clout, renewable energy is a more decentralized, small-business-oriented sector that often finds itself outmaneuvered on Capitol Hill.

“As Professors Jacobson and Delucchi put it, ‘The barriers to a 100% conversion to wind, water and solar power worldwide are primarily social and political, not technological or even economic.’”

~ Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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