A physicist's perspective on
energy independence

an op-ed by
Ruth McClung
May 2010

I support common sense energy independence. This means we should be pursuing energy solutions which produce the largest amount of energy for the lowest cost and the lowest impact to our environment. It also means we cannot expect to wean ourselves off of conventional energy sources overnight, especially if it means killing our economy and starving ourselves to do it.

We hear a lot today about alternative energy sources - wind, solar, bio-fuel (another form of solar), etc. All of these have their niche, and we should be utilizing them within their niche, but because of their intensive land usage, environmental problems, other technical problems, and even in some cases, ethical problems, they are far from being the solution we need for supplying our present and future energy needs.

As an example: a little over a year ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salizar gave a speech where he claimed we could replace most of the coal plants in the United States with wind turbines along the east coast. What he didn't say however was it would take between 1,000,000 and 5,000,000 wind turbines (200 to 1,000 layers of wind turbines along the east coast running from Maine to Miami - a total land footprint of 97,000 to 1,250,000 square miles) to replace our coal generating plants. Talk about an environmental impact! (And environmentalists complain about the 3.1 square miles proposed in ANWR Alaska.) For an analysis, see
How many wind turbines?

Obviously wind is not the large scale solution we are looking for. Solar energy is also very land area intensive, and it competes with living things for light, so it is not a large scale viable solution either. But both solar and wind have their niche, and using them for meeting some of our energy needs makes sense. I believe the areas where these technologies make sense will become obvious if we encourage the free market to help solve our energy needs.

I do believe our government needs to support research through the DOE and universities, but energy should not normally be subsidized. Subsidies hide the true cost of energy, they do not give us the optimum solution, and they suffocate future technologies which might have become available. The federal government seems to pick whatever is popular and politically correct at the moment when it is dealing with technology, and in doing so, it completely ignores the physics and economics which need to be considered in finding real energy solutions. The government will spend billions in one technology, and then mothball it because political winds shift

An example of this happened in the 1990's when the DOE was funding research on a promising modular breeder reactor concept. This nuclear reactor concept, called the Integral Breeder Reactor (IBR), was being designed to be inherently safe and to minimize the long-lived nuclear waste problem. The DOE's Argonne National Laboratory West was only years from a commercially viable design when the political winds shifted. In 1992, President Clinton was elected, and one of his and Congress's first acts was to cut the IBR's funding. We could be generating much of our energy today using safe, clean, modular reactors, and also selling them around the world, if politics had not replaced physics in making the decision.

By far, nuclear energy is the cleanest and most efficient solution to our current energy needs. It also has a minimal land area footprint. At the present time, nuclear energy strikes the best balance in meeting our energy needs with minimal impact to our land and to our environment. Nuclear energy will also be needed if we want to drive electric vehicles or develop a hydrogen based economy (using hydrogen instead of oil). It would also mean good paying jobs in Arizona. We have the uranium ore resources which can be harvested easily with almost no environmental impact. (My opponent, Rep. Grijalva, has been blocking this.) A nuclear plant near Yuma could also help supply our state's future water needs by using waste heat to desalinate water from the Gulf of California. If we built several nuclear plants, we could also sell power to other states, like California, that are more short sighted.

It takes time to build nuclear power plants however. Currently only about 20% of our nation's electricity is produced by nuclear, while around 50% is produced by coal. The remainder of our electricity is generated by burning natural gas (20%) and by renewable energy (about 6% hydroelectric and 3% solar/wind). We will therefore need to continue using coal and oil for the foreseeable future. Our nation does have vast reserves of natural gas, and it would make sense to convert many of our coal plants to natural gas. We can also become more energy independent by using natural gas to power many of our vehicles.

We should use solar and wind in places where they make sense. There is no reason why our new buildings in Arizona should not be designed with the sun in mind - both for space and water heating, and to avoid its hot rays in the summer reducing the needs of cooling. And we should continue encouraging our inventors and entrepreneurs, through the free market, to continue developing new energy sources and making the sources we already have more efficient and cost effective.

 

 

Ruth McClung for US Congress Arizona CD 7

 

 

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