My post from yesterday raised questions about the economics of nuclear power plants. So, as is my custom, I spent five minutes on Wikipedia absorbing as many misconceptions about this topic as I could.
The first important concept to understand is that solar and wind power can never replace more than 20 percent of the world’s total energy needs because they are not reliable sources for any given hour of the day. We still need baseline energy production.
And then you have the problem of getting the energy from where it is produced to where you need it. That means Nebraskans won’t be powering their microwaves from ocean wave energy any time soon.
The economics of nuclear power plants aren’t as easy to calculate as you might assume. One of the bigger unknowns is what technological breakthroughs we’ll see in the next twenty years. In other words, is the most economical way to build the next nuclear power plant to wait 20 years before you start, thus benefitting from new technology?
And who can predict technological breakthroughs in renewable energy? If someone comes up with an absurdly cheap way to store electricity, or to transmit it thousands of miles without much loss, then solar and wind have more potential than anyone imagined. And if the scientists figure out how to inexpensively turn just about any fast-growing organic matter into oil through chemistry, that’s a game changer.
And what are the costs for the fossil fuel alternatives? What price do you assign to the human contribution to global warming, and the occasional war over oil?
The U.S. nuclear power debate usually gets characterized as a wrestling match between irrational scaredy cats and clear-headed rationalists, refereed by a comically incompetent government. The only thing I know for sure is that no one can understand the economics of a 40-year investment.