Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for April 25, 2010

“National Windmill Policy Equivalent of Going to War in Sailboats”

Posted on April 25, 2010

Thursday, April 22, was Earth Day, which celebrated its the 40th anniversary. Earth Day is a good day to celebrate what I hope will be a national resolve to build 100 new nuclear power plants in the next 20 years, which would be the best way to create the largest amount of pollution-free, carbon-free electricity. Today, nuclear power produces 20 percent of America's electricity but 69 percent of all of our carbon-free, pollution-free electricity. 

During 2009, America’s national energy policy looked more like a national windmill policy—the equivalent of going to war in sailboats. If we were going to war, the United States would not think of putting its nuclear navy in mothballs. Yet, we did mothball our nuclear plant construction program—our best weapon against climate change, high electricity prices, polluted air and energy insecurity. Although 107 reactors were completed between 1970 and 1990 producing 20 per­cent of our electricity today—which is 69 percent of our carbon free electricity—the United States has not started a new nuclear reactor in thirty years. 

Instead of using our own invention to catch up with the rest of the world, President Obama in his Inaugural Address set out on a different path: America would rely upon “the sun, the winds and the soil” for energy. There was no mention of nuclear. Windmills would produce 20 percent of our electricity. To achieve this goal, the federal government would commit another $30 billion in subsidies and tax breaks.  To date, almost all the subsidies for renewable energy have gone to windmill developers – many of whom are large banks, corporations and wealthy individuals. Last year’s stimulus bill alone contained $2 billion in windmill subsidies – nearly 80 percent of which went to overseas manufacturers. And despite the billions in subsidies, not much energy is being produced. Wind accounts for just 1.3 percent of America’s electricity, available only when the wind blows since wind power can’t be stored except in small amounts.  

Also, conservation groups have begun to worry about “renewable energy sprawl.” For example, producing 20 percent of U.S. electricity from wind would cover an area the size of West Virginia with 186,000 turbines and require 19,000 new miles of transmission lines. And these are not your grandmother’s windmills. Turbines are up to fifty stories high. Their flashing lights can be seen for twenty miles. And yet an unbroken line of giant turbines along the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail (except for coastlines, ridge tops are about the only place turbines work well in much of the East) would produce no more electricity than four nuclear reactors on four square miles of land—and, of course, you’d still need those reactors for when the wind doesn’t blow.  

The simpler possibility that exists for producing lots of low-cost, reliable, green electricity is to build 100 new nuclear plants, doubling U.S. nuclear power production. Unlike wind turbines, 100 new reactors would require few new trans­mission lines through suburban backyards and pristine open spaces. They would also require much less taxpayer support. At current rates of subsidy, taxpayers would shell out $170 billion to subsidize the 186,000 wind turbines necessary to equal the power of 100 reactors. While federal government loan guarantees are probably necessary to jump-start the first few reactors, once we’ve proven that reactors can be built without delays or huge cost overruns, no more loan guarantees will be needed.  In fact, the Tennessee Valley Authority just finished rebuilding the $1.8 billion Browns Ferry reactor on time and on budget, proving it can be done – and the project has shown to be so successful that TVA now expects to have the project paid off in half the time originally anticipated.  Yet even if all $54 billion in loan guarantees defaulted – which isn’t going to happen – it would still be less than one-third of what we’re putting into wind.  

Fortunately, with the arrival of 2010 has come a more welcoming environment for nuclear power. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear reactors.” His 2011 budget request recommends tripling loan guaran­tees for the first reactors, and in February his administration announced the awarding of the first two loan guarantees for nuclear power. He has selected distinguished members, both for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and for a new Blue Ribbon Commission to figure out the best way to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. Democratic senators— several of whom, in fairness, have long been supporters of nuclear energy—have joined the forty Republicans to create bipartisan sup­port. Last December, Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a former Navy secretary, and I introduced legislation to double nuclear power production and to accelerate support for alternative forms of clean energy. 

One day, solar and other renewable energy forms will be cheap and efficient enough to provide an important supplement to our energy needs and can do so in a way that minimizes damage to treasured landscapes. Today, nuclear power beats windmills for America’s green energy future. 

For more information, please visit my website https://www.alexander.senate.gov and read my book, “Going to War in Sailboats.”


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