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Monday, Oct. 9, 2000

OUR PLANET EARTH

When micropower comes of age: an alternative to nuclear power?


Two weeks ago Taiwan's economic minister, Lin Hsin-i, proposed that his nation give up plans to build a fourth nuclear power plant, despite having already spent several billion dollars on the project.

"We cannot leave the nuclear waste to our children," he was reported as saying. Lin voiced support for exploring natural and renewable energy sources, citing public concerns over the safety of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste. If his proposal is adopted, Taiwan could become nuclear free by 2025, when the nation's three nuclear power plants are scheduled to go off line.

Intentionally or not, Lin's Sept. 30 announcement came on the first anniversary of Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident, in which uranium went critical in a mixing tank at a processing plant in Tokaimura. Two men eventually died of radiation sickness.

Despite widespread misgivings, Japan's energy debate remains static. Residents of Japan are increasingly uncomfortable with their dependence on nuclear power, but they are told there is no alternative. Nuclear reactors already provide Japan with more than 35 percent of its electricity. We're committed.

Or are we? For the short term, perhaps. But over the long haul, as one wry observer noted, there is an alternative: Stop using nuclear power. Absurd? Maybe not. If Germans can muster the political will (Germany decided last June to phase out nuclear power within 32 years) and Taiwan can consider it, why not the Japanese?

Switching energy sources is qualitatively not that different from any policy decision that requires phasing out the old and phasing in the new. Except, of course, the change would revolutionize the way Japan does business and could force sclerotic utilities to shape up or close down. It could also spur unheard of economic growth.

One alternative that may soon revolutionize energy generation worldwide is micropower, according to Seth Dunn. A research associate at Worldwatch Institute in Washington, Dunn is the author of a Worldwatch paper titled, "Micropower: The Next Electrical Generation." He predicts that a "triple power shock" of technological, economic and environmental trends are pushing energy generation systems toward "a more small-scale, decentralized model.

"For decades electric utilities embraced the large-scale model, with its 'economies of scale,' as the best means to generate low-cost power for customers," Dunn writes. In the 1980s, however, "the steady trend of bigger plants and plummeting prices came to a sudden end as the industry encountered limits to efficiency gains, environmental problems, rising energy prices, and costly nuclear power projects."

In the 1990s, the trend actually began to reverse, he says, citing similar trends in other industries. The telecommunications industry, for example, has been transformed by new technology and deregulation, and the computer industry has switched from clunky mainframes to desktop and laptop personal computers.

Micropower technologies are small and modular. They include microturbines, fuel cells, solar cells and revamped traditional engines. Reciprocating engines that once burned diesel are now being fueled with natural gas. Stirling engines (which use external heat to warm a gas that drives pistons) can run on biogas, solar heat and even wood chips. With cogeneration, using waste heat for water or space heating, these engines can reach 85 percent efficiency.

Unlike oil, coal and nuclear electricity generation facilities that benefit from economies of scale (building bigger and bigger to lower costs), micropower technologies benefit from "economies of production -- producing more units to lower costs."

Already utilities are facing "diseconomies of scale," says Dunn, and are starting to rethink the benefits of smaller and modular. A "philosophy of power generation -- away from the natural monopoly of utilities, and toward open, competitive markets -- is sweeping the globe and revolutionizing an $850 billion industry," he writes.

Modular systems have several other benefits besides being portable and more economical when mass produced. The number of modules can easily be adjusted to match demand, and they can be installed almost anywhere, far more quickly than a central station.

Think of the years and yen it takes to site a nuclear power plant, not to mention the time and money it takes to build. Now consider providing the same region with numerous, decentralized sources of power: microturbines that burn natural or biomass gas; wind turbines; photovoltaic cells that harness the sun's energy; fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity; and microhydro systems. Low or no CO, low or no safety risk and no dinosaur-sized towers and high-voltage wires slashing your neighborhood. What would your choice be?

The problem is, the choice is not yours. According to Dunn, current market rules in most countries favor centralized, merchant power stations. "Many electric utilities perceive micropower systems as an economic threat, and are blocking their deployment by charging onerous connection fees and by paying low prices for power fed into the grid," he says.

Moreover, Dunn warns, "Failure to reform these rules and practices could result in the construction of another generation of marginally improved large-scale power plants of questionable long-term economic and environmental value."

Particularly in developing countries, micropower systems offer communities an opportunity to "leap frog" to power that is cheap and clean. Most capital investment these days, however, is in huge coal and nuclear plants that generate air pollution or radioactive waste, and require millions of dollars worth of long distance transmission wires. Incredibly, some nations lose as much as "50 percent of their total power generated" through transmission leaks, according to Worldwatch.

The downside is that micropower technologies are still being improved, and won't be cheap until they are mass produced. Nevertheless, they are cleaner, safer and offer more flexibility than merchant plants. It's a safe bet modular, high-quality electricity will power the 21st century, without high costs and high tension wires.

But don't take my word on this. Here's what Thomas Alva Edison, the father of our electrical age, told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

Had he known, he probably would have warned them about nuclear wastes and criticality accidents as well. Not to mention tires.

For more information on Worldwatch, see the Web site at www.worldwatch.org. Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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