House File 561, an act relating to the permitting, licensing, construction, and operation of nuclear power generation facilities in Iowa, remains on the unfinished business calendar of the 2011 legislative session. Whether it will be debated during the 2012 session is uncertain, but throughout Iowa, proponents and opponents of nuclear power have had an opportunity to have their say. What has become clear is that the pro-nuclear group has many more resources than those who oppose it.
Since the session ended on July 15, pro-nuclear groups have been active. There have been reports of summer meetings with key senators at their homes by MidAmerican Energy lobbyists. MidAmerican Energy was author of HF 561. The rural electric cooperatives have been promoting nuclear power at their annual membership meetings, along with a free lunch and tote bag. Pro-nuclear groups, like Clean Energy for America, have launched speaker tours in the state to meet with people explaining the benefits of nuclear power and in their mind, enabling “you to decide.” Opponents of the bill have been speaking as well, but the pro nuclear presentations outnumber our presentations significantly. For example, I did two events in the last seven days compared to about 25 by a speaker for Clean Energy for America in a similar period.
When the electric companies assert a need for what they call “baseload” electricity, it is easy to understand why. In order to operate efficiently, public utilities need an electricity source they can turn off and on depending upon demand and the status of generating capacity. They also need a generating source that is scalable. When they assert baseload, they refer to generation fueled by natural gas, coal and nuclear, calling wind, solar and hydroelectric renewable resources. Predictable, scalable and abundant, these are preferred sources of power if your business is generating and distributing electricity to residential and industrial customers on a large scale. In the past, smart electric utilities have used a mixture of all of the above. Laggards like MidAmerican Energy, who until recently generated 99% of their electricity by burning coal, are racing to catch up with an industry that began diversifying its portfolios long ago.
If we look to renewable energy as an alternative solution, it is an industry in disarray. The sole star of the renewable industry is wind energy which is a proven resource and has really taken off in Iowa. Solar holds promise if grid issues and high costs can be resolved and that is a big if. Hydroelectric power is static, and with diminishing water resources, not the best option for increased use. There is an algae biofuels project in early commercialization, geo-thermal heating and air conditioning is expanding and a few passive solar buildings have been built. Conservation is an underutilized resource for meeting demand for electricity. There have been numerous trade shows filled with product vendors and information peddlers, but no realistic alternative to the fossil fuels, nuclear, hydroelectric and wind that have become standard in the utility business. Without government subsidies, every source of electricity would be challenged, especially renewables that continue to be in development.
Energy advocates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have suggested that a solution to our electricity needs is distributed generation where everyone can own a small scale power plant using renewable resources to generate electricity, then sell excess back into the grid. It is a noble vision and a way to preserve the commons and curtail our endless pursuit and exploitation of natural resources. If it is clear our elected officials won’t pursue an energy policy that includes distributed generation, it is clearer that most Americans have no interest in doing anything but buying electricity from a public utility.
What the state of Iowa and the country needs is a common sense energy policy and we are not even close to having one. Instead we have a hodgepodge of antiquated power generating facilities, an outdated grid, and rules, regulations and contracts that make changing our mix of energy in a forward looking manner almost impossible. The last president to have a substantial energy policy was Jimmy Carter and that has been tossed onto the trash heap of history.
The bottom line for advocates against nuclear power is that there are grave concerns about its risk to human health and its cost. We have an aging fleet of 104 nuclear reactors in the United States and if they are replaced, a nuclear industry expert said publicly that costs would quadruple. Before we rush to judgment on new nuclear power in Iowa, and clear financial hurdles for investors to build a new nuclear reactor, let’s take time to do the hard work of creating an energy policy, rather than continuing the hodgepodge life of following whatever the electrical utilities want next when current practices are exposed to be harmful to human health.
~ Paul Deaton is a regular contributor to Blog for Iowa who lives in rural Iowa.