Blowing away the nukes

Wind power is booming. So is nuclear power. Which is cheaper?

Published February 28, 2006 12:12AM (EST)

The Global Wind Energy Council reported last week that 2005 was a record year for wind power. Some 11,769 megawatts of wind-generated electricity were installed worldwide, a 43 percent increase over 2004.

That's some good-looking growth, though it should probably be put in perspective. Total global electrical-generating capacity is about 3,800 gigawatts. Installed wind power in 2005 generated about 59,322 megawatts, or, by my calculations, about 1.5 percent of the world's total. So we don't seem to be quite ready to blow away the problems posed by peak oil.

Still, 43 percent growth is 43 percent growth. Anti-wind-power critics can rage about the turbine-generated slaughter of migrating birds and bats, and climate change experts can wonder if sucking all that power out of the atmosphere might not have its own negative effects on the weather, but there's a lot to like about wind power: renewable, no carbon emissions, relatively cheap.

But how much does it cost, really? Last week, a reader responding to my post about new nuclear power plants popping up all over the world like bamboo shoots after a spring rain suggested that if one took all factors into consideration, wind power might prove cheaper than nuclear. He made this point while arguing that I was wrong to give the environmental movement credit for halting the building of new nuclear power plants in the United States. Instead, he wrote, the utility companies had simply realized that nuclear power was just too expensive.

Of course, safety concerns motivated at least in part by environmental activism partially explain precisley why nuclear power is expensive. But the low cost of fossil fuels has also long been tough for the nuclear industry to compete with.

As oil and gas prices go up, those economics will change. But the nuclear vs. wind comparison gets really hot when you factor in so-called external costs such as the price of dealing with the the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Then, suddenly, nuclear and wind start to look really good.

But which is better? One study by the Royal Academy of Engineers in the U.K. found that wind power was twice as expensive as nuclear. But if you look closely, you'll see that so many variables hinging on so many assumptions are involved that a definitive answer is all but impossible.

Just determining how to compare the various subsidies the nuclear power industry has received historically with the tax breaks wind power generation currently enjoys is extremely sticky. And how much of a hit does wind take because of problems related to "intermittency" (or, the periodic lack of wind)? How are we to judge the nuclear industry's claims that expenses associated with plant decomissioning and waste disposal issues are factored into initial plant-building costs? And so on.

How the World Works will keep a close eye on the evolving economics of energy production. But in the meantime, regardless of the difference in pennies per kilowatt, a broad look at the energy scene is intriguing. Solar power is booming. So is wind. So are biofuels. So is nuclear. The peak oil doomers say none of it will be enough; that disaster is imminent without drastic conservation efforts and wholesale changes in the world's way of life. Maybe so -- but there sure seems to be a lot going on.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Energy Globalization How The World Works Nuclear Power