A Solar, Nuclear Future

Article excerpt

THE celebration of Earth Day is over, but its enduring appeal reflects a shift in values for most Americans. We want better job opportunities and living standards, and a cleaner, healthier environment.

Fifty years ago, these two goals were linked directly with electrification from urban to rural areas. That also was the first great environment leap. Cheap power from larger plants replaced direct burning of fuels in homes and factories, allowing pollution control at a single source.

Today the strong role of electric power in economic growth and environmental quality is still evident. The reason is massive use of electronic devices, from computers in the home to electro-technology in industry. Nearly 36 percent of our total energy goes to make electricity. Virtually all our energy resources can be used best as electricity.

Electricity's major role is not at issue - only what energy sources will best ensure an adequate supply and promote environmental quality. A recent national survey asked Americans to identify the energy resources they thought would be used most in 10 years. The odds-on choices were solar and nuclear power - both clean-burning, almost inexhaustible energy resources.

Solar. President Carter's promise of solar energy contributing 20 percent of the nation's energy mix by the year 2000 is a distant memory. Last year solar accounted for about one-tenth of 1 percent of our energy. The reasons include the fall in oil prices that dampened solar investment and research, and a cut of 85 percent in government tax credits and loans in 10 years.

Solar also suffers from a gap in public expectations and from its high cost. Photovoltaic systems, which turn sunlight directly into electricity, cost $15,000 per kilowatt (kw), compared to $2,500 per kw at Arizona's Palo Verde Nuclear Plant, for example. What's more, solar takes 30 times more land per unit of power delivered than nuclear.

Some progress is being made, principally because of solar's environmental benefits. Southern California Edison has 275 megawatts (mw) of solar electric on line and is planning 300 mw more. The top developer of solar electric, Los Angeles-based LUZ International Ltd., expects to have 680 mw on line in California by 1994, about half the size of one of Palo Verde's three units. A serious limitation of reliance on solar for a large share of total electric-power needs is the requirement for storage capacity to assure all-day, every-day reliability.

Environmental advantages also have spurred the Department of Energy (DOE) to step up its solar R&D program, including supporting a new research center in Golden, Colo. And the research arm of the utility industry, the Electric Power Research Institute, has carried out extensive solar research for years. …