Powering the Future

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Imagine a world of nine to 11 billion people. That's what we will be living in by the year 2050, according to projections compiled by the United Nations. Now imagine supplying all those people with electricity, the engine of material progress. Can we generate it in sufficient quantities? And can we do it cleanly?

The bulk of the world's population uses very little energy at present, yet already we in industrialized nations-with unlimited financial and technological resources-struggle to get the upper hand against pollution. What will it be like when demand soars in developing nations, as it is expected to do in the next decade? Will we continue to rely on fossil fuels? Will we return to the atom? Or will we come up with something different?

It seems to me that we are at an energy crossroads. There are two major directions: centralized or decentralized power. Until now, we have concentrated our creativity, money and natural resources on centralized power sources-large-scale power plants that drive our industries and light our homes. The results are well known: pollution, price fluctuations, and in some cases, resource wars. Under this system, there is little chance for environmental improvement, and data are starting to bear this out.

At the global climate change conference in Kyoto last year, the United States agreed to cut its carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2010. That figure was a weak compromise, but now even it seems unrealistic. At current projections, carbon dioxide emissions from the utility sector alone will be half a billion tons over 1990 levels.

While this approach still has its uses in some situations, I believe that the future belongs to smaller, decentralized power sources. And the reason is simple: it's cheaper, both financially and socially. Let's look at two power sources: wind and nuclear. Generated individually or in "farms" of turbines strategically clustered in windy areas, wind power currently costs three to six cents (U.S.) per kilowatt/hour, compared with 11 to 14 cents for nuclear power. Safety issues are negligible, and aesthetic concerns, while not always easily assuaged, are minimal compared to those aroused by nuclear power plants.

Some countries-such as Denmark-are making huge strides. More Danes work in the wind power industry than in fishing, and as a result, 10 percent of the nation's energy needs are supplied by wind, and the figure is expected to hit 50 percent by 2030. In the developing world, wind power is becoming more popular because it can be scaled to meet local needs. Just one small wind turbine can provide power for an entire village. It is this decentralized approach that makes wind power attractive to a greater variety of energy consumers. Simply put, rural people can enjoy the benefits of electricity without moving to a city.

Nuclear power is a different story. We are all familiar with Chernobyl. And so we know that nuclear plants were once expected to produce power that was "too cheap to meter," but that in the end, they carried risks that were too large to contemplate. Still, some continue to invest in the "next generation" of nuclear power. And the plans get bigger and more bizarre. Last year, Greenpeace began reporting on a series of secret plutonium shipments between Japan, France and Great Britain. Japan sent its spent or irradiated nuclear fuel to reprocessing plants in France and Great Britain, where the waste was dissolved and the plutonium extracted. Then the plutonium was shipped back to Japan for use in nuclear power plants-plants that were not designed to use this type of fuel.

Shipping nuclear waste around the globe endangers everyone and everything along the route. Plutonium is perhaps the most dangerous substance humankind has ever created. One grain of plutonium dust is enough to cause cancer if ingested, yet plans call for some 40 tons of plutonium to be shipped during the next ten years. Shipping it aboard ordinary freighters is extremely hazardous (especially because the containers are not designed to withstand the heat of shipboard fires), yet no environmental impact assessment was ever conducted. And no nation along the shipping route was consulted. To make matters even worse, the current shipment is making its way through one of the world's most unstable regions without a military escort, even though plutonium's primary use is as a trigger material in nuclear weapons. Imagine a world run on wind power. Imagine a world run on nuclear power. Which would you rather live in?

I think this is the kind of question we need to ask as we move into a new millennium. Nuclear power will always have its boosters in government and utility circles. But as a viable possibility for sustainable energy production, it is too expensive both economically and socially. Wind power, on the other hand, is one of a host of flexible, decentralized, renewable energy options that are safe, sane and cheap enough to meet the needs of billions of people without burdening them and their descendants with unsustainable environmental and political costs.