Of Wine, Windmills and . . . Nuclear Power?

Recently, on a lovely Saturday afternoon, during a business trip to France, I had the opportunity to wind through the French country side and join in the annual Beaujolais Wine Festival. The festival starts on the third Thursday in November, where by law, the wine is released at 12:01 am, and just weeks after the grapes have been harvested. The celebration is marked with fireworks, music, and, of course, plenty of wine tasting. The Beaujolais region is about 34 miles long from north to south and about 9 miles wide and home to nearly 4,000 vineyards. What I found most impressive about this region were the many beautiful villages unspoiled by signs of global commercialization. Not a McDonalds or Starbucks to be found anywhere and the roadsides remain unobstructed by the endless columns of billboards so prevalent at home. In fact, one could easily imagine oneself stepping back into the early 1900s. That is, with the obvious exception of automobiles and, of all things, cooling towers from a nuclear power plant looming over the horizon.
Our junto has often discussed the myth of human driven climate change, debated the greenhouse effect and connection to any substantial global rise in temperature, and has evaluated the use of fossil fuels as a cheap, scalable, and plentiful source to meet our current and future energy needs. However, I don’t recall our discussions ever including the concept and propaganda surrounding the strategy of sustainability.
A quick search of the internet will reveal that the term energy sustainability has thousands of interpretations. From Wikipedia:
Sustainable energy is energy that is consumed at insignificant rates compared to its supply and with manageable collateral effects, especially environmental effects. Another common definition of sustainable energy is an energy system that serves the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs….
Technologies that promote sustainable energy include renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectricity, solar energy, wind energy, wave power, geothermal energy, bioenergy, tidal power and also technologies designed to improve energy efficiency. … Considerable progress is being made in the energy transition from fossil fuels to ecologically sustainable systems, to the point where many studies support 100% renewable energy.
Let me say that there is no such thing as 100% renewable, or indefinitely renewable energy. Take for example wind or solar power. Both of these alternatives to fossil fuels have shown explosive growth in recent years and are always at the center of political debates over energy. A closer look at either of these technologies reveals towers, generators and sails needed to convert wind to electricity and photovoltaic cells needed to convert sunshine to electricity. Much of this equipment is expensive to manufacture and has a limited service life (not to mention the hazards involved with mining the necessary rare earth elements used in their components).
So why do we continue to pursue solar panels and windmills if they deteriorate and provide unreliable energy? For that matter, why is the pursuit of a fuel source that keeps replenishing itself without the need for improvement the ideal? In most other realms of our technology driven society it is constant change and innovation that drives us. Shouldn’t this also be our model for energy? We should use our most developed form of energy (fossil fuel or nuclear) realizing that continued research and development will yield advances in technology that produce superior yields of energy.
The French energy policy includes opening the grid to an increasing amount of “renewable” power, but the goal is not to phase out nuclear energy. On the contrary, France plans on spending €10 billion to refurbish and improve their reactors for the future.
My trip through French wine country also included a stop at a 15th century windmill, now a national monument. This technology has been improved by over 400 years of innovation into today’s modern wind turbines capable of producing more than 6 million kWh per year- enough to supply 1,500 average French homes with electricity. The point I’m trying to make is perhaps the French have it right. The pursuit of new energy should not be limited to only those considered “sustainable”. We must research all possibilities, evaluating them with scientific objectivity and not discount sources out of irrational fear of the environment and climate change. Energy policy should be based on the premise that maximizes our resources while minimizing our risk if we are to continue to produce scalable, safe, and plentiful energy.

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