Anatomy of Destruction
We could have all the energy we could ever want without ever burning another pound of coal, another gallon of oil, or another cubic foot of gas and without ever having to use another gram of radioactive materials to generate electricity.
In fact, totally non-destructive options are not only possible, they are cheap:
As I write this in 2017, solar photoelectric generating systems are the cheapest energy production option available on earth. I will go over the costs in later and, in the event you don’t believe the numbers, I will give the item numbers so you can test it yourself: for about $300, you can buy a complete system that you simply set in the sun and then plug into your home sockets. It has a meter that tells you how much electricity you are producing; you will be able to calculate, after the first day it is plugged in, that it will produce enough to pay for itself in less than 3 years.
This makes solar far cheaper than coal. Coal plants take about 50 years to pay for themselves. It makes solar far cheaper than oil, gas, and uranium. It makes solar far cheaper than any other option.
It stands to reason that solar panels would be cheap: they are made almost entirely of the most abundant material on the top layer of the earth, silicon dioxide. Roughly 87% of the earth’s surface is silicon dioxide: a few common names for this material are ‘sand’ and ‘rocks.’ The tiny bit of solar panels that are not silicon dioxide are made of aluminum, the second most abundant material in the earth’s surface, making up roughly 8.3% of the earth’s crust. Everything that goes into making solar panels is as cheap as dirt. It is dirt.
Solar systems use no fuel whatever: they turn light directly into electricity by a process Einstein discovered and explained in 1905. It seems mysterious—as do most of the things that Einstein told us about—but it works exactly as he explained it. I know that a great deal of propaganda from the coal, oil, gas, and uranium companies and the governments that sponsor these companies has tried to make you believe it is too good to be true, but it really isn’t. If you don’t believe Einstein, and you have set up the system described above, you can read Einstein’s paper (it is presented later in the book; with the right help, it is actually pretty easy to understand) and do the very same tests he did. You will be able to verify his results exactly. (He shows that different colors of light have different electricity contents. You can verify this by putting colored cellphone in front of the light and get his numbers. The solar systems have no moving parts so they have nothing to wear, lubricate, or maintain. They produce no output except pure electricity, that you can use to power anything you want.
Solar is totally non-destructive, made of the most abundant things that exist on the part of the world where we live, use no fuel, and are cheap. Why is it, then that the nations of the world are currently in the process of building more than 60 nuclear power plants, all of which are very dangerous, use the most scarce materials on the world for fuel, destroy land and contaminate air and water even when nothing is going wrong, and have the potential to destroy thousands of square miles of land (each) and kill tens of millions of people (each) in the event something goes wrong? Why are we burning more than 60 billion tons of coal a year to produce electricity, with plants that have thousands of moving parts and require constant maintenance, produce outputs that are known to cause cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, and require hundreds of millions of people to scrape for rocks in underground mines and do other highly unpleasant work that is totally unnecessary for energy production?
Why destroy then?
If we took apart the structures that cause us to use the destructive options, rather than totally non-destructive options that we can all verify for ourselves exist, what would these structures look like? How are they put together? What is the anatomy of the structures that are causing us to destroy our world?
This book shows that this can be understood. We can see why it is happening and understand all of the little subsystems that are put together to make our world destructive.
If we understand these things, we are in a position to start making changes that will solve the destructive problems. I will show that, although a lot of destruction has already taken place, we still have time. Our planet is very resilient and it tries to repair itself even as we destroy it. Unfortunately, we have reached the point where we destroy faster than the natural repair mechanisms can work. As a result, problems are getting worse. If we stay on the path we are now on, we will eventually get to extinction. But there are other paths and I will show that it is possible for us to get on them.
What if we don’t understand the anatomy of destruction? What if we don’t understand the structures that are causing us to do all of these horrible things to our world? If we don’t understand it, we are basically helpless to do anything about it. We are basically walking around in a daze, not any idea what must be done, praying that a miracle will happen and whatever is causing the destruction will somehow fix itself without anyone having to do anything.
You can easily verify this yourself by looking on Ebay or anywhere else solar panels are sold: The price of solar has dropped by 50% in the last year after having dropped by 50% in 2015.
These systems use no fuel. They are made of the most abundant materials on earth and only require very tiny amounts of these materials. We can never run out or even low on these materials, no matter how much we use. (See sidebar for more.)
Solar generating systems work by turning light energy directly into electric energy, using a process that Einstein discovered and made public in a paper he wrote in 1905: the light first turns into a tiny ‘particle of light’ (now called a ‘photon’) under the standard formula e=mc2. The particle of light only lasts a tiny fraction of a microsecond; it turns its mass back into energy with the first electron it hits, which it sends flying through any conductor around. Moving electrons=electricity. The energy in the light has been turned directly into electricity. This is an amazing process.
Einstein that the little ‘particle of light’ (as Einstein called it; now called a ‘photon,’) lasts only a fraction of a second: it turns its mass back into energy by pushing an electron and making it move down a conductor (‘electrons moving down a conductor’ is the definition of electricity.)
These photoelectric cells have no moving parts to wear so they don’t need maintenance. They will last far longer than any coal plant or nuclear plant could ever last. They are made of 87% silicon dioxide and 8% aluminum, which is, coincidentally, the exact numbers for the composition of the first 50 miles of the earth’s crust. You can buy solar panels for 50¢ a watt of capacity. The average home uses roughly the amount of electricity in a year that 3,000 watts of capacity would produce, so you could buy enough solar panels to provide all of the electricity for an average home for about $1,500.
Each ‘watt of capacity’ produces 1 watt-hour of electricity in full sun; the average location on earth gets 2,000 hours of sun equivalent per year, so each watt will produce 2,000 watt hours, or 2 KWH per year. At the world global average of 10¢ per KWH, this electricity is worth 20¢ a year. The solar will repay its entire cost in less than 3 years.
Coal plants take 50 years to pay for themselves and all nuclear plants that have ever built operate at enormous losses and never fully recover their total costs.
Anatomy of Destruction
If solar is so much cheaper, why don’t we use it?
We live in societies that work in certain specific ways that make this necessary. These societies literally can’t function smoothly without massive destruction. If we don’t understand that the problems are structural, we are not in a position to actually solve any of them. All we can basically do is complain about it: we can ‘protest’ and tell everyone that we don’t like it and want things to be different. We can pray at night to be forgiven for our sins, including the roles we play in the destruction, and hope that one of the religions that teach us that confessing puts into a state of grace that will allow us to live better lives in the next incarnation. We can look for scapegoats and arrest and prosecute them when this is possible: since this is normally not possible in practice (the destroyers are the most powerful people in society, with the ability to get away with anything they want) we can hang them in effigy, creating movie after movie where the evil ones are faced with concerned person with some special powers that allows the concerned one to defeat the evil one and subject her to some brutal and graphic death.
In other words, if we don’t understand the source of the problem, we can’t do anything at all about it: we can just whine.
If we do understand that the problem is structural, we can begin looking for the structures that induce us to do things that harm our world (totally unnecessary, as we saw in the case of solar). We can figure out how these structures work as they are configured now, how they might be reconfigured to work differently, and which specific changes would create a stable and sustainable configuration, one that did not create the internal pressures that lead to destruction.
If we take this step, we have a place to start. We have something real and solid to work with. We can do something other than whine. We can actually create a plan and start working on that plan.
Anatomy of Destruction
Admit You Have A Problem
When I went to school at UC Berkeley, I went with a friend while he interviewed to adopt a pair of black Labrador retrievers. The family getting rid of the dogs were moving across country for a new job and couldn’t take their dogs. They thought of the dogs as their children and wanted to make sure they got a good home, so they set up interviews for prospective adoptive parents. My friend excelled at interviewing. He got approved and was told he could adopt. When we got the word, we went back to pick them up. We put leashes on them and got ready to go.
I felt awkward about just taking the dogs and leaving. I thought we should at least make some small talk to delay the obviously emotional parting for a few minutes.
I asked where they were from. The answer was Kiev, in the Ukraine. I knew Kiev was affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident so I asked if they were there at the time. The woman was totally unemotional when she said “Yes, it was horrible.” I was interested in the government response and I asked how long it took them to take milk off store shelves after the accident. You see, milk has calcium and when you consume calcium your body wants to make bones and it needs iodine for this. The largest byproduct of nuclear reactions is iodine, which comes from the splitting of uranium atoms. In the accident, tons of radioactive iodine had spewed into the air and gotten onto the grass. The cows ate it and it went into their milk. Milk gets to the store quickly. Within hours after the accident contaminated milk was on the shelves.
This milk is very dangerous because it contains radioactive iodine. If you drink it, your body will start to incorporate the iodine into your bones. This will lead to bone cancer. Most people won’t actually die of bone cancer, however. The cancer will spread quickly to the thyroid and thyroid cancer grows much faster then bone cancer. The thyroid cancer will usually be the cause of death.
These deaths will affect almost entirely children and women. You see, growing children and women use a great deal more iodine than grown men. Since men don’t use that much iodine, if we should happen to drink contaminated milk, the iodine will simply pass right through our bodies. Women, particularly pregnant women, and children, particularly young children, need a lot of iodine: even a few atoms of the radioactive iodine will kill them.
Of course, the builders of nuclear power plants know all this. They know that radioactive iodine is very dangerous and it will be released in large quantities after a nuclear accident. One of the first steps in this response plan would be to ban all milk production and warn the people not to buy and drink milk from the local farmers. All milk would then have to be pulled from supermarket shelves and destroyed. This should be item 2 or 3 (after ‘put out the fires’) in any response plans. The Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at the time and the Soviet Union had the second largest nuclear program in the world, so it would have worked out response plans well in advance. The response team would, presumably, have practice drills all the time to make sure they were ready in case of an accident. They should do their jobs like a well-oiled machine, and work quickly to protect the public from health risks and minimize losses after an accident.
I was curious about how efficient the Russian nuclear accident response teams had been. The answer to the milk question would tell me this. Were they on it immediately? If their response plan was efficiently executed, they could have sent out an emergency order over the radio and television telling parents to dispose of their milk immediately; they could have the milk removed from the stores and issue orders prohibiting sales to all local farmers within a few hours.
It was a pretty simple question.
I didn’t expect an emotional response.
But I got one. Both of them had a look of panic and fear on their faces. The woman held this look for a few seconds; then she started to cry. It turned out that I had hit a very deep nerve. Through the sobs, she was able to tell me that they had not removed milk from the shelves at all. She tried to go on but emotion overpowered her. Finally her husband stepped in to finish the answer.
He said no one told them anything about the danger of drinking milk. Fresh milk kept arriving in the stores and they kept buying it for their two sons. They didn’t know anything was wrong with this. The next year, both boys got bone cancer. It quickly spread to their thyroid glands.
I knew what was coming. My mother had cancer and I visited her often on the cancer ward. I got to know a lot of people with this disease and watched them die, one by one. It is a horrible way to die. Of course, this happened to both of their children. After the deaths, they did some research to figure out how two boys of different ages could suddenly a disease that is normally quite rare at the same time. They learned about calcium metabolism and the role iodine plays in it. They knew that radioactive milk had killed their children.
They didn’t want to live in the Ukraine anymore.
He had connections and was able to get a job at Berkeley. One of the first things the now childless couple did was get the black labs. The dogs were there to fill the emotional hole left by the dead children. They poured all the love that would have gone to their human sons onto the dogs. Recent budget cutbacks at the university had eliminated his position. He had to get another job quickly to keep his visa. He found one, but it was on the other side of the country and they couldn’t take their dogs with them.
That is why they were giving them away.
He was stoic as he told us these things. He went to the piano and got a picture of the two kids, standing on the lawn in front of their home in Kiev. He had kept his composure until then but couldn’t hold on any longer. When we left, they were both on the couch, the sobbing in each other’s arms. We didn’t even want to bother them to say goodbye and let ourselves out.
According to the official Russian news agency, 30 people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident. The two children were not on the list. In fact, none of the cancer deaths were on the list. The Ukrainian government has never officially estimated cancer deaths. Unofficial estimates, like the 2009 by Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment by the New York Academy of Sciences say 985,000 have died so far, with many more to follow.
Other Nuclear Problems
Just about anyone you ask about nuclear, including its most adamant advocates, has something bad to say about it. Most people probably wouldn’t put iodine at the top of the list. A lot of people worry most about plutonium, because of its extreme toxicity. Plutonium is named after Pluto, the god of Hades; the Greek equivalent of the devil. It is the most toxic substance that exists on the planet. Nature does not make it and none of it existed before the first nuclear plants started to make it. A single gram of this material (less than the size of a dime), properly distributed, could kill everyone on earth. After the people were dead, the plutonium would kill the wolves, vultures, and other creatures that ate the dead bodies; it would kill the maggots that got what was left; it would kill anything that ate the wolves, vultures, or maggots, it would keep killing and killing anything that got this substance in their bodies for roughly a half million years.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, roughly 5,500 pounds of this material is in storage, mostly in waste ponds, tanks adjacent to nuclear power plants, and in 55 gallon steel drums buried at various sites around the main disposal facilities in the United States (Hanford Washington and the Arco Waste facility in Idaho), and similar facilities in Russia, China, France, England, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
The union’s biggest concern is that plutonium can be used to make nuclear bombs; roughly 30,000 nuclear devices could be made out of ‘garbage’ plutonium that the Union of Concerned Scientists claim is not being safeguarded, because, well, people just don’t feel it is necessary to safeguard garbage. Plutonium will not break down into anything safe for more than 500,000 years. During this time, it will have to be kept refrigerated so it doesn’t melt into a critical mass and explode spontaneously. (Accidental nuclear detonations have occurred when plutonium stored as garbage was not kept cool enough and melted together to form a critical mass. The best know of these accidental nuclear explosions took place on 29 September 1957 in Russia; it is called the ‘Kyshtym disaster.’
Many people think that the risks of plutonium alone make nuclear energy impractical. Even if everything else about nuclear power was safe, the plutonium risks alone are too serious to make this method of power production practical.
Others are more worried about far more plentiful waste products that nuclear plants generate. Millions of tons of so called ‘low level waste’ is generated each year. At first, power plant designers expected this waste to be carted away and disposed of in a safe nuclear waste dump that governments promised to build. But no safe disposal method has yet been found. Some people have proposed building government-monitored storage facilities where the waste can be moved until our technology finds a safe way to store the waste. But the dangers of moving the waste have made this impractical as well. This low level nuclear waste now just sits in holding ponds and pools (to keep it cool; it must also be refrigerated). Almost all of these ponds and pools are uncovered and open to the elements.
It is far from safe.
Radioactive gasses including iodine (which “sublimates” or evaporates into a gas as it comes to exist inside the pools) bubble to the surface and are released into the atmosphere. Storms blow nuclear materials away and, as happened in the Fukushima accident in 2011, freak accidents can come along and wash the entire contents of waste holding ponds away. Often, the low level waste contains small amounts of plutonium. This plutonium gets into our oceans or onto the land where it is washed down to the drinking water below.
Many nuclear pants are near cities. The Indian Point Energy Center is only 20 miles from New York City. It stores enough nuclear waste in open ponds to make New York City, uninhabitable for the next half million years. We can only be thankful that the 9/11 hijackers just wanted to make a political statement, not really destroy ordinary Americans. Otherwise New York City would be uninhabitable until about the year 502,001 AD.
Others people believe the greatest problem with the nuclear process is not the radioactive waste at the end of the fuel cycle, which only has killing potential, it is the much larger quantities of waste at the beginning of the cycle which will kill in very known ways and are killing people now. Uranium is not like gold or silver in that it does not concentrate in streaks and veins. It is basically everywhere, but it is in very low concentrations. Ore has to be processed in immense quantities to extract the uranium. This leaves something called ‘tailings,’ mostly crushed rocks which still contain radioactive uranium or other materials that have been irritated by the uranium and are radioactive themselves. One of these elements is radon, produced in known quantities over time as uranium degrades. The radioactive elements leach into the environment in various ways, including gasses like radon, which is now the second major cause of lung-cancer deaths in the United States after smoking.
In the United States, mining companies must estimate the deaths caused from this contamination and report it on government forms. The standard at this time is 394 additional cancer deaths for each reactor-year in uranium mined; almost all of these deaths will be from cancer caused by inhaling radon gas. If you take this figure and multiply it by the number of reactor years worth of uranium mined in the United States, you get 5.7 million cancer deaths. My mother was raised a few miles from a uranium mine in Montana. She died of lung cancer. Since nearly half of all lung cancer deaths are caused by radon, there is a good chance that she was one of the 5.7 million victims that are listed on the forms that the mining companies submit to the government.
If you live in the United States, and you happen to have chosen one of the 50 states where uranium is mined (yes, uranium is mined in all states), you are being exposed to radon that would not be there without the mining activities. You are basically playing Russian Roulette with every breath you take:
Will you get the atom that kills you in the next breath you take?
Probably not. But breathe long enough, and you will get it. The only way you can be sure you won’t die from cancer due to uranium mining is to die from something else first.
Others would say that the real threats of nuclear energy aren’t environmental all, they are military. They say nuclear plants can’t be defended. New high technology weapons like cruise missiles can fly under radar at the speed of sound, hugging the ground almost like a car. There is really no way to protect the plants against these threats. There are 450 commercial nuclear reactors in the world, with an additional 60 under construction as of 2017; they are all well marked on maps and pictured in satellite images. Each of them contains enough radiation, according to Atomic Energy Commission, in its report titled WASH-740, to ‘destroy an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania.’ WASH-740 is about what might happen in the event of an accident. It does not say what may happen if the plant is used as a weapon with an intention of causing as much damage as possible. Opponents of nuclear power say that any country that uses this method of power production is vulnerable to its enemies; it can never be made safe.
Other opponents look at a different problem of nuclear: lack of fuel. They point to the soaring price of uranium—which has skyrocketed in recent years, rising by nearly 1000% between 2001 and 2017—as evidence we have long since passed peak-uranium. Even if the uranium exists, we may not be able to mine it because of dangers of mining, which are generating more and more public resistance all around the world each year that passes. Fuel prices—which already are high enough to put nuclear fuel costs on the same rough level as the cost of coal—will only go up. When we run out of fuel, nuclear reactors are going to be shut down anyway. Why not cut our losses and stop now.
But this is not happening. The global nuclear power industry is not only not making plans to shut down its existing reactors, it is building at a furious pace. Governments have found ways to keep their plans out of the news and prevent protestors from interfering. New plants are under construction in 15 countries (including 4 in the United States) as you read this.
Why We Use Nuclear
Even the most ardent of nuclear proponents don’t try to argue that nuclear is a good option because of its safety.
Their augment is only that we need it.
Fossil fuels are doing such horrible damage to our environment that we must have an alterative to take at least some of the pressure off us. They don’t support nuclear because they think it is good, but because they think it is the lesser of two evils.
If we use fossil fuels we have to face the fact of wars over supplies. We use these fuels in such prodigious amounts that no country, no matter how well stocked, will have enough to meet their needs indefinitely. The United States has not been energy independent since 1940. We need energy from other countries and some energy-rich countries have ideologies hostile to ours. So far, they have generally been willing to sell to us and we have been able to buy from them. But if we absolutely need the fuels—if there is no nuclear or other alternative to fossil fuels—we may be forced into war to secure supplies. We know this can happen and must be prepared to take the fuels we need. We need big armies and incredibly powerful weapons.
They know we may attack so they spend much of the money we now pay them for fuels to buy weapons to use against us. If we use fossil fuels, we are arming people who will eventually be our enemies. The more we use, the stronger they get and the less likely we will be to be able to take what we need when we need it.
The biggest argument in favor of nuclear is that we need it to ease our dependency on fuels, particularly fossil fuels controlled by other countries. Nuclear proponents also point to the incredible environmental dangers of fossil fuels. These fuels have carbon that has been buried under the ground for millions of years. When we burn it, this carbon combines with oxygen from our air to form carbon dioxide. This both increases carbon dioxide levels and reduces oxygen levels. Carbon dioxide levels are already thought to have risen enough to change our climate. But even if they haven’t yet, they certainly will soon. The chart below, from the National Oceanograpic and Atmospheric Association, illustrates the danger. Note first that the carbon dioxide levels are increasing extremely rapidly. Now look at the end of the line and see how much stepper it is than the beginning of the line. This tells us not only that carbon dioxide levels are rising, but that they are rising at an accelerating rate.
Catastrophic Climate Change (CCC)
Many people believe that if this trend continues, it will begin go have catastrophic effects on our climate in the next few decades. Modeling weather is so difficult however, with forecasts of a few weeks into the future not much better than random chance, that we can’t really say what will happen for certain. Some say ice age. Some say more storms and violence. Some predict that the changing weights on the tectonic plates as miles of ice melt will lead to an “earthquake age” that will create new mountain ranges and cause mass extinctions through volcanic emissions.
The next argument for nuclear is that we will soon run out of fossil fuels and, without something to take their place, our world economy will collapse and most of the world’s people will die. Everything we do now, from raising food to flushing our toilet, takes energy that comes from some fuel-based system. If we abandon nuclear we must rely entirely on fossil fuels. A recent academic study on fuel depletion “An econometrics view of worldwide fossil fuel consumption” says that the world’s oil will be gone by 2043, gas will be gone by 2045, and coal will be gone by 2112.
Of course, we have heard about fuels running out before and the claims haven’t proven to be true. So let’s be “optimistic” (in quotes because being optimistic leads to even worse outcomes) and say fuel supplies hold out much longer than predicted. If this happens, carbon dioxide emissions will have been enough to drive carbon dioxide levels up to 10% of the atmosphere in 168 years.
Why is 10% an important number? A Scripps Institute study shows that as carbon dioxide levels rise, oxygen levels fall to compensate. Here is a chart of actual measured oxygen levels:
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Carbon dioxide is replacing the oxygen we need to breathe. If carbon dioxide levels get up to 10%—unlikely, because we will either have run out of fuels or the heat from the carbon dioxide will have killed us by then—oxygen levels have declined so much that humans can no longer survive. So, either we will run out of fossil fuels fairly soon and almost everyone will die (the best case scenario), or we will perish from a lack of oxygen.
Nuclear advocates see inevitable doom from fossil fuels. They tell us we need nuclear to avoid the extinction of the human race. They think nuclear energy is our only hope.
The Solar Option
There appears to be an almost universal belief that solar is preposterously expensive. In most cases, people don’t even put it with the practical options because it is said to be too far from being practical at this time. Another almost universal belief is that nuclear, while dangerous, is at least cheap. There was a time when both of these beliefs were correct. But that time was long ago. Now, they are both wrong.
Solar costs have declined dramatically. In 1950 solar photoelectric devices cost $100 for a watt of capacity. A watt of capacity produces
modern LED television set runs on about 15 watts
KWH, of electricity in an hour; 1 KW is enough electricity to power 10 100 watt bulbs.) When I put up my own solar system 10 years ago, I had to pay $5,000 for each KW of capacity. Solar prices had fallen to 5% of their 1950 levels. Since then prices have come down even more and you can buy the same type of product I bought now for about $3,500 a KW. In addition, a new technology has emerged, called “thin-film,” which uses an electrical process to “grow” photoelectric silicon crystals directly on steel that can be used for roofing material. This new technology is available now and you can buy it on Ebay or through various contractors for $3,200 per KW of capacity. The market price of solar capacity as I write this is $3,200 per KW.
At the same time, nuclear costs have soared. During the heyday of nuclear power plants in the 1960s, GE and Westinghouse both offered a fixed price for nuclear power plants of $850 million per gigawatt (the average size of a single unit plant), which works out to $850 per KW of capacity. At the time, the United States government wanted to encourage nuclear and offered a cash subsidy to builders of nuclear plants through the “cooperative power reactor program” of $260 million per gigawatt, bringing the cost to utilities down to $590 million per gigawatt or $590 per KW of capacity.
The days of fixed price contracts on any kind of power plant ended with the inflation of the 1970s. It took so long to build a plant that utilities had to agree to “cost plus” construction contracts if they wanted nuclear power. GE or Westinghouse—the only two nuclear plant builders in the United States—would build the plant, get receipts for all the supplies, labor, and other expenses, add in a fixed markup for project management and another markup for their standard profit margin, and give the utilities a bill for the finished plant. The utilities wouldn’t know how much their plant cost to build until after it was finished. The most recent plant to be completed in the United States was the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee. It took 25 years to build and came at $3.5 billion or $3,500 per KW of capacity. Since this plant came on line in 1986, no new reactors have been completed in the United States. But we can tell from completions in other countries that costs have skyrocketed. Projects in Russia and China in 2011 came in at $7 billion a gigawatt, which translates to $7,000 per KW of capacity. Of course, if you start now and it takes 25 years to finish, you could expect inflation that would drive prices a lot higher than this.
Everything that goes into making a nuclear plant is going up in price. If you want a nuclear plant, you have to sign a contract now with a unknown price, make payments each year to reflect the accumulated costs to date without a dime of revenue coming in, and then pay whatever the balance of the bill happens to be in 25 years or so when the plant is finished.
This isn’t a problem for regulated utilities, the kind that now dominate the world power industry, because they don’t pay the costs themselves. When they make a capital investment, they go before the utility board and the government grants them rate increases to recover the capital cost, plus of course, provide standard returns for investors and profits for shareholders. In fact, utilities actually like high-investment projects, because their regulated returns depend on the amount invested. If we had a competitive market for electricity, they would not want to pay more for their facilities than they have to. People who have to compete to make electricity want the lowest costs, not the highest. But we don’t have competition, they don’t have to pay the costs, so they really don’t care that nuclear costs more. In fact, they like it: the more their plants cost, the more costs they can turn into to the utility boards, the more profits the governments grant them, and the more they can pay their investors as dividends.
Now let’s consider solar. You can get solar for $3,200 a KW of capacity right now on Ebay. Nuclear costs $7,000 per KW of capacity. Solar is not more expensive than nuclear. It is less than half the cost. This is true even if we ignore all cost of nuclear fuel, operations, waste, and all other costs of nuclear. Even if nuclear were a totally safe power option with no fuel or operation costs at all, it would still cost more than twice as much as solar. But even this comparison understates the advantage of solar because it assumes both systems will last the same amount of time. They won’t. Nuclear will wear out much faster and have to be replaced. The next chapter explains how solar works and why solar photoelectric devices don’t produce electricity, they merely take electricity the sun already produces and makes it usable. They have no movable or mechanical parts and nothing to wear. The working part of the device is a crystal of silicon. The crystal is not harmed in any way by use. The device will last as long as the elements that hold the crystals last.
Standard panels sandwich the crystals between two pieces of glass. The glass will be worn through in by the elements in between 200-500 years. Thin film systems use stainless steel which should last more than a thousand years.
Nuclear plants wear out quickly. The produce immense amounts of radiation that degrades the steel and concrete the plant is made of. After 50 years, the plant is so badly damaged by its own radiation that it is no longer safe to operate. The plant must be “decommissioned” or taken out of service. No plant has ever been decommissioned and no one knows how to do it or what it will cost. The entire plant is nothing but nuclear waste on a heavily contaminated site. No one has any idea how to take apart machines that are so radioactive anyone coming close to them will be killed. We haven’t found a way to dispose of any kind of nuclear waste, states won’t allow it to be hauled on their roads, and we don’t have anyplace to put it anyway. But let’s be optimistic and say we find reasonable solutions to these problems. Decommissioning cost estimates that make these assumptions say it will cost roughly as much to decommission an old plant as to build a new one. If this turns out to be the case, to produce electricity for 50 years you must build a plant for $7,000 per KW of capacity and then decommission it for $7,000 per KW of capacity, a total of $14,000 per KW. This four times the cost of solar.
Even this understates the solar advantage, because the parts of the solar devices that produce electricity will last much longer. In 100 years, you will need to spend $28,000 per KW for the nuclear system, more than 7 times the cost of solar. In 200 years you will have to spend $56,000 per KW for nuclear, more than 15 times the cost of solar. Even if we totally ignore the cost of fuel, enrichment of fuel (now done at no cost to utilities by taxpayers), spent fuel disposal, risks, and cancers, nuclear is still at least 15 times more expensive than solar.
The common belief that we have to use nuclear because solar is uneconomic is simply wrong.
This is pretty clearly true now, but it was true even several decades ago, when nuclear costs were much lower and solar costs much higher. In 1978, the House of Representatives commissioned a report on energy costs from the Environment Energy, And Natural Resources Subcommittee which submitted a report to Congress that said the following (see appendix for photocopy of original).
“Contrary to widespread belief, nuclear power is no longer a cheap energy source. In fact, when the still unknown costs of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel management, decommissioning and perpetual care are finally included in the rate base, nuclear power may prove to be much more expensive such as coal and may not be competitive with safe, renewable resource energy alternatives such as solar power.”
The report went on to say:
“If the federal government spent only a small portion of what it has already spent on nuclear power development for the commercialization of solar power, solar generated electricity would be economically feasible within five years.”
Why Don’t We Use Solar?
I have used solar photoelectric for my power for two decades. With panels on less than ¼ of my roof, my house produces all the electricity used by my entire household. I have never paid a dime for fuel, maintenance, repairs, or adjustments. In fact, from the day I hooked up the wires and turned it on, I have not touched it. The system is entirely automated and I can leave for a day, a month, or as long as I want and it will continue to function, produce energy, and supply energy to myself and others.
My system is hooked up to the grid (the standard name for the electrical supply system of wires that connects homes). The device that does this is called a “grid tie inverter.” It monitors the characteristics of the electricity in the grid and makes the electricity my solar system produces match that electricity exactly. It provides this electricity to me first. If I am using the same amount of electricity as my roof produces, my meter does not turn either forward or backward. If I am using less than I produce, the excess goes into the grid to supply other customers. My meter turns backward. When I am using more electricity than I produce, my meter turns forward like a regular meter. At the end of the month I get a bill for the service fee that the power company charges all customers, $6.22, plus whatever net electricity I use. Since I don’t use more electricity over the course of a month than I produce, my electricity charge is $0 and my total bill is the service charge of $6.22.
I only use ¼ of the electricity my roof could generate. If the entire roof were made of solar materials, it would produce four times the electricity my household uses.
Your roof could be doing the same. Everyone’s roof can do this. The same is true for the roof space of commercial buildings, stores, warehouses, factories, and barns. We have plenty enough hydroelectric energy to cover our relatively small nighttime use. (See Chapter Four for details.) If we did this, we wouldn’t need a single nuclear plant or a single fossil fuel plant anywhere on earth. They could all be closed and the damage they do would stop.
Why don’t we do this?
No book about solar would be complete without acknowledging that there are very powerful forces pushing against solar. Some are pretty obvious. People who extract fuels from the earth get paid for them, collecting more than $5 trillion in 2010 alone for pumping and selling resources nature created billions of years ago. They want to keep getting their checks. The companies that make conventional power plants are the largest industrial companies in the world. They sell to utilities on a cost-plus basis and utilities don’t care about costs because they pass them through to you. Power plant construction, spare parts, repairs, and operational assistance is a very profitable business to be in. These companies want to keep their money coming in too.
The utilities are regulated in ways that guarantee profits, as long as they use the large, central power systems for electricity. If we switched to the fragmented systems built on local production like solar, we wouldn’t need central systems and wouldn’t need to provide monopoly rights and guaranteed profits. The people who own these companies and invest in them want to keep getting their guaranteed profits and returns.
If we used solar, we wouldn’t need the coal, gas, and uranium we now use. The miners and drillers would not be able to sell their products. Chapter Four explains how to make fuels for our vehicles out of excess electricity. If we did this, the oil companies, gas companies, coal companies would sell anything, would all go out of business, and they would lose every dime they have invested in extracting, refining, and transporting billions of tons of fuels. All the companies that make equipment needed for mining, transport, and burning of fuels would lose their customers; the steel mills that supply them would lose their customers, and all the stores and restaurants and beauty salons and bordellos that supply all the people who now have no jobs because we don’t destroy anymore would also go out of business. All these companies want the status quo to remain intact.
They have ways to do this. Corporations can form the type of organization that is now called a PAC (political action committee) to influence elections. The PACs want to make sure that the candidates that support their position get elected. PACs do not have any limit to the amount they can spend to get their people into office, and they do not have to account for their activities or declare them to anyone. They are not restricted to telling the truth and, from what I have seen, they don’t bother much with it. They care about what is effective. They want to get their people into office. They have trillions of dollars at stake. They are happy to spend a few hundred billion if this insures that the right people get elected.
After the elections, they use other methods to manipulate governments and make them do what they want done. Political lobbies take the entire burden off of politicians by providing all the information they need (always slanted, of course, so it meets their needs) and then drafting the legislation itself (virtually all legislation is drafted by lobbies). They then take the intellectual burden off of the politicians by telling them what their beliefs are and take away the stress of having to make a decision by telling them that their reelection PACs and contributions depend on supporting the legislation the lobbies have drafted. These industries would not have lobbies if lobbies were not effective. They make a difference and bring results. They are effective at creating legislation that gives people who benefit from the destructive industries and reduces or eliminates the natural advantage of their most dangerous competitor, solar.
They have been able to get governments to pass massive relief packages that support the destructive industries. People who deplete coal, oil, and uranium get “depletion allowances,” or special payments that go to them based on the amount of fuels they extract. Get more fuels out of the ground and get more money. These are direct subsidies for destruction and reduce the costs of the destructive options. People who spew toxins into our air don’t have to pay the costs of their destruction or pay to cover the health problems of people injured by their actions. They get a free ride. In the United States, the federal government gives away valuable public land to people who agree to mine it. Stake a claim, extract enough to meet the requirements, and you get the land for free. As noted above, the government also contributes hundreds of millions of dollars of the construction costs.
Utilities are protected by governments. Chapter Five explains the way this system evolved and how it affects our power options. Utilities have legal monopolies and protection from competition. Their profits and returns are guaranteed. Yes, fuel powered energy costs more than solar. But they don’t care because they don’t pay the costs, their customers do. The customers can’t go to another company because competition is illegal. We just have to bite the bullet and pay the cost of whatever power systems they use, no matter what they are.
If we had solar, we would not need the central stations. The power companies know this. They have worked for and passed legislation that works against solar, to drive up its cost, reduce its benefits, and make it impossible to use solar in a way that has any hope of competing with utilities. The most important of these laws in the United States was enacted in 1978, when it first became clear that solar would soon be able to replace coal and nuclear. The utility lobby drafted legislation that would allow the Federal Government to take over utility regulation from the states, and pass a federal law that would keep solar from being a threat for a very long time. The law was the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978, commonly known as PURPA. This law made it illegal for small-scale solar producers to sell their electricity for market prices. That’s right. You can put up solar, but you can’t provide solar to the grid at anything near the fantastic prices that nuclear or coal plants can sell electricity for.
The price people get for solar has absolutely nothing to do with the market. It is set by federal law. It is called the “avoided cost” and it works out to be about 1/5 the market price of electricity. Coal generated electricity sells for full price. Nuclear energy sells for full price. Any destructive energy produced by a centralized plant sells for full price. Under the law, any renewable energy from a decentralized producer—including solar produced by my roof—can only be sold for 1/5th of this price.
Of course, people might just try to get around this law and sell the electricity for full price anyway. The utilities found a way to prevent this also. They lobbied for and got a standard called UL1741 which all solar and other renewable energy system controllers must comply with. Solar needs a controller to make the voltage and other characteristics of the electricity match standards. The UL1741 standard requires manufacturers to make controllers so they are incapable of independent operation. In other words, they must be connected to a grid so that utilities can make sure that producers are complying with PURPA, not illegally selling their electricity to their neighbors for full market price.
If not for UL1741, neighborhoods could build power-sharing cooperatives and stop buying coal and nuclear generated electricity from the grid. This would still be illegal under PURPA, but if it were practical the law would be unenforceable. UL1741 makes sure this never happens by making it illegal to build a device that would make it possible to sell solar-generated electricity for market rates.
Why don’t we use solar? I can say why only ¼ of my roof is solar: If I had more solar, my roof would produce more than my household uses. I would have to sell the excess into the grid for this ridiculously low price. My utility would make massive profits from my investment (because they would resell the electricity I gave to them for five times the price they pay me for it) and I wouldn’t make enough in revenue from the extra capacity to cover costs.
I live in Tucson, a town that gets a lot of sunshine. If I could just get market prices for electricity, I would have a solar roof. Every building needs a roof anyway. If I have to have a roof anyway, why not let it make some money for me? If people in Tucson could sell the electricity their roofs produce for market prices, a lot of people would put up solar roofs. New homes would almost all be built out of solar roofing materials. Demand for coal-generated electricity would fall and, in order to keep making its guaranteed profits, Tucson Electric Power would have to go to the utility commission and ask for a rate increase. As coal-generated electricity prices rise, more and more people would switch to solar. The massive solar demand would induce people to build larger and larger factories to build solar photoelectric roofing materials. With the advantages of mass production, solar prices would fall dramatically. With falling solar prices and rising coal prices, people with excess capacity would begin selling to their neighbors. (Assuming they can also get UL1741 repealed.) They will save hydroelectric (which is actually a form of solar; the sun evaporated the water that falls through the turbine) for nighttime use and supplement it with very simple “pumped storage systems” like the ones used to store electricity for peak hours in California now. Neighborhoods won’t need to buy the fantastically overpriced electricity from nuclear or coal plants at all. All of these plants will close. The coal mines will also close. The coal trains will stop running. The people who invested in the utility and the coal mines will lose trillions of dollars.
This is the doomsday scenario for the utilities. It is what they need to make sure does not happen.
Under pressure from corporations, out governments do a lot to reverse the natural advantages of solar and push us toward destruction. But government would never be able to get away with this if the people themselves didn’t also have needs that the destruction met. It does. It gives them jobs.
Solar generated electricity requires absolutely no labor. Since I put my system up, I have not touched it. My system was made almost entirely by machine and the new thin film systems are made entirely by machines. People who claim that “green jobs” in solar will appear, making devices, fixing them, and supplying solar producers, are wrong. All the supplies I need come from the sun. No one has to mine sunlight, haul it to my roof, or shovel it onto my panels. Nature does this.
Destruction is naturally labor intensive. People have to do a lot of work just to discover the materials we will use as fuels. Once they find them, they have to do a lot more work to dig them up, transport them to the facilities there they will be burned, shovel them into the furnaces, and remove the waste. You can’t dig coal without large quantities of very large and expensive equipment. We need digging machines to extract the coal, trucks to haul it to the trains, trains to haul it haul it to the plant, loaders to put it onto the conveyer belts that move it to the crushers and into the furnaces; then we need more trucks to haul the ash to the dump. People have to make this equipment and this takes a lot of labor. People have to make the steel for the equipment; more labor.
As time goes on, destructive options require more labor to keep going and non-destructive options like solar less. As fuels run low, people have to work longer and harder to find more, work longer and harder to get it out, transport it farther, and then work longer and harder to mitigate or repair the damage they do with the more-invasive extractions. Even with current technology, solar devices require almost no labor to build and last a very long time. In the future we can expect technology to improve in ways that cut costs by cutting the need for human labor in the production of solar panels and eventually eliminate it entirely.
Many advocates of non-destructive energy systems in the past have tried to claim there will be “solar jobs” that will materialize to replace destructive industries. I believe this position damages the credibility of non-destructive energy advocates in general because it because it simply isn’t true. If we know an advocate is lying about one thing, everything else he says is suspect. If we want to prevent the destruction of the world, we have to face the truth about both the forces pushing for and against solar.
We live in societies that depend on jobs to function. A switch to a non-destructive system will eliminate the jobs of people destroying our world. This is a problem that has to be addressed if we want a non-destructive world. There are ways to deal with this issue. I wish I could say they are simple, or that I could explain them in a catch-phrase or cute and illuminating paragraph, but I can’t. There are solutions, they just aren’t simple, cute, and don’t lend themselves to catch phrases. The jobs problem is as the forefront of the obstacles we have to overcome if we want a clean safe world. But it can be overcome if we are willing to take the necessary steps.
This book is designed to explain all aspects of the solar issue. Solar is cheaper than any other power production option. This is a powerful force pushing for solar. Solar is also entirely non-destructive. The only material it uses, silicon, is the most abundant material on earth after oxygen. Sand is almost entirely silicon (also called silica, quartz, and silicon dioxide, among many other names) as are rocks and the inorganic part of dirt. We use almost none of this material and destroy exactly none: If we ever want sand back, we can simply crush the glass-based panels and their silicon will become sand again. If we melt metal-covered thin film we get back both the metal and silicon. Solar produces no waste of pollution of any kind. The complete lack of destruction is another powerful force pushing for solar.
The investment losses in destructive industries are a force pushing against solar. The need for jobs is a force pushing against solar. These are very powerful forces.
If we keep using destructive power systems, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the human race survives much more than a few more centuries. But the solution is within our reach. Solar can provide all our needs. If we want a solar world, we have to be willing to face the truth. We have to understand all the forces pushing both ways, both for and against solar. We have to know its advantages so we can use this knowledge to help us overcome the forces pushing against solar.
One more note: we can’t depend on vested interests and our governments to take matters into their own hands and solve everything for us. We can’t simply say: “Let’s tell them that solar is cheaper than coal and nuclear; once they know this they will stop supporting coal and nuclear and start to support solar.” The 1978 report above shows that they already know this and have known it all along. How did they respond to this knowledge? They immediately passed laws designed to suppress solar. Then, to prevent its cost advantage from becoming apparent, they steadily increased subsidies on destruction until they are now the largest subsidies any government has ever given any private industry in the history of the world.
Governments do not represent we, the people. They represent whoever gets them elected. Now, the corporations are in charge, because they provide the money that makes the election process work. The corporations benefit from the status quo. They craft the public images and convince people their interests are served by voting for destruction.
If we want a better world, the impetus for change must come from us. We have to be educated. We have to know enough about solar to be able to see their tricks and defeat them. If enough people care enough about the world, we can get our people in and then we will be them. Then we can have change.
In many people’s minds, solar is a mysterious process. It seems almost impossible: Energy can travel from 93 million miles away, moving at the fastest speed possible through the vacuum of space, then suddenly materialize as usable electricity on our roof. If you don’t know how this process works, you may be inclined to believe it really is impossible. Obviously, we shouldn’t put our faith in something our logical mind tells us is impossible. If we want people to get behind this technology, we have to understand how it works and be able to explain it in a simple way that makes it easy for anyone to understand. The process really is simple. The next four chapters explains the way process works, the materials used, manufacturing processes, actual costs, and the other practical realities of solar.
I want to first convince you that there is no magic involved. It is real process that uses less valuable inputs than any other power production method and really does have lower costs than any other power production method. This will help you understand how powerful the forces pushing for solar really are. The rest of the book deals with the forces pushing against solar. It explains what they are, why they exist, and how we can overcome them. We can have a non-destructive world powered entirely by the free energy of the sun if we want this.