By Donella Meadows
–October 23, 1986–
If the Seabrook nuclear power plant does not open soon, we are told, there will be brownouts all over New England, maybe as soon as next summer.
That’s the kind of false choice the power companies have been offering us all along. Go along with the plan (Seabrook) or suffer some dire consequence (brownouts), as if no other option is possible. Once I saw a power-company movie that threatened no lights for Red Sox night games without nuclear power. Wow! What a choice!
Of course there are plenty of other choices. The one the power companies and politicians mention least, or mention only to dismiss, is the one that clearly makes the most economic and environmental sense — conservation.
Physicists at Denmark’s Technical University have designed a frost-free refrigerator that uses 700 fewer kilowatt-hours per year than the standard frost-free refrigerator now on the market.
If the 4 million frost-free refrigerators in New England each used 700 kilowatt-hours less, we would save 2.8 million megawatt-hours per year, or nearly half a Seabrook (assuming Seabrook produces 1100 megawatts and runs 70% of the time).
Hungary now manufactures a color television set that uses only one-eighth as much power as the standard set. The government has calculated that it will be cheaper to subsidize all households to replace their existing TV sets, than to build another major power plant.
If the 10 million color TV sets in New England drew only one-eighth as much power as they now do, either by better design or by less TV watching, we would save 2/3 of a Seabrook.
If the half-million electrically-heated houses in New England used groundwater heat pumps instead of resistance heating, we would save 1/3 of a Seabrook.
A study by the Electric Power Research Institute suggests that if the most energy-saving lighting systems were used, electricity for lighting in the United States could be cut by 420 billion kilowatt-hours per year — more than the total output of ALL the country’s nuclear reactors.
These simple technical fixes to appliances have almost no effect on comfort or lifestyle. The house is still warm, the milk in the refrigerator is still cold, the Red Sox still play night games. The main impact of conservation is to bring down electricity bills. A second impact is to relieve us of the potential dangers of nuclear power.
Some energy-saving appliances cost a little more, and it would take not only money but time to replace all the refrigerators in New England. But just think what could have been done by putting 16 years and $5 billion into conservation, instead of into Seabrook.
Serious engineering studies of all possible energy savings, in households and businesses, show even more options. The Danish physicists calculate that with well-known technologies the total energy consumption of their country could be reduced by 2/3. Energy savings for the United States, which is less energy-efficient than Denmark, could be even larger.
Why does this country pursue the nuclear option with such vigor, while hardly noticing the conservation choice?
Because technologists and politicians find devices for energy supply more exciting than devices for conservation. There are more dials to read and wheels to turn, more inaugural ribbons to cut and pictures to take. Governor Sununu would not be able to throw a ceremonial switch to turn on 1100 megawatts of saved electricity.
Because there are more vested interests in nuclear technologies than in conservation technologies. Energy conservation offers at least as many contracts, jobs, technical challenges, entrepreneurial opportunities as nuclear power plants, but they are scattered, not centralized or organized. Conservation technologies don’t have powerful lobbyists.
Governor Sununu, when he scoffs at energy conservation, talks about loss of freedom, the “appliance police” who will interfere with the market by putting energy performance standards on refrigerators (as we have already put them on automobiles).
He doesn’t mention the “nuclear police”, who force reactors on towns that bitterly oppose them, seize lands to bury nuclear wastes, increase everyone’s electric bill, and, in the event of another Chernobyl, evacuate thousands of people from their homes forever. The nuclear technology, with all its guards and fences, is a much greater infringement on freedom than any other energy choice.
It may seem too late to put as much money and resolve into energy conservation as we have already put into nuclear power plants. After all, Seabrook is nearly ready to come on line.
But Seabrook is a sunk cost. One of the first laws of management is to write off money sunk into a wrong decision, rather than throw more money in the same direction. Seabrook’s future expenses for insurance, inspection and maintenance, decommissioning, environmental disruption, threats to public safety, and social discord can all be avoided by choosing conservation, even by choosing it now, so late in the game. Next summer’s electricity demand peak could be reduced by load management. The long-term base load could be reduced by aggressive conservation measures of many kinds. Seabrook is not necessary for our energy future. There are plenty of other choices.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011