Will Ohio be left behind by the green energy revolution

January 31, 2008
Testimony to the Public Utilities Commission of the Ohio House, January 30, 2008

Thank you for allowing me to testify today.

I am a resident of central Ohio and author, or co-author, of a dozen books, including four on energy. My most recent is SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, which is graced by an introduction by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and has been captured in song by Pete Seeger.

My message today is simple: any state that allows the construction of new nuclear power plants in the face of today’s global industrial competition and financial turmoil will be committing economic suicide.

Any energy legislation that allows any kind of incentive to build such reactors dooms itself to the failures of the last century, not the successes of the new one. Thus the 12.5% of future electric production that is left open to nuclear power and coal in this new energy bill should be transformed and devoted entirely to renewables and efficiency.

There is nothing “advanced” about atomic energy.

Aside from all its other problems, nuclear power is 50 years of proven financial failure. The industry at birth promised electricity “too cheap to meter.” What it delivers is too expensive to afford. Any attempt to revive atomic energy is akin to refloating the Titanic and re-selling the Edsel.

The first commercial reactor opened at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957. It has since been dismantled, at huge expense.

Ohio’s poster children for atomic energy’s failure are Perry and Davis-Besse. Perry is the only US reactor to have suffered actual physical damage from an earthquake. In 1987, then-Governor Richard Celeste’s Blue Ribbon report showed that the area could not be evacuated in the face of a major accident. It thus failed a primary test for federal licensing. With massive increases in nearby population, that’s even more true today. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any site in Ohio where a new nuke could meet basic evacuation requirements.

Davis-Besse is infamous throughout the world for the boric acid leak that ate through all but a fraction of an inch of its inner containment system. It took us within millimeters of a Chernobyl-scale catastrophe that would have killed countless Ohioans, irradiated the world’s largest body of fresh water and wrecked economic havoc beyond calculation. Whether we escape next time may once again be a matter of sheer luck.

Hidden in the mix is the sorry fiasco of the Zimmer Reactor, which at one point was considered more than 90% complete. Then its massive construction, design and bookkeeping irregularities forced the state to pull the plug, at huge public cost.

Less than a decade ago, in this room, legislation was debated that allowed the state’s utilities to recoup---at ratepayer expense---upwards of $9 billion in costs “stranded” by these failed reactors.

Calculate, for a minute, what Ohio could have done with $9 billion invested in industrial and high-tech infrastructure. Instead, private utility companies were bailed out of bad nuclear decisions that had been fiercely opposed from start to finish.

Today we face another such crossroads. We have before us what amounts to a 12.5% renewable portfolio standard. It is focused on wind, solar, biofuels, efficiency, conservation. These true green technologies work. They are profitable, create jobs and fight global warming. Wall Street loves them.

Each of these technologies has its special challenges. But few if any unbiased observers who study the realities of green energy believe that it has anything but a hugely profitable future ahead of it.

Economics, employment and the environment are all in synch here. Renewables and efficiency are at the cutting edge of what may be the most profound and profitable technological revolution yet, almost certain to transcend even the dot.com boom of the late 20th Century. That one had its inevitable stock market burst. But does anybody believe the internet or personal computer will soon disappear?

Unfortunately, as an industrial center, Ohio missed much of that revolution. But if we make the right decisions, we are poised to cash in on the revolution in green power. We already have substantial facilities here in solar photovoltaic cells, and in fuel cells.

But Northern Ohio is also poised for a massive boom in wind power. On-shore, our wind resource may not be comparable to Great Plains states like the Dakotas, Minnesota and Kansas. But we have a readily available transmission network, easily accessible urban centers with very large demand, and (unfortunately) high electric rates, largely due to the financial residues of those nuclear plants.

The city of Bowling Green has already erected four windmills worth $1.8 million each. It’s seriously contemplating more. They work, they’re profitable, well liked, don’t kill birds, and will never bring northern Ohio to the brink of a Chernobyl. If the wind resource in the north coast region is properly harvested, and if we take the lead in building the industrial infrastructure to make that happen, Ohio could reap billions in long-term profits and untold good, safe, high-paying jobs.

Beyond the north coast is one of the world’s greatest untapped energy resources, the winds in the middle of Lake Erie. Cleveland now hosts the first utility-scale windmill in an American downtown. It’s a gateway to a lake that is relatively shallow. Its powerful, steady winds could light the region. Brilliant plans are now in motion to make sure the manufacturing base to do that is in Ohio, not overseas or in other states.

But such a vision demands state policies that make sense. This is not futuristic, pie-in-the sky utopianism. Germany, Spain, Denmark, Holland, India, Japan, Israel…all are booming into a green-powered future they see as inevitable, and as a proven pathway to present prosperity.

In 2002 I attended my first national convention of the American Wind Energy Association. There were 1700 people there. In the summer of 2007, in the Los Angeles Convention Center, there were 7,000. This industry is growing at up to 25% per year, and represents well over $10 billion in annual revenues.

This past summer, Cleveland hosted its first gathering of the American Solar Energy Society. It was a rousing success, accompanied by the installation of a solar array which now helps power the Great Lakes Science Center. You could make this Ohio’s future.

But we will miss this revolution without a renewable portfolio standard that makes sense. And this bill contains a poisoned pill. It is the 12.5% of our energy future that would allow new nuclear and coal construction. Time does not allow me to address the issue of coal, except to say that ultimately, global warming and basic economics rule it out as a long-term player in our clean energy supply.

But the verdict on nuke power is clear: it is a welfare basket case. After 50 years, there is no solution to the radioactive waste problem---that hinges on a highly dubious government program centered on a dump in Nevada that may never open.

There is no private liability insurance against a catastrophe by terror or error--- that depends on a federal limit on how much the owners of a reactor will have to pay.

There is no private investment pool waiting to finance a new generation of reactors---that will only come with federal loan guarantees at the taxpayers expense.

There is no market viability for a radioactive product that cannot compete now with renewables and efficiency, and which continually loses margin against these booming green technologies.

Amidst all the hype, there is a “new generation” reactor under construction in Finland. It is two years and $2 billion over budget. As at Perry, Davis-Besse and Zimmer, the entire history of atomic power is one of cost-overruns, bailouts and high electric rates.

No nuke plant in Ohio is now proposed. Just obtaining a construction license could require five years. Then will come the endless litigation and clearing the protestors off the proposed site. Assuming construction went even reasonably on time, no new reactor could conceivably come on line here in less than fifteen years.

By then, renewables and efficiency will have priced this old technology so far out of the market as to make it laughable. Even today, a dollar invested in efficiency saves seven times as much energy as a dollar invested in nukes can produce.

In short, that 12.5% allowed for nukes and coal needs to go green. There is nothing advanced about atomic power. That loophole will cripple our role in the renewable revolution as surely as we missed the dot-com.

A final reality: In 1994, amidst a huge state-wide political battle, the Minnesota Legislature required Northern States Power to build 400 megawatts of windmills. The state’s PUC has since ruled that windpower is that state’s least cost alternative. Hundreds more windmills are being built there, and component manufacturing is booming. Much of this “cash crop” is owned by individuals, coops and communities. It is saving family farms throughout the state. It is massively profitable and hugely popular.

Provisions for community ownership, added to this bill, are essential to our energy future. Already, rights to our wind resource are being grabbed away by foreign firms like Spain’s Gamesa, and by out-of-state speculators. Grassroots, in-state ownership of our native green power is essential to local job creation and our future prosperity. It is issues like these, rather than the folly of nuclear power, that should be the focus of our attention.

Just this week, Warren Buffett’s Iowa-based utility backed out of a nuke project proposed for Idaho because it was too expensive. And another earthquake has rumbled near Perry.

It’s time for Ohio to choose technology for this century, not the last one. And it’s time we make sure our renewable energy resources are owned by Ohioans.

There is no room in any meaningful portfolio standard for anything but technologies that are profitable, that can compete, that can get financing independent of the government, that can be controlled by the people of Ohio, and that will not threaten the planet with radioactive catastrophe.

This world will be green-powered. The decision is now yours: will Ohio help lead the parade, or be left behind?

Harvey Wasserman is Senior Advisor, Greenpeace USA / Nuclear Information & Resource Service.