"Windmills Can Replace Reactors."
Not for decades to come. In an ideal world, our energy supply wouldn't come with the asterisks of planet-imperiling climate change on one hand or waste that stays hazardous for thousands of years on the other -- and this, of course, is the promise of renewable energy. It's true that renewable technologies have made great strides in recent years; in fact, they're the fastest-growing energy sector, with solar photovoltaic capacity expanding an average of 40 percent a year since 2000 and wind power growing an average of 27 percent annually since 2004.
But context matters. These are still strictly niche sources, and even today they still account for only 3 percent of the world's electricity portfolio. Solar energy still requires major government subsidies to reach cheaper prices and greater economies of scale; $535 million in U.S. Energy Department grants wasn't enough to save solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy in August. Until smart-grid technologies and energy storage systems improve and spread widely, wind and solar energy will be too intermittent to provide anything like the reliable base-load power offered by nuclear and fossil fuels. Hydropower plays a significant role in the energy mix of the United States and several other countries, but environmental concerns about the damage caused by dams have severely limited its growth.
In short, all energy supplies come with drawbacks -- not least nuclear, which since its inception has been haunted by its early boosters' starry-eyed projections of incredibly cheap and abundant energy that have yet to come to pass. As we look at all of the energy sources available to us, we need to understand and face these costs and risks honestly. Doing so is the first step toward realizing that we can no longer demand more and more energy without being willing to pay the price.
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