TechTalk: The power of accurate information

Over recent years, I have been careful to avoid getting drawn into debates with people combining anti-wind sentiments with a preference for nuclear power.

I have an issue with how strongly they are prepared to push their viewpoints - and I never liked the fact that they always seem to win.

My hesitation originated at a debate between wind-power opponents and proponents organised by the Dutch engineers' association in 2002. The official aim of the meeting was to formulate a scientifically based position on wind power, but it was no secret that nuclear power was the favourite energy source of both the wind-power opponents and the hosting organisation.

An electrical engineer in his eighties, who had written two anti-wind books, led the opponents. His first book, whose title would translate as "Windmills: Fiction and Facts", had been published before the debate took place. His second, published in 2003, was entitled "Windmills, useless machines; realities that are always carefully hidden".

Our team of wind proponents opted for the traditional strategy of using verifiable facts and figures. One graph compared the life-cycle power-generating costs per kilowatt hour of each energy source, showing direct and external costs as well as standard deviation.

Adding external costs substantially shifts internal balances, making even coal and lignite only marginally cheaper options. But external costs were banned from the debate.

Wind power's environmental footprint is small thanks to its recycling potential and minor external impact. Nuclear power's external costs, by contrast, involve long-term radioactive waste storage. Disasters such as Chernobyl in the 1980s and Fukushima earlier this year periodically bring up the long-lasting human, social and economic impacts when things go wrong.

Part of the discussion focused on the so-called hidden costs, especially subsidies and tax benefits of which wind power was perceived to be a major beneficiary, set against the myth of cheap nuclear energy. Unfortunately, it was only after the debate that I learned that, based on Australian Conservation Foundation figures, direct subsidies to nuclear energy in the US alone totalled $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, plus $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies for wind and solar together during the same period amounted to $5.5 billion.

During the first 15 years of development, nuclear subsidies amounted to $15.30/kWh. The comparable figure for wind energy was $0.46/kWh.

One topic that fired up the debate was the amount of fossil or nuclear-based reserve capacity required for one unit of wind to compensate for low and no-wind situations. The wind opponents claimed that for each unit of wind power, 100% conventional capacity should be kept on standby. Our only reference at the time was a Finnish study indicating "only" 90% was needed. But recent research shows a far more positive role for modern wind systems in maintaining grid network stability even when there is a lot of wind power on the grid.

Cleaning up

To our surprise, and despite having agreed that nuclear would not be discussed, a debate conclusion read: "Nuclear power is substantially cheaper for a similar electricity output level and offers comparable results. With regard to reliability of the electricity supply, we consider it a more attractive alternative." The report was widely distributed and is still available online.

When a Dutch television station asked me four years later to participate in another wind-versus-nuclear debate I initially hesitated, but accepted the invitation on the back of a more successful strategy.

Just before the show I read an article on new UK plans on deep-ground nuclear waste storage that quoted the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to have estimated the cost of cleaning up existing nuclear installations and polluted areas across the UK at around EUR102 billion - equivalent to EUR1,700 per resident.

During the TV debate, the presenter first asked my main opponent, a retired navy officer, about his views on wind power. His answer included the standard arguments that wind turbines are ugly, produce very little but expensive electricity and operate largely on government subsidies.

I then showed him the article on nuclear power and presented official data on the German renewable-energy system showing that residents pay an extra EUR1 a month on their electricity bill for it - meaning that Germans could continue paying this for 140 years before reaching the cost of nuclear to UK residents. I also remarked that German support for renewables had spun off a very successful wind industry sector. The navy officer hardly uttered a word for the rest of the debate. I felt much better after this one.

Eize de Vries is Windpower Monthly's technology and market trends consultant.

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