Radioactive is the New Black

When I had the chance to spend a month in Egypt in the summer of 2001, I was based in Cairo but took a few trips to other parts of the country. In almost all of the hotels, you had to put your room key into a wall plate to get the electricity to turn on in the room. In Egypt in the summer, this meant that your room was pretty freaking hot every time you came back to it.


Being a typical American, I asked for another key to my room and left the AC on all day, just like a lot of us do in hotels and our homes here in the US. Looking back on it, it was not my proudest moment. I was willing to do just about anything to spare myself a few minutes of inconveniently high temperature (and having to reset my alarm clock) when I returned to my room.

The reasons the Egyptian hotels had this set-up is that Egypt has no oil, relatively speaking. This means they cannot burn it to generate electricity or sell to buy electricity from somewhere else. So, electricity is expensive, and the easiest (and best) solution is just to use less—to stop wasting it all the time. Given the extraordinary percentage of electricity used for air conditioning in the US, setting thermostats higher or just getting used to sweating might be a pretty good idea.

no ac

A few years earlier, when I lived on the Big Island of Hawai’i for a year, I marveled at the first wind farm I had ever seen. It was on the southern edge of the island and it made a haunting, other-worldly noise as we drove by. It is an ideal spot for a wind farm—there are trade winds that blow virtually around the clock, 365 days a year.

wind farm

It seemed like genuinely sustainable energy in a place that was intensely interested in sustainability—on the island, the things you need either occur there naturally or get shipped in at great expense, and the waste you produce either gets dealt with in an environmentally safe way, gets shipped somewhere else, or damages your environment. As a case in point, if you eat the things native to Hawai’i, food costs are actually lower than in New Jersey—a realization that I had when I moved to New Jersey the next year and saw my cost of living rise. But if you want steak and potatoes instead of fish, avocados and tons of indigenous fruits, you’ll pay a lot for you dinner.

But within a couple of months of my arrival in Hawai’i, the power company (with the approval of the local government and with little protest) returned to their previous method of generating electricity—burning waste oil that they purchased from various vendors.

oil power plant

The rationale was simple—it was cheaper per kilowatt hour. Speaking with a long time native of the place, I was told that, being an island, they had no concerns about air pollution (those trade winds I mentioned just blow the smoke away) and therefore it would be irrational to pay more than the least possible amount per kilowatt hour.

I was, and am, still amazed by this reasoning, but I still hear it today in the debate about renewable energy sources versus coal. I think the economic argument is very likely to win the day for a long time to come, so I am fairly pessimistic about the prospects for solar, wind and the other sources of green power until some market change occurs.

 Some analysts expect the market forces to push the cost of fossil fuels so high that green energy will become economically efficient. Michael Klare makes the argument in The Race for What’s Left that we are past the age of easily extractable oil and that the increased cost of extraction from extreme environments (like deep in the Gulf of Mexico) will soon drive the cost of oil too high to be the first choice of energy consumers. He also notes that the added costs of extraction are often externalized in the form of environmental degradation, government subsidies and the like, so that fossil fuels may have more time left than they deserve.

fire water

(The book also has alarming data about other consumable goods such as rare earth elements, and is a sobering read)

As of 2009, 67% of the energy produced in the world was generated from fossil fuels, with coal providing 41%, natural gas providing 21% and oil making up the remaining 5%. Renewables provided 16%, but much of that comes from hydroelectric plants, not from solar or wind energy production. Nuclear power provided 13% But there are other problems facing green energy. Besides being more expensive per kilowatt hour than coal, oil and natural gas, there are problems of continuous production, pollution costs during production (with solar panels, especially) and scale for green energy that may well prove insuperable.

Except, perhaps, for nuclear energy. Already, European countries rely far more heavily on nuclear power than does the US. France, for example, gets roughly 75% of their power from nuclear reactors. No energy source is without its impacts, and the threats associated with nuclear power are widely known. But the cost per kW is pretty low, and therefore attractive to US consumers.

Now certainly some as-yet unforeseen tech breakthrough might help us.


But waiting for that possible help in the future seems irresponsible given the problems we are already starting to face and which will inevitably worsen.

Add to this the fact that in the US, we live in a society where it is not uncommon for people to have nearly one car per eligible driver in the family while investment in public transit has shrunk to virtually nothing, for each household to be temperature controlled year-round whether people are home or not and countless other example of the wasteful use of energy. (We also flush away a couple of gallons of perfectly good, potable water every time we use the restroom. More on that later.) As long as we keep needing energy in the amounts we are using it now, our need will outstrip the potential of green sources to supply it. Eventually, we will not be able to keep up with the demand for energy by any means. And, to make things worse, we keep encouraging and incentivizing other cultures to “get into the 21st century” by adopting, among other things, our energy-extravagant standard of living.

It seems to me that in the short- to moderate-term future we have two choices: use a lot less energy in general or shift from dreams of green energy to the reality of the new black energy, nuclear power. Me? I think I’ll go turn off the AC and see if that helps.