Yet now, as we are bumping up against the unviability of fossil fuel energy sources in the face of global climate change from rising C02, the question of what the energy future will look like is rearing its head with some urgency. Will we be able to find another energy source that will be equally sublime, all-powerful and all-powering, and virtually invisible to its users?
This promise is the one held out by environmentalist nuclear advocates like James Hansen and the Breakthrough Institute who see deep investment in new nuclear utilities as the best and perhaps only way out of wrecking the earth with C02. They point out that the risks of radiation have been overblown and that nuclear power, with its high efficiencies, remains an obvious solution to our carbon woes. Nuclear moreover sustains well our image of the future as smoothly powered by sophisticated centralized technology that will make energy consumption a non-problem.
Yet as has been widely pointed out lately, the biggest problem with nuclear energy is not especially the danger of radiation but the massive costs of containing it. Nuclear energy is the only form of energy that is getting more expensive to develop. As was recently tweeted to me by Isadora Wronski from Greenpeace Nordic, "Nuclear power has no learning curves, [it's] more expensive the more and bigger that's built." In Iowa last week a large energy company scrapped plans to build nuclear reactors because they could not get social license for the massive public subsidies that would have been required. The reliability of nuclear energy also seems to be typically overstated; for example it has to be shut down in heatwaves.
A contrasting picture thus emerges of an energy future dependent on renewables: one that is patchy and uneven, with distributed rooftop solar and wind farms feeding in to grids that cycle in and out of different sources dependent on the weather and with gaps to be filled with even messier sources like natural gas or biomass. Yet this appears to be the future we are heading towards, as solar photovoltaic materials and wind towers are being made more cheaply every year and economic bodies appear to be gradually negotiating the barriers off their trade. We might even require--perish the thought--radical and inconvenient new efficiencies to support a more piecemeal grid. As such, the future is starting to look a little more like Blade Runner than like The Jetsons--but hopefully we'll at least be able to breathe.