Energy Future Forum: Surplus Q&A’s 1.0

The final WMEAC Energy Forum on Wednesday, April 6, hosted by Muskegon Community College, left us once more with an abundance of unanswered questions. These questions will be addressed here and over the next several days in subsequent posts.  Thanks for your interest!

Q: I have seen data suggesting that nuclear is not cheaper than alternative and in fact without government subsidies, no one in the private sector would be interested in it.

A: Thomas Noyes recently wrote an article for the Guardian, prompted by the Fukushima disaster. In it, Noyes makes an excellent point for why the private sector does not seem interested in investing in nuclear energy.

“The total costs of coal may be high, but the total costs of nuclear power are, in any meaningful sense, incalculable. Investors face cost overruns that could burn through even the deepest pockets. The true cost of waste disposal still is not known. The cost of decommissioning, even decades away, is also a big unknown. And the cost of catastrophic failure is more than a company as large as GE is willing to face. How can any investor calculate the return on investment with such large uncertainties?”

Coal is a very harmful source of energy, but with nuclear if something goes wrong it goes astronomically wrong. Disposing of the byproducts of nuclear energy is also unsure, with the current popular idea being “bury it somewhere.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report on government subsidies for nuclear energy in the United States. Subsidies help to obscure the actual cost of nuclear energy, making a direct comparison to other forms of energy difficult. The report suggests that as long as nuclear can appear profitable, larger support for renewable energy will be delayed.

Q: What is the outlook for demand for biofuel products from biomass?

A: According to the U.S. Environmental Information Administration’s (EIA) examination of energy trends, there will be an increase in production of biofuels. Demand for it, however, is not so clearly addressed. The expected increase in biofuels is to meet the U.S.’s renewable fuel standard.

Currently, biofuels are used the most when blended with fossil fuels, but the EIA expects that they will become competitive on their own later on. Biofuels are limited by our ability to convert cellulose into fuel, but as our ability to do improves we will be making more efficient fuels from biomass. Something the EIA suggests in their report is that the demand will have to grow as fossil fuels begin to stagnate and decline.

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