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U.S. needs a path to safe, clean electricity

By Patrick Doherty, Special to CNN
  • Patrick Doherty: Oil can foul the ocean, nuclear plant accidents can be deadly
  • America needs to move toward energy sources that are not disaster-prone, he says
  • Older and younger families want smaller-scale, walkable, green communities, he writes
  • Doherty says local electricity from clean sources could meet that demand

Editor's note: Patrick Doherty is the director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- In Japan's earthquake-triggered nuclear emergency, at least 200,000 people who live within 21 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station outside Tokyo have been removed from their homes -- residents who are already victims of the worst earthquake to hit Japan since records were kept.

Three nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi station are damaged -- some core melting is assumed to have happened in two of them. The risk is either that the damaged reactors continue to produce periodic hydrogen explosions and radioactive steam releases for weeks or months, or, worse that the containment shields fail altogether and highly radioactive materials become airborne, creating a toxic plume of gas and particles that could contaminate a wide area downwind from the crippled atomic plant.

The last reactor meltdown, in the Soviet-designed Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine in 1986, shows the potential consequences of a nuclear power accident. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an 18-mile radius exclusion zone around the plant was evacuated and closed off, including the cutting and burying of a one square-mile forest.

According to the World Health Organization, 347,000 residents were displaced from this area permanently. About 134 workers experienced acute radiation sickness; 28 of them died in 1986. At least 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer from radioactive iodine have been recorded in the area as of 2006.

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Nuclear power emergencies do not happen often, but when they do, the effects can be devastating. The same can be said for oil. Scientists say the BP oil spill in 2010, in which 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, was the largest marine release of oil in history. It was the "worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States," according to the White House's Carol Browner. National Geographic reports that the BP incident was the fourth major spill in the Gulf in the last 50 years.

In the United States, about 20% of electricity comes from nuclear power plants and 95% of transportation fuel is derived from petroleum. We know these energy sources are a problem.

Until the Senate failed to pass climate legislation, the narrative about energy and the environment had been focused on the very real threat of climate change and the need for a narrow, market-friendly cap-and-trade regime placed on carbon.

This plan met pitched resistance from entrenched oil and coal interests in Washington, to be sure, but it was also out of sync with America. Taxing carbon in the midst of the Great Recession, even with an equivalent reduction in personal income tax, would have put an unacceptable burden on families who were already facing incredibly high costs for housing and transportation. Raising energy prices would have added to that burden without a sufficient incentive for the market to build alternatives.

America, in other words, needs a path to disaster-free energy that makes money. In a recent report I co-wrote with my colleague Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, we identify just such a path.

America is experiencing a great demographic convergence around a new design for our communities. Baby boomers are emptying their nests while "millennials" are setting up their first households. Both groups, more than 50% of the population, want smaller, greener units in more walkable, transit-connected and healthy communities.

Tapping into that demand, in the same way Presidents Truman and Eisenhower tapped into the post-war housing demand to create today's suburbia, can provide America with its next economic boom. This is the best chance to unlock Wall Street's $3.6 trillion in cash and money market funds that is waiting for more "certainty" before being invested.

With America back to work building walkable urban villages out of the sprawl of American Dream 1.0, we can redesign much of our infrastructure, especially in the transportation and energy sectors. The key is reducing demand and changing supply.

On the demand side, meeting Americans' hunger for more walkable communities will mean the commute moves from car-dependent gridlock to efficient, convenient transit. The kids' activities and weekend errands will require a walk into the neighborhood park or the village center. Families that used to have three cars will move to two; two to one, and one to none. The Chevy Volt shows that Detroit can make and market affordable and attractive electric cars.

On the supply side, we must move toward an all-electric future. We already know how to engineer a 21st century smart grid that allows for the distributed generation of renewable electricity, ending today's dependence on the mix of centralized, disaster-prone sources of energy. The trick is moving away from centralized power generators fueled by coal and nuclear.

Distributed generation is already happening. New York is trying to avoid building expensive new power plants and is encouraging large building projects to provide their own energy. The New York Times building has a combined heat and power unit that supplies cleaner, natural gas-fueled power to the building, then sells excess power back to the grid. The unit saves the Times around $790,000 per year, provides more reliable electricity, and the pressure on the Big Apple to spend taxpayer dollars on a massive new power plant is reduced.

Nationally, more than enough renewable energy is available for our market economy to take this to scale.

A 2005 California Energy Commission study showed that rooftop solar installations in California could produce almost 68 gigawatts of electricity by 2016, surpassing the state's total demand of 65 gigawatts.

Concentrating solar power installations in the Southwest could deliver an awesome 7,000 gigawatts; nearly seven times the amount of electricity produced from all sources in the United States.

According to the Department of Energy, America's accessible wind resources total 12 times the current electricity consumption of the United States. China, too, can make the switch. It has more than enough wind to replace its current demand and plentiful solar resources on top of that.

The tragedy in Japan, coming less than a year after the BP disaster and the failure of climate legislation in the Senate, should be a wake-up call for America. The demographic demand for a sustainable American Dream is waiting to be tapped. Transition strategies are already on the shelf: hybrid cars and distributed high-efficiency natural gas, like the system in The New York Times building.

One thing is clear: The sun is setting on disaster-prone energy. It's time to put America's economy to work making our nation more sustainable, secure and prosperous.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Doherty.

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