lots of kinds of power sourcesCan we have it all?Debates over nuclear power in the U.S. tend to follow a certain course. The left says, No Nukes, Just Renewables! The right says, Screw Renewables, A Gajillion Nukes! Then the sensible centrist nods sagely and says, We’ll Need Both. Everyone who doesn’t want to be branded a (gasp) partisan ends up adopting some form of that both-and conventional wisdom: We need low-carbon power, renewables can’t get us all the way there, so we’ll need a bunch of nuclear power too.

I’m not criticizing the CW — I suppose I fall somewhere in that camp too. However, a recent report [PDF] from Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a clean energy think tank, complicates that soothing conclusion. The report claims that the nuclear path and the renewables+efficiency path are not complementary. In fact, they are in substantial tension. In short, the authors claim, we really do have to choose.

Here, in helpfully condensed form, are the four principle arguments:

  1. Competition for limited investment funds. A euro, dollar or yuan can only be spent once and it should be spent for the options that provide the largest emission reductions the fastest. Nuclear power is not only one of the most expensive but also the slowest option.
  2. Overcapacity kills efficiency incentives. Centralized, large power-generation units tend to lead to structural overcapacities. Overcapacities leave no room for efficiency.
  3. Flexible complementary capacity needed. Increasing levels of renewable electricity sources will need flexible, medium-load complementary facilities and not inflexible, large, baseload power plants.
  4. Future grids go both ways. Smart metering, smart appliances and smart grids are on their way. The logic is an entirely redesigned system where the user gets also a generation and storage function. This is radically different from the top-down centralized approach.

I’m not 100 percent sold on all of these. On No. 2, for instance, you’re going to have trouble convincing Americans that having too much baseload energy is a problem. That’s not an argument with lots of political appeal. No. 3 is interesting, but it seems as much an argument for natural gas or biomass as against nukes. As for No. 4, there’s no reason to think a smart distribution grid can’t work in a system with substantial nuke baseload.

Still, taken together they are certainly suggestive. I would add two more:

5. America is better suited to distributed innovation. The best way to improve the efficiency and economics of large power plants is to build a bunch of them — to learn by doing. That’s what China is doing with supercritical coal, carbon sequestration, nuclear, and renewables. (See James Fallows’ piece on this.)

In the U.S., demand for electricity isn’t rising anything like it is in China and other developing countries. We’re not racing to add new capacity, especially not in huge increments. We don’t need a ton of big new plants. China’s going to get better at that game more quickly than we are.

We do, however, need to bring on enough clean energy and efficiency to phase out half (yes, the coal half) of our current electric generation. There’s plenty of work to do.

It’s unlikely that the U.S. utility sector is going to be capable of rapid large-scale innovation after decades of monopolistic sluggishness. Most utilities still face regulations that actively suppress low-carbon innovation. The energy industry needs to be cracked open and exposed to public participation, real market competition, and transparency. (For more on this, see NDN’s “Electricity 2.0: Unlocking the Power of the Open Energy Network.”) We need an open, plug-and-play grid so that anyone who can save energy or generate it cleanly can make the same rate of return a utility gets (or more). We need to get more people’s hands on this stuff! That goes doubly for today’s young people, who have grown up in the internet’s egalitarian, peer-to-peer meritocracy like fish in water.

The American innovation engine works because it is diverse and distributed, with a jumble of public, private, and public-private entities working in varying degrees of cooperation and competition. It’s messy, but it works. (For more on this, see Fred Block and Matthew Keller, “Where Do Innovations Come From? Transformations in the U.S. National Innovation System, 1970-2006.”)

The American innovation system ought to do for clean energy what it does best: create new information systems, business models, and financial tools. And distributed innovation is best done around distributed energy (microgeneration, smart grid, open software, and radical efficiency). Even if nukes and other large, centralized power systems turn out to be necessary, America’s talents and entrepreneurial imagination are best directed toward small-d democratic cleantech.

6. Innovation is highly path dependent

For a whole variety of social and economic reasons, technology development is subject to a high degree of path dependence. Even when better alternatives are available, a system can get locked in by initial decisions and contingent events. Enormous inertia builds behind particular development vectors. Author Neal Stephenson had a superb piece on this phenomenon in Slate a while back, focused on rockets:

To employ a commonly used metaphor, our current proficiency in rocket-building is the result of a hill-climbing approach; we started at one place on the technological landscape—which must be considered a random pick, given that it was chosen for dubious reasons by a maniac—and climbed the hill from there, looking for small steps that could be taken to increase the size and efficiency of the device. …

… the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance.

(For a technical academic take on this, see Acemoglu and Aghion, “The Environment and Directed Technical Change.”)

A real nuclear renaissance — as opposed to the current vaporware version — would direct financial and intellectual capital away from renewables and efficiency. Once the capital is directed that way, it’s likely to stay so directed. The more funding there is, the more institutions are built up, professionals trained, political constituencies created, infrastructure put in place. The lingering nuclear infrastructure of the 1970s is lending the nuclear industry enormous political influence to this day.

I’m still not totally convinced that it’s a stark choice between nuclear and renewables. In particular, some of the small, modular nuclear reactors being researched today would fit neatly into the distributed model. But I do think we need to make a conscious decision to support energy democracy over energy plutocracy. If we throw ourselves behind yet another generation of gigantic, centralized power plants, the commitments we make today won’t be easy to reverse later.