With the on-going calamity in Japan and phrases like “nuclear meltdown” and“radiation sickness” in headlines, it’s to be expected that people discuss with renewed attention the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. At very least, it’s helpfulto stop and take a moment to think about where our electricity comesfrom.
Here in the U.S., we get about one-fifth of our electricity fromnuclear power. Coal is still king, representing nearly half of totalelectricity generation, nationwide. Natural gas is number two, used tomeet about a quarter of our demand.
According to Department of Energy figures, these three sources together account for almost 90 percent of our electricity needs. (Bear in mind, there are regional variations — utilities in thesoutheast and mid-Atlantic, for example, generate more nuclear energythan they do in, say, New England.)
What about renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, biomass andgeothermal? That’s the yellow slice, representing 4.5 percent of thetotal. More specifically: in 2010, solar power technologies —photovoltaics and solar thermal — accounted for far less than onepercent of all the electricity generated by U.S. utilities. The EnergyInformation Agency just released the December 2010 numbers.
The merits of solar power — that it’s clean, safe and reliable —stand in stark contrast to the string of disasters we’ve witnessed inthe coal, oil and now nuclear energy industries, as noted by John Broder:
Three of the world’s chief sources of large-scale energyproduction — coal, oil and nuclear power — have all experiencedeye-popping accidents in just the past year. The Upper Big Branch coalmine explosion in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oilspill in the Gulf of Mexico and the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japanhave dramatized the dangers of conventional power generation at a timewhen the world has no workable alternatives able to operate atsufficient scale.
While growing rapidly, the domestic solar energy market is still inits infancy. If the stock market is any indication, however, people arelooking for alternatives to conventional energy: solar stocks are justabout the only thing trading up today, with shares of FirstSolar,SunPower, Trina Solar (and the like) up amid an otherwise grim market.