Solar power gains strength as moratoriums on nuclear power stations are passed across Europe
Fukushima: as the smoke continues to billow from reactors at the crippled nuclear power plant, many nations across the world are reconsidering their nuclear options. The disastrous fallout at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant has resulted in the contamination of land, sea and air and the release of 11, 500 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. Italy stands alone as the only Group of Eight nation that has no nuclear power. In 2008, the Italian government signed a deal to build nuclear reactors which would be operational by 2020; Fukushima changed that.
The contamination levels in all areas, aside from the 20km no-entry zone surrounding the Fukushima plant, are said to be at levels below limits set for surface radiation. However, nuclear specialist Helen Caldicott claims that the epic nuclear fallout at Fukushima will cause a major medical catastrophe. External radiation, says Caldicott, may be below recommended levels and is harmless to humans and animals. However, when this radiation is internalized through inhalation, skin absorption or ingestion, the consequences are dire. Radioactive elements are absorbed by animals and plants and passed through the food chain to humans. This radiation is insidious; causing mutation in cells until the carrier contracts leukemia after five years, or cancer a decade after initial exposure. Too remote are these consequences to join the dots back to the original radiation. The EPA states that up to 25% of people exposed to the Fukushima radiation will develop cancer.
Reports like this one have prompted the Italian government to impose a year-long moratorium on nuclear development. The picturesque Italian town of Montalto di Castro is home to the shell of an old nuclear power station. The power station was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear incident prompted a similar moratorium in 1987. The skeletal remains of the power plant act as a reminder to the residents of the possibility of a nuclear future. The current moratorium has not appeased residents of Montalto. Deciding to take fate into their own hands, they have approved plans for one of Europe’s largest photovoltaic farms in the hopes that providing renewable sources of energy will put the kibosh on government nuclear ambitions. Solar technology has improved dramatically over recent months, surpassing nuclear as the cheapest way to produce energy.
Italians are not alone in their aversion to all things nuclear. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, a former proponent of nuclear power, announced a three month moratorium on nuclear development and ordered the temporary closure of the seven oldest nuclear plants in order for security checks to be carried out. The plants are scheduled to be phased out in favour or renewable energy sources by 2030. Switzerland followed suit by suspending plans to build three new nuclear power stations.
The remaining European countries have been reticent to join the fray, agreeing only to test 143 nuclear plants to ensure safety. Europe has, of late, relied heavily on nuclear power to end its dependence on fossil fuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, as popular opinions sour, anti-nuclear protests are springing up and putting pressure on their governments to seek other means of powering Europe.
Jim Creeggan of the Barenaked Ladies leads by example
It’s not every day that one meets a rock star with a pleasant disposition. In this regard, Jim Creeggan is a singular specimen. The mild mannered bassist of the Barenaked Ladies is not only nice, he also has a well developed social conscience. I recently met with Jim to talk about solar and his soon to be connected microFIT system. Although he is availing himself of the new microFIT incentive system that the Ontario government has instituted to help grow renewable energy in the province, he is no stranger to solar. A pioneer of renewable energy, Jim’s solar system is almost six years old and has sustained his home and family in Toronto through the years.
Jim comes from a long line of environmental activists and was inspired to seek more natural ways to live. He opted to install solar at a time when it was neither easy nor did it come with the incentives that today’s Ontario microFIT program offers. While Jim’s focus was on providing his own energy, most of today’s homeowners recognise that microFIT makes economic sense. Not that he is resentful of that — he wants to see the homes of his Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood covered in solar panels; an electric car in every garage and a free range chicken in every pot. “I don’t want people to think that solar panels are things that crazy rock stars put up, it should be available to every homeowner,” said Jim. Solar panels are no longer the vestige of the rich and famous. Thanks to the vast reductions in panel prices, solar is affordable for the masses.
The microFIT program has been criticised on the grounds that other grid users will have to pay for subsidies that yield large profits for homeowners. Although the initial incentives are high to garner support for the project, the government intends to curb the incentives as more homeowners sign up for microFIT. This is a development Jim approves of: “It’s important to give the home and business owner a reason to install solar and the government should help them to recoup that initial investment within three years, but then the returns should be sustainable. If everyone had a solar power system, we could really be proud of where our power was coming from.”
The myth of huge increases to hydro bills is unfounded; only about 1% of hydro revenue is set aside for microFIT use. Instead, the proposed solution to our future energy needs is the government’s $33 billion (up from an original estimate of $6 billion) nuclear plan which encompasses the refurbishment of four existing reactors at the Darlington and Bruce plants and the building of two new reactors at the Darlington plant. Critics claim hydro bills will double by the time this project is done — a far more pressing concern than the meagre costs of microFIT. Recent events in Japan and opposition to the transportation of radioactive materials through the St. Lawrence waterways also bring to bear concerns about the safety of nuclear energy.
Still not convinced? Then add to this the fact that solar power last year passed the great divide and currently costs less than nuclear power, per megawatt, to produce. Advances in solar panel technology led to drastic reductions in the cost of solar while nuclear costs have spiralled. The microFIT program results in profits for homeowners, provides clean, renewable energy and costs less than nuclear. The future of solar is so bright you will, indeed, need to wear shades.
However, opposition to the McGuinty government threatens to scuttle microFIT programs if they rise to power in the upcoming election. This is based on the notion that homeowners who take advantage of the microFIT system will have to be carried by the hydro payments of grid slaves. This is beyond short-sighted and does not account for the inflated costs of nuclear power. Nuclear power is no longer our most economically responsible decision. The microFIT program demands 60% local content for solar power systems which has resulted in an increase in green collar jobs and the establishment of several manufacturing plants and a plethora of installer, inspector and electrician positions. Most of these have a symbiotic relationship with microFIT and will not survive its demise. If you want to secure the future of microFIT and solar industries, visit stand-up-for solar and make your voice heard.
Nuclear power is a hell of a way to boil water. -Einstein
The devastation of the Japanese earthquake and the massive loss of life is a tragedy of such epic proportions that it is hard to assimilate the true magnitude of human suffering. The nuclear threat posed by the damage to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant promises to escalate the already desperate situation. Gaping holes in statements released by the government do little to quell the fears of the Japanese people. With traces of radiation discovered as far afield as California, British Columbia and Iceland, the fear has spread and the very future of nuclear power plants is being called into question.
At this precarious time in the evolution of nuclear energy, it seems incongruous, insensitive even for hearings by the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) on the future of the Darlington nuclear plant to proceed. The hearings were orchestrated to entertain concerns about the two new nuclear reactors planned for the Darlington nuclear facility and the refurbishment of ten reactors at the Darlington and Bruce Power stations. The project will cement the province’s reliance on nuclear power for the next 20 years. The proposed refurbishments were originally estimated to cost $6 billion, but have since ballooned to a mind-blowing $33 billion dollars; a sum that will double hydro bills by the time the project is complete. A number of NGOs and citizens have voiced their opposition to the project. Green Peace protestors chained themselves to tables in an attempt to delay proceedings until a full investigation into the disaster at Fukushima in Japan could be conducted. A Greenpeace spokesman, Shawn-Patrick Stencil said that the protestors wished to prevent the hearings as they were only being held to legitimate the process.
Their argument that opposition to nuclear power is not heard by local government holds weight. When the Canadian Safety Commission gave permission for 64 decommissioned steam generators to be transported through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence waterway to Sweden, massive protests ensued. Mayors from cities en-route and tribal chiefs opposed the initial shipment of 16 generators. The commission heard protests, but gave the green light despite the fact that no environmental assessment had been carried out.
Do the NGOs have a point? Are incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima unlikely or is nuclear power unsafe? Wade Allison, a nuclear and medical physicist from the University of Oxford, joins the ever-growing horde of proponents of nuclear power whose litany of assurances sounds remarkably like those issued by the Japanese government. The consensus is that the radiation, as a result of the Fukushima disaster, is not in levels that pose a danger to the public. This contradicts actions by the Japanese and American governments, who recently banned foodstuffs from the affected area and advised parents that the Tokyo water supply was not safe for consumption by minors. Allison argues that the fallout from Fukushima is only 1% that of Chernobyl. He says the acceptable rates of exposure are set too low at 1 mSv per year when a British person is already exposed to 2.7 mSv per year and that a cancer patient is exposed to 20 000 mSv to combat tumours. He suggests that the cells of cancer patients are able to regenerate and that this proves the body’s resistance to radiation. He also stated that no one died at Three Mile Island and that only 28 people succumbed at Chernobyl with a further 15 cases of childhood thyroid cancer which could have been prevented had the children been given iodine tablets.
Helen Caldicott, an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, cites a New York Academy of Science study which places the death toll of Chernobyl at over a million. Radiation is insidious and may take years or decades to appear as cancer, birth defects and diseases that are difficult to tie to the original exposure. She agrees with experts that claim that surface radiation is low and is akin to radiation experienced during an X-ray. However, this radiation is absorbed into plant and water ecosystems and, consequently, by the animals that live in these systems. These are ingested by humans with disastrous consequences; “A very very tiny amount can mutate a single regulatory gene in a single cell to give you Leukemia in five years, or cancer 15 years later.” said Caldicott. Mutations in ovaries and testes result in birth defects and genetic diseases, thereby passing the legacy of exposure to future generations.
Caldicott appeared at the Darlington hearings with stern warnings about the safety of nuclear power. She claimed that small amounts of radiation leech from nuclear plants increasing background radiation in the air and water around them. She also pointed out that nuclear power is touted as ‘clean’, but the mining and enrichment of uranium is a wasteful process that produces a plethora of greenhouse gases.
Safety is not the only argument against nuclear power in Ontario. A recent study by NC WARN showed that the cost of solar energy has dropped to less than 15₵/ kWh while nuclear power costs 20₵/kWh. This does not take into account the cost of refurbishment and construction of nuclear facilities in the province. This makes the actions of the McGuinty government and its stalwart support of the nuclear programme even more baffling. Solar has proven to be reliable and clean and no one has ever died of solar fallout.
Voice your support for solar energy by joining the Stand Up for Solar initiative.
You can also protest the Darling nuclear initiative by signing the Greenpeace petition.
The Ontario government has made several ground breaking advances in promoting the development of renewable energy through subsidies with the FIT and microFIT initiatives. So popular has the program been that the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) has been overwhelmed with applications from home and business owners. This blossoming development has seen the renewable energy capability of Ontario increase to 1,300MW — enough to power more than 300,000 homes, making it one of the 10 solar hotspots in North America. The OPA has further guaranteed development of the Ontario economy by insisting that 60% of the solar power systems installed in the province be made locally.
The insistence on local content has made the province a viable and attractive prospect for solar companies. Companies like Canadian Solar, Silfab SpA and others have opened plants in Ontario in recent months, creating much needed ‘green collar’ jobs. The increase in contracts has seen solar installers popping up like mushrooms. Solar installers provide thousands of jobs in the solar power industry.
Another incentive for growth is the sharp decline in prices for solar power systems; PV solar systems cost half of what they did in 1998. A recent study by Duke University showed that the ballooning costs of nuclear plants last year resulted in the crossover eagerly anticipated by renewable energy companies for decades; solar is finally cheaper than nuclear! But trouble may be on the horizon. The McGuinty government has shown a strong preference for nuclear and gas electricity production, refurbishing two nuclear reactors at the Bruce power plant with plans to build two more. The opposition has shown strong resistance to the FIT and microFIT initiatives, threatening to scrap the programmes altogether. The OPA has also hinted at future reductions in FIT and microFIT subsidies which would slow solar power installations dramatically and lead to the closure of solar companies and a loss of jobs in the province.
The Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) represents various interests in the solar industry. Said ex-chair David Eisenbud; “By 2025, solar energy expects to be widely deployed throughout Canada, having already achieved market competitiveness and no longer needing government incentives. By 2025 solar will be supporting more than 35,000 jobs and displacing 15 to 31 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, while providing a safer, cleaner environment for generations to come.” All this will be jeopardised should FIT and microFIT subsidies be halted or altered.
When the German government threatened to reduce solar funding, members of the solar industry and local communities campaigned to have their subsidies extended. So great was the support that the German government revised its plans. CanSIA is hoping to drum up similar support. To this end, they are launching the Stand Up for Solar campaign. A website, standupforsolar.ca, allows you to create awareness through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and email or tweet your MPP to voice your support for the solar industry. If you want the government to vote for solar in the October elections, you will have to join those in the solar industry to make a stand.
Go to the website, donate funds or post the site on your social media outlets to spread the word.
This week we look at two brews which use their heads by utilizing solar power to bring you your favourite beverages.
There’s nothing better than relaxing with a nice cold beer? Wrong! Not when you can relax with a nice cold solar powered beer. The Sierra Nevada Brewing Company owns one of the largest solar powered systems in the U.S. Since 2008, this innovative brewery has been putting sunshine in your mug. The brewery’s solar power system consists of two solar arrays. The first is an array of 6 700 Mitsubishi, 185 watt lead-free panels which utilize the brewery’s ample roof space to produce 1.4 MW of AC power. This system is coupled with an additional 2000 SunPower, 220 watt solar panels. This array avails itself of an intelligent tracking system that angles solar panels to receive the most daylight. This increases output by up to 30% and provides shaded parking for staff and customers. The system provides 892, 859 kWh per year. Sierra Nevada brews several varieties of beer it’s most popular being the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Brew number two is Solar Roast Coffee; the best coffee under the sun! Fair trade coffee is passé when compared to this feisty cuppa cooked up by brothers David and Michael Hartkop. The first coffee roaster was constructed from an old satellite dish and a colander and given the heady sobriquet Helios 1. It was made from 100 plastic mirrors and roasted one pound of coffee at a time. Subsequent models were more sophisticated and fruitful, but could not surmount the fact that Oregon has only three months of sunny weather a year. Meet Helios 3; this bad boy was constructed on a trailer, roasts five pounds of coffee at a time and folds up easily for transport to provide the general public with a cup o’ joe on the go.
Pueblo California was where the Helios 3 found its final resting place as the brothers Hartkop set up their first retail business. They now
use a solid wall of mirrors, mounted to the roof of their coffee shop to roast 30 pounds of beans in only 20 minutes. Solar Roast Coffee sales have soared and they have opened several retail outlets around the U.S. They also sell their beans on the Internet and are always looking for ways to improve their Helios. Remember; chicks dig it!