Tyler Cowen reminds us that the most cost-effective low-carbon power source is nuclear.
If all the costs and benefits are totted up using Mr Frank’s calculation, solar power is by far the most expensive way of reducing carbon emissions. It costs $189,000 to replace 1MW per year of power from coal. Wind is the next most expensive. Hydropower provides a modest net benefit. But the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power. The pattern is similar if 1MW of gas-fired capacity is displaced instead of coal. And all this assumes a carbon price of $50 a tonne. Using actual carbon prices (below $10 in Europe) makes solar and wind look even worse. The carbon price would have to rise to $185 a tonne before solar power shows a net benefit.
(He’s actually quoting Petr Beckmann at The Economist.)
This is a good time to remind ourselves that the majority of Green Power advocates — or at least the loudest ones — aren’t optimizing for power sources that reduce pollution; they are instead optimizing for power sources that minimize their own fears. Climate change is scary, so coal and oil are out. Energy corporations are scary, so natural gas (Fracking! OMG ONOZ!) and oil (Oilsands! Pipelines! Greasy otters!) are out. Nuclear power is about as scary as it gets, so that’s a non-starter even if it means reverting to all the other scary power sources (see for example what Europe’s doing right now post-Fukushima).
I’m not unsympathetic. I don’t like scary things, either. I’d rather avoid choking on smog during my morning commute or turning into a skin crayon as I’m dragged along the highway by a Prius driver dicking around with s/h/its cellphone. (“Oh sorry, I’ve never seen someone use that crosswalk!”) But, like GI Joe said back when I was a kid, “Knowing is half the battle!” And knowing that, say, thorium thermoreactors are about as benign as anything designed to be exothermic is likely to get is rather empowering when it comes to tackling all those other fears. (I would love to be educated on better alternatives, should any exist, in the comments.)