Sunday, March 27, 2005

How Green Is My Metropolis, Pt. 2

From City Journal, via Arts & Letters Daily: "Why the U.S. Needs More Nuclear Power." The authors (Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills) make some strong points in favor of nuclear power, albeit nothing new: it's cheap, it's efficient, it's clean, safety concerns are legitimate but overstated, etc.

The real merit of the article is its analysis of existing energy consumption, peppered with smart statistics and sharp phrases. "Think of our solitary New Yorker on the Upper West Side as a 1,400-watt bulb that never sleeps." "Stick an extra 90 pounds—$800 worth—of nickel-metal-hydride batteries in a hybrid, recharge in garages and parking lots, and you can shift roughly 25 percent of a typical driver’s fuel-hungriest miles to the grid." And so on.

As the last quote suggests, the article is also notable for its praise of both hybrid cars and electricity in general: the conjunction of the two, the authors argue, could shift our electricity consumption from 60 percent of overall energy to 80 or even 100. This would have the handy "geo-green" consequence of reducing our dependence on oil, slashing our overall energy costs, and reducing the amount of coal or oil we have to burn -- assuming, of course, that our electricity isn't generated by burning coil or oil. (See Thomas Friedman in today's op-ed.)

In fact, although Huber and Mills's article doesn't make this point directly, electric or hybrid cars wind up defeating much of their environmental purpose (setting aside for the moment their relative end-user or overall economy) so long as we continue to generate most of our electricity through conventional fuels. Half of our electricity, the authors tell us, comes from burning coal; another 30 percent comes from a combination of natural gas and hydroelectric power. "Your typical city dweller doesn’t know just how much coal and uranium he burns each year," the article begins -- and this is especially true for self-congratulating hybrid owners. Dreams of windmills, dams and solar cells aside, that's a coal-burning engine you're driving.

Here, nuclear power represents the endgame of a certain logic: given that we're shifting so much of our energy assumption away from oil and natural gas and towards electricity, we need to continue to find ways to make our electricity generation cleaner, safer, and cheaper. Hence -- as the best, most proven, ready-to-go alternative -- nuclear power.

It may be worthwhile to read this article together with David Owen's excellent "Green Manhattan," originally published in The New Yorker last October. (Owen's article is now available as a pdf via You can read my summary and comments in "How Green is my Metropolis".) Both Owen and the authors of the City Journal article place the important stress on energy consumption, but they also compliment one another well. Owen focuses on end-user consumption and more than ably corrects the anti-urban prejudice when it comes to things green (even Huber and Mills focus on if not villify "the city dweller"), while H. and M., in their focus on energy production, supply an equally needed corrective.

The virtue of cities, Owen argues, is in their condensation: more people living in less space consume less energy per capita, especially for heating and transportation. But population density is exactly the problem for cities run on nuclear power: you can't build a Three Mile Island in Queens, since it would be impossible to evacuate the city in the event of a meltdown or accident. Nuclear hysteria in this compounds the real danger. New Yorkers might be better energy consumers than they're given credit for, but New York is a terrible place to generate energy. Which has always been the grand critique of the metropolis: consumers to the end, happily unaware of the always remote forces of production.

I hate to end on such a wishy-washy, David Brooks-ian, "both sides have good points" note (I mean, what the hell has happened to that guy?) -- mostly because I don't entirely feel that way. I think what I like about both articles is that they challenge certain sacred cows within the Green movement while remaining within a Green orientation or paradigm. They also demand both an intellectual revision and a certain kind of action, while reeling back the utopian, savior-from-nowhere vision most of this kind of talk engenders. The point of both articles is that we already possess the untapped technologies -- in H. and M.'s article, nuclear power, in Owen's, the city -- that can make our use of energy sustainable. And right now, that seems to be the most important message any environmentalist can offer.


leonard said...

Hybrid batteries are currently charged by the gasoline internal combustion engine in the car. So no hybrid owner is driving a coal-burning car.

Hybrids have a real gain in fuel efficency over a pure ICE because it uses the two halves of its system (electric and ICE) in the most efficent manner. Energy usually lost in braking is stored in the batteries, the gas engine doesn't have to go through frequent and inefficent start-ups and shut-downs, idling engines charge the batteries, etc. The hybrid really does cut down on fossil fuel use.

Of course, moving to further use of electricity could reduce the use of fossil fuels even further if we just built a ton of nuke plants. And how could that be bad?

Peter Huber said...

A friend belatedly forwarded your link to me, I appreciate the kind words ... for the record, I think cities are very green indeed, see "How Cities Green the Planet" ..
Peter Huber