A transformation is underway in generating electricity. Mammoth, centralized coal and nuclear power stations are losing out to smaller, distributed generation. Wind and solar generators will free us from much of our dependence on the electrical grid.
The technology is here; the renewables revolution is coming. We all will benefit from reduced pollution and stable energy prices. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and most utilities still are mired in old ways of doing business.
The NRC recently made a radical decision to overrule its safety licensing board and block a challenge by four environmental and anti-nuclear groups to the re-licensing of FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Oak Harbor. These groups deserve to be fully heard when they contend that FirstEnergy makes a seriously flawed case for the 20-year extension it seeks of Davis-Besse's original 40-year operating license.
The groups argue that an extension will jeopardize community safety, and that renewable alternatives such as solar and wind energy can replace the power Davis-Besse generates with much less environmental impact. Last week, the NRC ruled that the groups should be heard on the dangers of concrete cracking in the plant's containment building, as well as on other safety issues.
Yet the NRC commission remains unwilling to hear the environmental challenge. Nuclear power generates major emissions when uranium fuel is enriched by the gaseous-diffusion process powered by coal-generated electricity.
Even more emissions occur during extended outages at nuclear plants. Davis-Besse has been off line as much as 25 percent of the time for the past 20 years. When that happens, the replacement electricity comes mostly from coal. That condition would almost certainly get worse in the next 20 years, as the plant's complex system is extended well beyond its 40-year design life.
First Energy has huge opportunities to reduce electricity consumption and make Davis-Besse unnecessary, but NRC rules do not allow that argument to be used against re-licensing. The commission will accept proposals only for "baseload" power that is cleaner than nuclear energy.
So that's what other volunteers and I have done. We have made the case for wind and solar power, supplemented by large-scale energy storage when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Detroit Edison uses pumped hydroelectric storage with a reservoir near Ludington, Mich.
Our model includes underground compressed air energy storage, because First Energy owns the Norton storage facility near Akron. In the near term, Norton could generate more than 268 megawatts of electricity. It has the potential to expand to 2,700 megawatts -- nearly three times the power that Davis-Besse generates.
Yet the NRC claims that solar and wind power and compressed air energy storage are only theoretical possibilities, not practical realities. Commissioners said we had not done our homework.
In fact, large-scale wind and solar power are practical realities. Last year, worldwide photo-voltaic manufacturing capacity was more than 36,000 megawatts -- 40 times as much power as Davis-Besse produces.
One of First Energy's customers, First Solar, has more than 2,000 megawatts of annual production capacity. Some 6,800 megawatts of wind power were installed in the United States in 2011.
Solar or wind power with compressed air energy storage also has a smaller emissions footprint than nuclear energy. Under our model, greenhouse-gas emissions per megawatt-hour from solar or wind power are about half of what Davis-Besse emits.
When you include emissions of nitrogen oxides (which produce smog), sulfur dioxide (which produces acid rain), and neurotoxins such as mercury from coal smokestacks, Davis-Besse's continued operation would create even greater disadvantages.
By contrast, using compressed air to supercharge natural-gas turbine generators would make them run at about twice their normal efficiency. Supercharged gas turbines are much cleaner than even new coal-fired plants.
And Ohio has a surplus of natural gas. If gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing can be done without environmental damage, compressed air energy storage could become the highest-value use of our state's large gas reserves.
It's time for First Energy and the NRC to stop avoiding a full discussion of the issues surrounding Davis-Besse's re-licensing. Instead, they should help lead the transition to clean, distributed power generation.
Al Compaan of Holland is professor emeritus and former chairman of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Toledo.