Describing how totalitarian regimes create revisionist histories to justify new and often sweeping social and political arrangements, George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” But in today’s aspirational democracies, Orwell’s maxim is often inverted: who controls the future controls the present.
Nowhere has this been more the case than in contemporary debates about energy and the environment. Over a half century ago, nuclear advocates promoted a future in which nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter. In the three decades that followed, the United States and other advanced developed economies embarked on a massive build out of nuclear power plants. For almost as long, renewable energy advocates have promised a hyper-efficient future powered entirely by the sun and the wind, and in recent decades nations around the world have invested hundreds of billions of dollars to make that future a reality.
Both visions proved prescient in some ways. At its peak, the global nuclear fleet generated 18 percent of global electricity and over 20 percent of electricity in the United States. France proved that nuclear energy was capable of both powering a modern economy and decarbonizing its power sector. And although it never became too cheap to meter, over the operational lifetime of nuclear plants, the full cost of generating nuclear electricity did prove to be remarkably low.
Modern economies around the world have also become much more energy efficient, and the cost of manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels has fallen precipitously with sustained deployment, as renewable energy advocates predicted.
But it is also true that neither vision has come close to delivering on its promise. Few developed economies are building new nuclear reactors. And although a nuclear renaissance is well and truly underway in the developing world, the build out of fossil energy infrastructure in developing nations is proceeding even faster. Concerted efforts to deploy solar and wind energy in various locales around the world, meanwhile, have much beyond 20 percent of total annual generation on any large electrical grid.
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