Carter’s Energy Plan: Our Cloudy Future

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Carter’s Energy Plan: Our Cloudy Future

by Barry Commoner

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1977, p. 13–18
President Carter’s Energy Plan is being promoted in the name of environmental quality and conservation. But the Plan isn’t a conservation plan. It is a covert plan to change the technological and economic structure of the United States energy system. It would block solar energy and foster nuclear power, increase corporate control over our lives, and further the potential for political oppression. 

The following is an abridged and revised version of a talk given by Barry Commoner at the Toward Tomorrow Fair (a fair on alternative futures) at Amherst, Mass., on June 27,1977. 

I’m really glad to be here … because walking around the fair and looking at the baby eels, the compost toilets, the windmills, the anti-nuclear exhibits you get a real sense of harmony. The Clamshell people understand what the eels are doing, and I think if the eels could talk they would understand what the Clamshell people are doing. There is a sense of people in harmony with each other here … everyone is calm and good-natured. And if the rest of the world were like the fair, and, in fact, like the Pioneer Valley, I think we could all go home happy that tomorrow is going to be a good one … but … but

I’m here to talk about the but. Let me talk with you about the rest of the world outside this valley. While all of this is going on here, we have been told by Mr. Carter, in very Churchillian tones, that his plan for using energy in the United States must be enacted quickly, and without change, by the Congress or else we will face a catastrophic end to all our hopes. So, while we are learning from each other here about the future of energy in the United States, Mr. Carter has laid before Congress a plan for our energy future which he says has to be enacted by Congress in three months. (And we later learn that the House, under great pressure from the White House, did in fact meet this deadline.) 

The Carter National Energy Plan claims to have energy conservation as its cornerstone; but it is not a conservation plan. From the tables contained in the White House publication, The National Energy Plan, we can see that with the Plan in effect we would be using only 4 percent less energy in 1985 than without the Plan. That isn’t much conservation. The Plan is designed to affect how we would meet the increased demand for energy between now and 1985. It would use nuclear power more than conservation to accomplish this task. According to the Plan, of the increment in energy demand between 1976 (the last date for which we have numbers) and 1985, 16.3 percent would be met by conservation, while 22.8 percent would be met by nuclear power. When Mr. Carter says that the “cornerstone” of his Plan is conservation, I say he’s mislaid the cornerstone. It belongs in front of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. 

The Plan claims to foster solar energy. But if you look for the contribution from solar energy, it’s a little hard to find. Of the projected 1976-1985 energy increment, with the Plan in effect, according to the original statistics, 1.6 percent would be met by solar energy. Dr. Schlesinger, in later testimony, reduced that figure to one percent. That is not a plan to foster solar energy. About 50 percent of the 1976-1985 increment in energy demand would be met by coal, 8.9 percent by domestic petroleum, with no increase in imported petroleum, over the present figure. 

What I’m saying then is that this is not a plan to reduce the amount of energy that we use by conservation. It is a plan to shift the kind of energy we use. Only 2.7 percent of our present energy budget is met by nuclear power, but the Plan will meet 23 percent of the increased demand in 1985 (over 1976 figures) with nuclear power. Only 20 percent of our energy budget is met by coal, and it would go up to 50 percent of the increment. And, of the different ways of producing energy, the two that have the heaviest impact on the environment, coal and nuclear, would represent 73 percent of the 1976-1985 increase in the national energy budget. So when President Carter says the Plan is intended to protect the environment, my answer is “Good luck. You’ve got quite a job.” 

Let me give you a little more information about what the Plan would and would not do. Carter claims that the Plan is equitable; its burdens are shared equally among different economic and social sectors. This claim is false. For example, at the present time, consumer and industry each get about 37 percent of the energy budget. Transportation, which is about half personal consumption (passenger cars) and half industrial freight, makes up the rest. With the Plan in effect, of the new energy that would be made available, 68 percent would go to industry and 20 percent to consumers. 

In other words, the Plan does the opposite of what it claims to do. It is a form of rationing, of diverting energy away from consumers to industry. And the industries that use the most energy are the ones that use it least efficiently (that produce the least amount of economic gain per unit of energy used). For example, of all manufacturing industries the petrochemical industry has the lowest economic gain per unit of energy used; it is an energy hog. And what the Plan does is to give the energy hogs a bigger trough out of which to feed, at the expense of the consumers. I don’t call that equity. 

Despite Mr. Carter’s claims, the Plan would not foster solar energy, but would block the entry of solar energy into those areas where it is now economically competitive. That comes about by another strange shift that’s in the Plan, which changes the way energy is divided between direct heat and electricity. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that whenever you make electricity out of heat, you literally throw away two-thirds of the energy in the form of low temperature heat. When a fuel is used directly for heat, it is used much more efficiently. The efficiency with which energy is used depends on a good match between the energy-requiring task and the form in which the energy is supplied. Electricity is the most appropriate form of energy for accomplishing certain tasks, particularly those requiring mechanical motion: transportation, operating tools or a washing machine. But there are many tasks, for example, warming your house or the hot water in the washing machine, where electricity is not suitable. When applied to resistance heating, electricity is less than one percent efficient. So, what we do with direct heat and electricity determines the overall efficiency with which energy is used. For example, 30 percent of the electricity produced in the United States today is used for space heat. This wastes 99 percent of the energy that’s available from the fuel used to produce electricity and greatly reduces the efficiency with which energy is used as a whole. 

The great conservationist plan of Mr. Carter would sharply shift the balance between direct heat and electricity toward more electricity. In the 1976 budget, 46 percent of the energy was used as direct heat, 28 percent as electricity and the rest for transportation. The incremental change between 1976 and 1985 that the Plan mandates puts only 36 percent of the energy into direct heat, and 53 percent into electricity. Given the extremely inefficient ways in which electricity is used, this shift is bound to waste energy, not conserve it. 

You might say “Well, why suddenly all that electricity?” The answer is simple. All a nuclear power plant can do and most of what you can do with coal is to make electricity. If you’re going to sharply increase coal production and the building of nuclear power plants – the Plan calls for a sharp increase in the current rate of nuclear power production, mandating 90 new ones by 1985 – there will be a big increase in the availability of electricity relative to direct heat from fuel. And you’ll have to do something with all that electricity. What the Plan does is to reduce the use of oil and natural gas for direct heat, in favor of electricity, especially in the consumer sector. This would be not only inefficient, but would also intrude upon the major market which is open to solar energy today. One of the economically competitive forms of solar energy today is solar collectors for space heat and hot water in residences and commercial buildings. The other is the production of methane from organic waste, which could provide gas to use for direct heat. If the Plan goes through, homes will be intensely electrified, rather than solarized. The Plan would block solar energy from the one market open to it today. 

Many people believe that Mr. Carter, if not against nuclear power, is certainly against the breeder. The reason why people believe that is because three weeks before the Plan was introduced, Mr. Carter announced that he opposed developing a plutonium economy – on which the breeder being built at Clinch River depends – and proposed to stop further construction of that breeder as well. Yet the breeder is essential if there is any sense to the Administration’s aim of expanding the construction of conventional reactors. Present nuclear reactors will run out of natural uranium fuel in perhaps 20 or 25 years. Schlesinger has extended that figure, but the National Academy of Sciences has now confirmed the shorter projection once again. Uranium, like oil, coal, and natural gas, is, after all, a nonrenewable fuel, and we will run out of it; in fact, at the present rate, we’re going to run out of uranium faster than any other fuel that we now use. It’s ridiculous to go ahead and accelerate the building of light-water reactors that use uranium fuel, with the expectation that 20 to 25 years from now they will have to say, “Sorry, we haven’t got any more fuel!” We’ll then have radioactive white elephants all over the country and be in serious trouble with our energy supply. 

The breeder, of course, would extend the availability of natural uranium fuel, perhaps to two thousand years, and I’m willing to call that a renewable resource. So, nuclear power could become a renewable resource that would last indefinitely into the future, but only with a breeder. Going back to the National Energy Plan, it states: 

“It is the President’s policy to defer any commitment to advanced nuclear technologies that are based on the use of plutonium, while the United States seeks a better approach to the next generation of nuclear power than is provided by plutonium recycling and the plutonium breeder …. The President has proposed to reduce the funding for the existing breeder program, and to redirect it toward the evaluation of alternative breeders, advanced convertor reactors, and other fuel cycles.” (Emphasis added) 

If I understand the English language, this says that despite the common belief, Mr. Carter is in favor of a breeder, but one that doesn’t use plutonium. According to one report, he is convinced that a thorium breeder will take care of our energy needs for “hundreds of years.” There you have it. Now the Administration’s support for conventional reactors makes “sense.” The Plan is based on pushing nuclear power today, with the expectation that, by the turn of the century, when we run out of uranium, there will be a thorium breeder to keep the system going. The Plan would, covertly, lock us into a nuclear future. 

The fundamental cause of the energy crisis is that we depend on nonrenewable energy sources. Obviously, the sensible answer is to switch to a renewable source. To really solve the energy crisis, as against delaying it or confusing it, we have to undertake a transition from nonrenewable sources – oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium – to renewable ones. Now there are only two possible renewable sources: nuclear power with a breeder, or solar energy. As you know, solar energy means not only solar collectors, but also windmills (the sun makes the wind blow), converting garbage and other organic wastes into methane, and solar photovoltaic cells for electricity. The amount of solar energy falling on the earth is hundreds of times more than we need. So, nuclear power with a breeder or solar energy are the two alternatives for renewable energy. 

I want to compare the two alternatives. First, some comments about nuclear power. Remember that thermodynamics tells us that the only way to efficiently use energy is to match the energy source to the energy-requiring task. That single idea is a tremendously important thing. It means if I want to cook an egg, the task is to boil water. If I want to go somewhere, the task is to move from here to there. You have to ask what form of energy is most suited to boiling the egg or moving about. 

Nuclear power is a way of accomplishing what task? Boiling water! That’s all it does! The heat generated by the nuclear reaction boils water and makes steam, which runs an electric generator. There are, after all, alternative ways of boiling water, and so you have to ask yourself, “Compared with alternative sources of energy, how well-suited is nuclear power to the task of boiling water for steam?” 

To put the matter simply, there is a bad mismatch between the enormous intensity of the energy generated by a nuclear reaction and the task that it is supposed to accomplish – which can readily be carried out by far more benign energy sources. The attempt to contain – only partially thus far – the damage that can be done by nuclear energy is what has made nuclear power so expensive. Many of these dangers have been pointed out by environmentalists, forcing the utilities and the government to agree to remedial measures. It was environmentalists, for example, who called the utility’s attention to the fact that it was unwise to locate a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay, California, on the San Andreas earthquake fault. The utility and the AEC had to agree, and ever since, every proposal to build a nuclear power plant is supposed to show that it will be free of earthquake damage. And lots of mistakes have been made; the Humboldt plant in California has been shut down permanently because it has now been discovered that it is too close to an earthquake fault. The attempt to meet these problems explains why nuclear power has become so expensive. 

There has been a big argument about the reliability of nuclear power plants. People like Charles Komanoff and others have pointed out that nuclear plants run at an average of 50 percent capacity, whereas coal plants run at around 65 percent. Schlesinger has just admitted that they run at a lower than expected capacity. This, too, is evidence that nuclear power is a technologically unsuitable way to boil water and make steam – its resultant faults make it an unreliable way to produce electricity. Another point is that all you can get out of a nuclear power plant is electricity, while with conventional fuel-burning plants the waste heat that is inevitable whenever fuel energy is converted to electricity can be recovered and used to heat nearby homes, for example. But with a nuclear power plant that is impossible, because you can’t get near them. You can’t put a nuclear power plant closer than 25 miles from a city. Nuclear power is simply a technology which is thermodynamically inappropriate to the task. Its inherent dangers lead to inefficiency, and therefore to a great deal of expense, compared to other ways of producing electricity. 

The other feature of the nuclear route is a further concentration and centralization of energy sources. For one thing, breeders are much bigger than light water reactors. And the bigger the plant, the cheaper it is to produce electricity. You cannot make a little nuclear power plant in your back yard for your own use. If you did, and complied with all the regulations and so on, it would make no economic sense because it would be an enormously expensive way to get electricity. You’d be much better off hiring your friends to ride on a stationary bicycle and run a generator … at high pay! 

Because of this economy of scale, nuclear power necessarily means enormous, centralized power plants. First, because it’s economically effective. Second, because of the inherent dangers, and because there are a lot of people, like the Clamshells, who don’t want to live near them, nuclear power plant locations must be limited. I can assure you that after Seabrook the utilities have been convinced that the less they have to confront people the better off they are. This means fewer and therefore bigger plants. Another reason is that a few big nuclear plants are easier to protect than many smaller ones. If the plant uses plutonium somebody can steal a handful and make a bomb. (If it’s thorium, it might take a few handfuls to make a bomb.) Therefore, nuclear power has to be militarily protected. Do you know that the bill establishing the Department of Energy gives the Secretary of Energy authority over transferred military personnel? It’s the only nonmilitary department, to my knowledge, that has that right. Why? Because everybody knows that military control over those power plants will be necessary to protect them. 

In the future, then, we would have the country dependent on one essential source of energy, and that would be in the hands of whoever controls the military, and whoever can afford the multi-billions of dollars to build the installations. That’s not us

I’ll put it to you very simply: If the Carter Plan goes through, and we take the nuclear path, we will be creating the energy basis for fascism in the United States

Let’s compare the nuclear route to the solar route. One of the marvelous things about solar energy is that there is no economy of scale. If you want to build a big solar panel, you simply take a lot of the small collectors and lay them side by side. Each one operates at the same efficiency, and, as a result, the overall efficiency of a big panel is no better than the efficiency of a little panel. And so here is a form of energy which the multi-billion dollar corporation has no advantage in owning. You don’t have to be a multi-billion dollar corporation to build a solar collector system. You can be only a multimillion dollar corporation and do as well, and even a $100,000 contractor in a small town, or you can do it yourself, all with the same efficiency. If we take the solar route, it will no longer be economically advantageous to the multi-billion dollar corporations to operate the country’s energy system. They will have to find something else to do with all that money. What’s more, once a solar collector or solar cell is purchased, energy is then removed from the economy. It’s no longer a commodity. The people who need it can make it for themselves without relying any further on huge corporations. 

Another important point is that solar energy is a disseminated, decentralized source of energy. The only need for a central power network would be to accept the excess power from local sources and then feed it back when it’s needed. In other words, when the wind is blowing and producing more energy than you need, you should be able to transfer it back into the network, and when the wind isn’t blowing, you should be able to draw out of the network. The utilities are now getting pushed, legally, in that direction. If we adopt solar energy, the utilities would be reduced to a minor, supporting role. 

The point I am making is that solar energy is a threat to the present economic structure of the energy system. And it’s a threat to anyone who thinks they’re going to be able to develop and control the economy and the political life of the country through energy. Because if we have solar energy, we’ll all be in control of our own energy. 

So there are two paths: The nuclear path leads toward the domination of our lives by whoever controls large energy sources. The solar path leads to our controlling our own lives. The trouble with the Carter energy plan is that it makes a covert decision to go nuclear. And I think we’ve got to uncover that hidden goal. How many people know about the statement regarding alternative breeders? Very few. The country doesn’t know where it’s being led. The Carter Plan is being promoted in the name of environmental quality and conservation. But the Plan isn’t a conservation plan. It is a covert plan to change the technological and economic structure of the United States energy system, to centralize it, to increase the control of the very large corporations over it. 

A lot of people are concerned about the fact that unions are sometimes allied with the utilities in supporting nuclear power, because, they are told, electricity is needed for jobs. In New England, where significant amounts of energy come from nuclear power, they say that any obstruction of nuclear power will mean heavy pressure on the economy of New England. It’ll create unemployment, we’re told. How much sense does it make to say, “If you close down a nuclear power plant, or don’t build·one, inevitably people will lose jobs.” Why would people lose their jobs? Where is it written on golden tablets that the only way to produce energy is from a nuclear power plant? Alternatively, we could burn wood and provide jobs, or develop solar energy and provide hundreds of thousands of jobs. The people won’t suffer from lack of jobs if they can make the decisions about what kinds of energy is produced and what we do with it – and if the availability of jobs is made an integral part of that decision. 

For example, who decided that we had to switch, after World War II, from washing ourselves in soap to synthetic detergents which pollute the water? This was decided by the corporations that make soap and detergents. Why did they decide this? It’s no revolutionary insight when I tell you that the reason they decided to switch to detergents was what they called “the bottom line.” They discovered that it is more profitable to make detergents than soap. So they decided to give us all of the problems inherent in the use of detergents. Not only pollution, but the fact that detergents are made out of petroleum. They decided that for their own sweet reason, which was to enhance their profit. 

It is nothing startling to remind you that decisions to produce commodities that pollute the environment, to build power plants that waste energy and threaten us with radioactivity, are governed by a single idea: that the people who own capital have the right to make those decisions and do it for their own profit, while the rest of us suffer the consequences. There is no way to solve the energy problem, the environmental problem, or for that matter, the unemployment problem in the United States until we begin to learn how to govern the decisions about what we produce and how we produce it according to what the people need, not what the profiteers hope to gain. 

That’s a very basic thing. It means the social governance of the means of production. And I have to remind you that the technical definition of socialism is public ownership and governance of the means of production; I have just described part of that definition. 

You might say, “You know, socialism has been tried, all over the world, in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and it doesn’t work too well.” Well, my answer: although perhaps a little crude, is that it’s entirely possible to be socialist and stupid at the same time. What do I mean by that? Well, I said this straight out to friends in Poland when they bought the Corfam plant from Dupont to make plastic shoes that pinched (that’s why Dupont dropped the project). The Poles decided to buy It to get hold of “advanced technology.” But in a country where there are more horses than people, and which produces enormous amounts of leather, this is a big mistake. Nor do I accept the conventional wisdom about the inefficiency of socially-governed operations: “Look at the Post Office.” My answer is “Look at the Federal Aviation Administration,” which operates the airports and air traffic control system on which everyone – including reactionary, anti-socialist politicans – willingly relies for their lives. 

The energy problem has brought us to a fateful crossroads. If the Carter plan goes through, we will be taken down the nuclear route, ending with a grave threat of concentrated corporate control and political opression. If we choose the solar route, we can move toward economic and political democracy. Such a decision is too important to be left to a few days of debate in the Congress. Such a decision must be made by the people of the United States, on the basis of a full, open, national debate, deciding for themselves how energy is to be produced and used. 

We’ve got a basic fight here. The fight is for people to gain control over their own lives through the crucial resource of energy. If the Carter Energy Plan goes through, we will have lost the first battle. We’ve all got to get together today … and go back to our communities, back to our colleges, and begin to relieve the confusion about energy, unearth the Administration’s covert goals, and explain the real alternatives. 

A few years ago there was a big secret in the United States – that the United States had committed itself to a dreadful war in Vietnam. Very few people knew it. Very few people knew that our observers were there killing people. The end of the war in Vietnam began on the day when the teach-ins brought the truth to the people: that there was a war going on that nobody wanted. There is another secret in this country today. The President and the Administration are trying to commit us to a nuclear future. We’ve got to reveal that secret, and let the people know that we can go to the sun.

Barry Commoner works at the Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His most recent book is The Poverty of Power.

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