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A Coal/Nuclear/Solar Energy Faceoff That Is Almost Real

Seth Schiesel wrote a fascinating piece in the Times about a new collaboration between game maker Electronic Arts and the energy company BP in designing the latest version of E.A.’s SimCity computer game. In case you don’t know, SimCity “focuses on building and managing a modern metropolis.” As Schiesel tells us, “coping with environmental pollution has long been part of the series.”

That’s where BP comes in: helping to design game choices for generating electricity, which means considering cost, capacity, public response, and various externalities such as pollution.

So while designing your city, you choose between coal-fired plants, solar power, and nuclear power:

For instance, for most players the most economically efficient way to power their virtual cities may be with coal plants, which produce 500 units of electricity and cost 3,000 simoleons, the game’s currency, to build. Coal plants, however, produce large amounts of pollution, which can lead to natural disasters like droughts, and they also reduce the happiness of the city’s nearby citizens, which in turn causes them to produce less tax revenue.

On the other hand, a solar farm in the game has no negative side effects and also costs 3,000 simoleons but produces only 100 units of electricity, a mere fifth of the coal plant’s output. (A nuclear plant costs a whopping 30,000 simoleons, produces 1,500 units of power and zero emissions, but reduces the happiness of nearby citizens nonetheless.)

I don’t know how much a nuclear plant reduces happiness, but as we wrote recently, that number may be falling, whatever it is.

To me, the most interesting part of Schiesel’s article concerns the issue that prompted us to write the nuclear article linked above: for all the attention paid to transportation emissions in this country, it is the generation of electricity that should probably be at the top of any carbon-reducing agenda:

“We want people to understand the climate issue a bit better and understand that there are twice as many greenhouse emissions from generating electricity than from all forms of transport combined,” [Carol] Battershell [a BP vice president for alternative energy] said in an interview.

If you want to be skeptical, you’d say, “Well, of course it serves BP well to point to electricity as a bigger villain than transportation” — and you might also note, as Schiesel does, that “relatively clean systems like wind farms, natural gas plants and solar farms are branded with the BP logo [in SimCity], while the dirty options like coal are not.”

Furthermore, Ms. Battershell — and boy oh boy, is that an aptonym or what? — seems to be considerably overstating her argument, at least for the U.S. According to the Energy Information Administration data found here, electricity produces about 40 percent of our energy-related CO2 emissions versus the 33 percent produced by the transportation sector.

Still, it will be interesting to see if SimCity users can help lead the charge to recognize that a few fewer coal-burning plants would probably do away with as many emissions as a few million Priuses.

On a broader scale, it will be interesting to see how the millions of people who spend time in SimCity, Second Life, and other virtual worlds contribute to solving real-world problems. Experimenting virtually with the costs and benefits of different energy sources is a great start.

Along the same lines, it is encouraging to see that the Wii — its shortages notwithstanding — is being put to use helping elderly and handicapped people engage in physical activities that they otherwise wouldn’t.