by Judith Curry
Right about now would be a good time for people who care about climate change to acknowledge our clean energy crisis. – Mike Shellenberger
Environmental Progress is an organization that I’ve just become familiar with. Excerpts from their About page:
The mission of Environmental Progress is to build a movement of concerned citizens, scientists and conservationists to advocate ethical and practical energy solutions for nature & people. EP was founded to address the two most serious threats to environmental progress: continued dependence on wood & dung in poor countries, and climate change.
How do humans save nature? By caring for people. Poor nations access cheap and reliable energy to grow more food on less land, create jobs in cities, and reduce fertility. All of this urbanization & increasing yields returns the countryside to grasslands, forests and wildlife. In rich countries — where forests & wildlife are returning — the key to environmental progress is to move to ever-cleaner and safer forms of energy, including nuclear power.
Unfortunately, both of these strategies are increasingly opposed by powerful interests. Using a variety of policy and regulatory mechanisms, large NGOs, European governments, and financial institutions in rich countries are forcing the closure of our largest source of clean energy, nuclear power plants, all while diverting funding from cheap and reliable power to expensive and unreliable off-grid solutions incapable of lifting billions from poverty.
Our ambitions are immodest: we seek to double the rates of both a. electricity growth in poor nations and b. new clean energy generation globally by 2025. Our strategy is to build a grassroots social movement capable of changing minds and policies.
We seek first to stop the premature closure of nuclear plants, restart shuttered plants, and increase the rate at which nations build new nuclear plants, whether Generation III or Gen IV. Second, we seek to motivate policymakers, private banks and public financial institutions to significantly reduce the cost and increase the availability of credit for inexpensive baseload electricity in nations where people still rely on wood and dung as their primary energy.
Wow. Right on target. I don’t disagree with a word they say.
The specific topic of this post is their article ‘Key Questions‘. I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts.
Isn’t clean energy on the rise?
Clean (low-carbon) energy as a percentage of electricity globally has been on the decline for the last 20 years — from 37 to 32 percent since the mid-1990s. This is not just because fossil energy is increasing faster than clean energy. It’s also because nuclear power is on the decline in absolute terms.
But don’t Germany and California show you can reduce emissions by deploying a lot of solar and wind?
No. When countries like Germany and states like California deploy large amounts of intermittent renewables like solar and wind, they must use a lot of natural gas or coal as back-up. California emissions have actually declined less over the last 15 years than the U.S. average, while German emissions actually rose slightly during the period of intensive solar and wind deployment, and it has recently cut back on subsidies for renewables. In both California and Germany, the premature closure of nuclear plants was another major reason for higher emissions.
Does the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say nuclear is needed?
Yes, since 1990 the IPCC has stressed the need for an expansion of nuclear to deal with climate change. In its 2014 report, the IPCC concluded, “Achieving deep cuts [in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions] will require more intensive use of low-GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS.”
Why is nuclear on the decline?
Everywhere the underlying reason is the same: anti-nuclear forces, in tandem with rent-seeking economic interests, have captured government policies. On one extreme lies Germany, which decided to speed up the closure of its nuclear plants following Fukushima. In Sweden the government imposed a special tax on nuclear. In the U.S., solar and wind are far more heavily subsidized than nuclear. And states across the nation have enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, that mandate rising wind and solar, and that exclude nuclear.
Isn’t nuclear is just too expensive?
No. In countries like Germany and Sweden governments are openly closing economical nuclear plants. In the US, economical nuclear plants are being closed or threatened 10, 20 — even 40 years before a full life. Nuclear plants are being closed off prematurely both because they are excluded from federal and state clean energy policies and the fracking boom. Solar and wind receive many times more in subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, 30 states, including Illinois, exclude nuclear from their Renewable Portfolio Standards.
Aren’t solar and wind becoming so much cheaper that we don’t need nuclear?
No. The actual cost of solar panels and wind turbines have declined, but as they become a larger percentage of our electricity, their value declines. That’s because they produce so much power when demand is relatively low, and don’t produce enough power when demand is relatively high. That means they require very large quantities of back-up power, since the grid must have the same amount of power being produced as is being consumed at any given time.
But won’t we fix these short-term problems of integrating solar and wind?
Unlikely. Intermittent power has to be backed up by an equivalent capacity of dispatchable power, and that usually means fast-ramping gas plants that can rapidly adjust to chaotic surges and slumps of wind and solar power. As wind and solar capacity swells without displacing conventional capacity, the grid enters a spiral of persistent and rising overcapacity that lowers prices even further as more gigawatts fight for market share.
As wind and solar capacity climbs the returns of usable power diminish because of increasing curtailment during surges that the grid can’t absorb. More and more intermittent capacity has to be pushed onto the grid to get less and less additional renewable electricity. The dynamic of soaring overcapacity and falling prices is the inevitable result of the fundamental inability of intermittent wind and solar generators to efficiently match supply to demand.
Research by German economist Lion Hirth finds that the value of wind and solar drop as they become a larger part of the electricity supply
Can’t poor countries “leap-frog” over fossil fuels directly to solar and wind?
No. Solar and wind cannot provide the cheap 24-7 electricity needed to power factories and cities — which are the keys to development, as well as sparing nature in the countryside. And neither solar panels nor more efficient cookstoves are substitutes for wood fuel, upon which three billion people still depend.
Isn’t nuclear a right-wing technology?
No. Until the early-seventies, nuclear was embraced by liberals and environmentalists including the Sierra Club. “Nuclear energy is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal,” said famed nature photographer and Sierra Club Director, Ansel Adams. “Nuclear power is one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation,” said Sierra Club director David Siri. “Cheap energy in unlimited quantities is one of the chief factors in allowing a large rapidly growing population to preserve wildlands, open space, and lands of high scenic value … With energy we can afford the luxury of setting aside lands from productive uses.”
Since then, nuclear has been embraced by French and Swedish socialists, left-wing Guardian columnist George Monbiot, President Barack Obama, co-founders of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bill Gates, Carol Browner, former EPA head under President Bill Clinton, liberal Minnesota Senator Al Franken, economist Jeffrey Sachs, Gaia hypothesis originator James Lovelock, Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, Virgin’s Richard Branson, TVA chief David Lilienthal, and the late, great humanitarian and environmentalist, Cambridge professor, David MacKay (1967 – 2016).
Is nuclear really low-carbon energy?
Yes. According to a review of the evidence, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says nuclear is two to four times less carbon-intensive than solar.
Isn’t the electrical grid an inefficient relic being disrupted?
No. Our electrical grid is the most efficient way we have of distributing electricity. That’s because it requires we only produce as much as power as we need at any given moment (or there are blow-outs). By contrast, large amounts of energy are lost converting electricity to batteries and back again. For this reason, the grid will always be more efficient than any system heavily reliant on storage.
But isn’t the trend now toward distributed rather than centralized production?
No, the broad trend remains toward centralized production because billions of people seek liberation from not having to haul wood, gather water, grow food, and wash clothes by hand. Two hundred years ago, 90 percent of us used to produce our own food and energy; today, in rich countries, less than one percent of us do. This applies to solar and wind as well. Cheaper solar panels came from giant centralized production facilities, and solar electricity from large solar farms in the desert is far cheaper than solar on rooftops. Three billion people still rely on decentralized wood fuel production.
What about the accidents?
All of the nuclear accidents demonstrate nuclear’s relative safety. At Three Mile Island, there was a meltdown and yet the public was not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 9,000 people will die prematurely from radiation from Chernobyl. And the authoritative study of the Fukushima accident by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that “no discernible increased incidence of radiation –related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.”
By contrast, the World Health Organization estimates 7 million premature deaths each year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels and biomass for energy. Replacing these sources with non-polluting nuclear-powered electricity would save millions of lives every year.
What do we do with all the nuclear waste?
One of the great advantages of nuclear is that it produces very small amounts of highly manageable, and easy-to-store, waste. The volume of long-term radioactive waste generated from American nuclear plants is so small if it were all stored in the same place it would fit on a single football field stacked about 20 feet high. Currently, nuclear waste is stored on-site, largely because opponents of nuclear power have opposed the construction of a central waste storage facility. In the future, after Congress passes bipartisan nuclear waste legislation, it will likely be transported and stored underground in New Mexico or another state that wants it as a source of income. And later this century, nuclear “waste” — which contains over 98 percent of the energy in the original fuel — will likely be recycled by next-generation nuclear plants.
Does nuclear energy lead to nuclear weapons?
No. And in fact, the opposite is the case. Nuclear energy has been essential to dismantling nuclear weapons, and until a few years ago, a full half of the nuclear energy in the US was produced using plutonium from de-commissioned warheads. There is no case where a nation acquired a nuclear weapon through nuclear energy. The reason for this is is easy to understand. Nations seeking nuclear power plants must agree to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and regular inspections by the United Nations, which thus makes acquiring nuclear energy an obstacle to proliferation. Nations do not need nuclear power plants to pursue a nuclear weapon and indeed, as in the case of Iran, choose to build medical research reactor rather than a full-blown nuclear power plant.
Why then are people so afraid of nuclear energy?
Fear of nuclear energy has developed for a variety of reasons ranging from association with nuclear weapons to mutant creatures in science fiction. The most persistent cause, however, began in the 1960s when environmental groups decided to oppose nuclear power. Originally, their concerns about nuclear had nothing to do with safety or waste and everything to do with opposing economic growth and in-migration to California. Their explicit strategy was to prey on public misunderstandings of how nuclear power works, exaggerate the amount and risk of nuclear waste, block disposal facilities, and conflate nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, early environmental leaders like Sierra Club Directors David Siri and Ansel Adams, supported nuclear power as the best means to achieve universal prosperity, avoid dams on America’s scenic rivers and leave more room for nature.
We’ve covered many of these issues in previous guest posts on energy. But I find this compilation of questions and answers, including the graphics and data in the main post, to be very effective in communicating the central issues surrounding ‘clean’ energy.
On the current path of mandating renewable energy to fight global warming, the goal of electricity growth in poor nations is in direct conflict with new clean energy generation. Morally, it would seem to me that the goal of electricity growth in poor nation, which would address very real concerns that exist now, seems to be a higher priority than renewable energy mandates to fight the hypothesized global warming. Even if you believe the climate models, poor nations would arguably be better prepared in the future to grapple with climate change if they have electricity and a developed economy.
The bottom line is that the current path we are on with renewable energy is not going to be effective at either promoting electricity growth in poor nations or increasing clean energy generation globally.
So where does that leave us? Right now, the only option seems to be nuclear energy. We can continue to argue whether new nuclear plants are cost effective in the face of inexpensive natural gas. But premature decommissioning of nuclear plants makes absolutely no sense.
The issue is whether these energy transitions are ‘urgent’ or not. I suspect that by the end of the 21st century, fossil fuels will not be a major source of energy production – we will have found cheaper and cleaner ways to produce energy. Investing in energy R&D can possibly accelerate this transition. But mandating this transition on the time scale of a decade or two, with inadequate renewable energy technologies, makes no sense.
Here’s to hoping that orgs like Environmental Progress, Breakthrough Institute and a few others can turn the tide away from senseless renewable energy mandates to policies that promote electricity growth in poor nations along with a transition to cleaner energy production