It Ain’t Easy, Being Green! (A COP21 Debate)

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This weekend, I rode out with friends to a COP21 side event that had been set up in an air and space museum at Le Bourget.  The security here was more intense than usual. We were asked for our passports and business cards before being allowed entry. Eventually, we managed our way into a giant exposition hall featuring every imaginable green tech company showing off its wares.

Outside the Paris Air & Space museum (CleanTechnica/Jessica Langerman)

The space was whimsically designed, colorful, open, spacious, and light. Temporary restaurants occupied airy, cordoned-off areas, complete with wait staff. In one corner was a curtained section behind which stood a discreet line of Port-o-potties made of polished wood — a step up from the plastic cubbyholes at Lima I had heard about. The French can make even a restroom a thing of beauty.

Tucked away in one small area of this enormous hall was an impromptu television studio. There sat James Hansen, Tom Wigley, Kerry Emmanuel, and Ken Caldeira, four of the world’s preeminent climate experts. Hansen — the retired NASA scientist who first informed the US Congress about the dangers of climate change, back in 1988 — had on Wednesday announced the necessity of a carbon tax with unaccustomed forcefulness.

Televised panel including James Hansen, Tom Wigley, Kerry Emmanuel (Jessica Langerman for CleanTechnica/Jessica Langerman)
Televised panel including James Hansen, Tom Wigley, Kerry Emmanuel (Jessica Langerman for CleanTechnica/Jessica Langerman)

My friend Lee Ballance and I were expecting some of the same. The point of Hansen’s talk, however, concerned the role nuclear energy could play in humanity’s immediate future. All four of the scientists stated unequivocally that we must invest in nuclear energy to avert the worst consequences of climate change*.

I know what you’re going to say. We don’t need nuclear. Unimpeachable studies indicate that we can leave fossil fuels behind without it. It’s too expensive. It’s too resource-intensive. It’s too dangerous. The proliferation problem. The waste problem. I know, because those have been my own arguments.

But something truly interesting happens when you put four climate scientists in a room with passionate environmentalists and ask them to deliver a talk on nuclear energy. The very scientists that environmental activists most trust and respect go “rogue,” saying things the environmentalists do not want to hear. The audience becomes uncomfortable, then restless, impatient, and then confrontational.

After all, activists whisper to each other, these scientists don’t know everything. That nuclear power may be a necessary transitional energy source until we really get solar rolling is just their opinion. Why should we trust their figures? The facts are not all in. There’s a good case for doubt. Endless studies state opposite facts. At the very least, we should postpone nuclear action until we are more certain of the results.

Sound familiar?

Who are the deniers here?

James Hansen mobbed by the press at COP21 (CleanTechnica/Jessica Langerman)The same James Hansen who insists that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is essential if we are to get out of this mess insists at COP21 that “we need to use all of the technologies at our disposal, and to let them compete. To make the decision beforehand [that renewables can provide for all of humanity’s energy needs], that we are going to figure out storage, and that it will be affordable, is an extremely unwise commitment to make for our children.”

Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley insist that fourth-generation nuclear power may be a few decades away, but that these plants will produce vastly less waste and burn the majority of it. In addition, they say, these plants will have greater proliferation resistance. This new nuclear technology, says Dr. Wigley, was developed in the US and is already being deployed in a number of countries.

These statements did not please the audience. Numerous challenges were made. For example, a woman from a South African news outlet said that nuclear power is a massive fossil fuel user when you factor in the amount of energy (not to mention water) it consumes. She was surprised to hear such concerned people advocating for it. [Editor’s Note: To be clear, CleanTechnica has never argued that nuclear emits significant amounts of CO2 — it is comparable to solar in that regard — and I don’t often see that argument from people who know the many weaknesses of nuclear.]

Caldeira, Wigley, and Emmanuel countered that the life cycle assessments of CO2 emissions associated with different energy sources place nuclear power as among the very lowest of CO2 emitters per kilowatt-hour. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that as a consensus statement. And, alternative cooling methods are now available for nuclear plants that markedly decrease the need for water.

Hansen was more direct in his response to the South African journalist:

“That questioner’s statement shows the kind of fight nuclear energy is up against. It was just totally false!”

A frequently heard pundit accused the panel of being patronizing toward the press. He then pointed out that billions upon billions have already been poured into the nuclear industry to very little result.

At this point, Professor Emmanuel lost his temper:

“I probably differ a little from my colleagues in that I don’t think [the energy market] should be a level playing field. I think we should put much more into nuclear, and stop covering the earth with solar panels. We can get to 30% [renewable power] and then you hit a brick wall. We’ve done the numbers—have you? You cannot power the world on renewables. You can’t do it. Unless there’s a miracle. We’ve done the math! I take exception to you.” [Editor’s Note: I’ll respond to these clearly false claims at the end of this article.*]

I had never heard any of these men, whose talks I have frequently attended, speak in such emotional terms as here at COP21.  Who are the real enemies in this fight, I wonder? Is the problem carbon, as the president of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said recently, or is it that environmental activists need to swallow yet another inconvenient truth — that the same scientists we depend upon to tell us the truth about the climate say they believe we may have to go nuclear, at least for a while.

It ain’t easy, being green.

*Editor’s Note: I’m curious what math these climate scientists have done in the energy field, and more importantly, the underlying assumptions and data. They seem to be out of touch with rigorous research that has been done by trained energy researchers, just as Richard Muller was out of touch with the research that had been conducted in the climate science sphere and arrogantly thought he would correct climate scientists. Perhaps there is a tendency for esteemed researchers to think they can jump into another realm and quickly know the full story based on a few disconnected-from-the-big-picture stats or statements they are handed… when they can’t. I don’t know, but it would be an interesting thing for CleanTechnica to research.

It is also interesting to hear that some of these scientists got so emotional when challenged about the usefulness of nuclear power. What happens when climate deniers are provided with facts that they really can’t solidly refute? They get emotional and start attacking the people who are telling them the actual story from a broader perspective. But let’s get beyond the socio-psychological observations and jump into some research.

One of the world’s preeminent energy scientists (not climate scientists) — Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson — has led research teams that have analyzed electricity demand and potential supply from renewables in every US state and nearly every country in the world in 15-minute segments throughout the entire year. They have found 100% renewables is indeed a practical possibility. Other research from energy experts at the University of Delaware (UD) and Delaware Technical College (DTCC) has found that, “by 2030, renewable energy could power a large electrical grid a stunning 99.9%, and at close to today’s energy costs!” A NOAA study found that renewables could supply the US with 70% of its electricity needs by 2030. The lead researcher was Sandy MacDonald, director of the earth system research lab at NOAA. Do these climate scientists not realize that NOAA has done this research? Or are they blatantly disagreeing with NOAA, just as global warming deniers have blatantly disagreed with NASA regarding climate science? A WWF study has shown in detail how to get Europe to 100% renewable energy. An analysis published in Energy Strategy Reviews has found that 95% of the world could be powered by renewable energy with no technological breakthroughs. An in-depth NREL study has found that we could power 80% the US with already commercially available clean, renewable energy technology by 2050. More studies coming to similar findings can be found here. To summarize, these people or organizations have come to conclusions at odds with the climate experts on the panel referenced above:

All of these energy researchers are wrong, eh?

Honestly, I’m not sure with whom these esteemed climate scientists have been talking and where they have attained their information to input into their own math formulas, but I’ve seen no research comparable to the research above that makes their argument. If anyone has anything like this, I’m sure CleanTechnica readers would be happy to explore it.

Jumping over to cost, since that’s what it comes down to in a market-driven economy, let’s first recognize that nuclear subsidies have dwarfed renewable energy subsidies, even in Germany, where solar and wind now account for much of the country’s electricity. Nonetheless, nuclear power is approximately 2–3 times more expensive than wind energy and approximately twice as expensive as utility-scale solar. On average, wind power sold for 2.5¢/kWh in the US in 2013, which would be 4¢/kWh if you removed subsidies (but why would you do that when nuclear has received several times more money in subsidies?). Utility-scale solar now averages 5¢/kWh in the US. Nuclear is approximately 10–14¢/kWh… as long as you don’t count the hundreds of billions of dollars it costs to decommission nuclear power plants, among other things. Add everything up and nuclear may well cost 46¢/kWh, a good 9 times more than solar and 12–20 times more than wind.

Ah, but that is only from the dominant type of nuclear power that we all think about when we think about nuclear power — that’s not the different type of unproven nuclear these climate scientists are pushing. If we would just prioritize this, we could perhaps have competitive nuclear in a few decades…. Er, what? Aside from the absurdly long delay for what is still an unproven and expensive solution, by 2030, solar panels are expected to drop from 62¢/watt today to 21¢/watt in 2040… with no technological “breakthroughs.” Wind costs are also expected to keep dropping. But we should prioritize a unicorn nuclear energy option that was developed decades ago and has never been able to compete with conventional nuclear energy, let alone fossil fuels, or today’s solar and wind?

Because… some climate scientists say so?

So, what do we have here? We have climate scientists denying what many different groups of energy researchers have found. We have climate scientists who, for some unclear reason, think faster-deploying renewables are impractical and we should prioritize nuclear energy that is several times more expensive and will take decades to develop. It’s hard to not be bewildered by where their claims are coming from, just as it’s hard to not be bewildered by the out-of-touch claims of the few remaining global warming deniers. It is a pity to see.

Again, I’m genuinely curious where these esteemed climate scientists have obtained their electricity-related information. Perhaps we’ll dig in and see if we can resolve “the case of the renewable energy deniers.” –Zach Shahan

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20 thoughts on “It Ain’t Easy, Being Green! (A COP21 Debate)

  • I should also add that the CEO of a European grid operator has explained that 10% of renewables can be integrated “just by ignoring them” (whereas the common wisdom when he started in the energy business was that no more than 5% renewable energy could be added to the grid…); to get up to 30%, you need good wind and solar forecasting.

    But you don’t hit a brick wall at 30% (a very uneducated statement from Kerry Emanuel. To go above 30%, you need to start incorporating grid flexibility like demand-response solutions, grid extensions, demand-side management, and flexible power plants. With these things, you can easily get to 60%, pretty solidly 80%, and many experts have argued 95-100%.

    In any case, getting to the first 60% is our first challenge — we are far from that. To get there, we have solutions that are much cheaper than nuclear power. Fine to keep funding nuclear R&D, and perhaps it can help a bit beyond 60% or 80%, but even today’s nuclear could (at a price premium), and as indicated in the article, numerous energy researchers have shown on a 15-minute-by-15-minute timeframe how we could get to 100% clean energy without nuclear.

    • What’s the betting that when we reach 30% RE, the barrier will be moved to 50% and so on?

      • Yes, I’ve been thinking the same, but don’t mention it in articles to be more conservative than hopeful.

    • I like the that the biggest problem right now for Germany is that PV and wind have driven wholesale prices down too much for the other producers.

  • Well written!

    The atom dwarfs and fossils have lost before they went to battle, their plan being fudged before they are woken up.
    String puppets in sleeping bags.

    Atom and as well fossil usage are going down, the world’s increasing energy demand is de facto being covered in big steps with REs.

    (Losers.Shite talkers.Scum bags…..!)

  • Plus the inconvenient counterexample of Denmark, which integrates over 50% of wind (Zach and Bob will have the exact number), and has the world’s most reliable supply with it. True, they are just a short undersea cable away from Norway’s limitless hydro. On the other hand, they have next to no solar to damp the wind fluctuations.

    Zach’s conclusion holds. Hansen is a climate expert but an energy amateur. The Giant Vampire Squid is the other way round.

    • Yes, I thought about bringing Denmark, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, and others in… but tried to keep it concise 😀 Great point, though. 30% hits a brick wall? Yet Denmark is at 50%? I guess Denmark just broke down the brick wall with a couple of sledge hammers.

  • What if Hansen and his collagues are right and 100%RE scenario fails. What then it’s a bit late then since everybody agrees on Hansen’s research on climate change and the fact that we must stop producing Co2. Is is a risk worth taking since if effects of climate change are as bad as predicted it will be pretty hyporcritical to rule out nuclear on the argument that is not safe since the other alternative is mass extinction if the worst case scenario happens. To put it like one German said in National Geographic: Nuclear power affects me personally, climate change affects my children.

    • I disagree with the statement in the last sentence.
      Climate change affects us all already, but it will have a much greater impact on the next generation and even more impact on the ones after.
      For example we having already wars because of changing climate, crop losses, insurance losses, even deaths because of climate change, heat waves, floods etc.
      All that means we NEED to deal with it now!

      • Exactly, but here is were the problem is. We have one group that say the only tool that we are Allowed to use is RE energy and preferably only solar and wind since you cannot call biomass carbon neutral. Hydroelectric is limited and even that has its own enviromental problems. Also if you look at the 100 RE scenarios from Greenpeace or Sierra Club or other all rely heavily on the fact that that energy consumption is cut in half from today. It is simply not realistic, population is going to grow in the future and that means more more people are going to consume energy and also there many growing economies in the world. Africa in particular is going to grow expnentially and these people are going to consume alot more energy than ever before.. WWF says that in order for the 100RE scenario to work energy consumption ie electricty consumption must be down by 38% in Europe alone. That is alot. If we want to get rid of fossil fuels in transportation by EV transportation we will have to cut electricity consumption much more than 38% just to compensate the increased use that comes with full scale EV deployment.
        This renewable agains nuclear battle must stop there more than enough money and resources in the world to build both of them and it is stupid to put all eggs in one basket and hope that it works. Since if worst case scenario happens were the worlds oxygen production will cease due to climate change. I doubt very much that enviromental movement and other that pushed for the RE only path will be remembered fondly. Nuclear works France showed us that it did and they did by accident. Sweden and Switzerland are already there. Germany is a long way off France and even Greenpeace in Germany says that if you do what we tell you you will be 100% RE by 2050. Their exit strategy for coal is that it is to be phazed out by 2040. I’m sorry but that aint gonna cut it.

        • Nuclear was a decent choice for France many years ago when they needed a replacement for oil. Wind and solar were too expensive at the time.

          Fast forward to now. The lowest bid for new reactors at North Anna would mean electricity at 19 cents/kWh. Wholesale. And with subsidies.

          Onshore wind in 2014 was under 4 cents/kWh. Unsubsidized.

          PV solar in 2014 was under 7 cents/kWh. Unsubsidized.

          Both are cheaper in 2015 and will be even cheaper still in 2016.

          France is now feeling the pinch of rising costs for operating their nuclear reactors. They plan on closing about one-third of their reactors over the next few years and replacing them with renewables.

          When you add in that wind farms are built in less than two years, sometimes less than one and large solar farms can be built in less than a year while reactors can take a decade or more to start operation you have to ask why we’d be willing to accept extra years of coal and natural gas use.

        • Energy efficiency is the most sensible solution of all in the energy sector. It would be ridiculous for them not to include it playing a big part.

          As for generation, when you can get the same amount of electricity for 1/10 the price and faster, why wouldn’t you go with renewables over nuclear?

          As for the rest, I think Bob covered it well.

        • There is no need to, “hope that it works”. Solar and wind plus batteries and demand response are very basic, proven technologies that we know work. We just have to deploy them faster.

    • I’m amazed that people could think that it makes sense to spend 5x or more for electricity and wait many more years to close coal and gas plants when we have cheaper and faster alternatives.

      And that they have no issue with dumping hazardous radioactive waste on the generations that follow us.

      Why it this? Is it because they’ve bought the misinformation dumped on us by the nuclear industry? Is it that they don’t understand how affordable wind and solar have become?

    • The question isn’t whether to keep nuclear an option and keep putting some R&D in it. The question is to go full blast into already-competitive renewables that can do the job or to delay any real action to spend a ton of money on a super expensive option that has been heavily subsidized for decades.

      And as far as the last line: I agree with Martin that climate change is already affecting us, but the implication that nuclear won’t also affect our children is absurd (did people think the same when the Fukushima reactors were built? even the radioactive issues aside, those failures crushed the Japanese economy and wreaked absolute havoc there).

      • My comment was not put through last time, probably because it contained inconvinient facts about German and Danish emmisions. If you want know the whole story go the moderator. So I am going keep this short. The German goverment themselves say that they will miss their emmission targets for 2020 that pretty bad. What is worse the Co2 emmited from the German electricity secotr has risen from 2011 when Germany did knee jerk reaction. The main argument why nuclear is neccesary is the simple fact that all renewable enrgy scenarios require that the consumption of energy must drop between 30-50%. I’m sorry byt that is simply not realistic. Since every time you invent a way to conserve energy you invent 10 ways to spend that energy you saved. Plus the fact that the worlds population is expected to grow and more and more people come out of poverty. As for the argument of cost. Climate change is the biggest exixtential threat to mankind and saying that we should not use one option to fight it because it is too expensive is quite hypocritical. That’s like saying we are only going to cure people with ebola with the option that is the cheapest and leave the more expensive one out and hope that it works.

  • Nuclear power is not acceptable, and I’m really surprised at Hansen’s ignorance, along with these other scientist. Even France is shutting down it’s nuclear power plants. Not only is it much more expensive, it produces deadly radioactive nuclear waste that must be stored for 100,000 years. In addition, accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have clearly demonstrated it is not safe. We can build solar power plants and wind farms in 18 to 24 months, a fraction of the time it takes to build a nuclear power plants and produce no deadly waste witch must be stored for 100,000 years. In addition solar which has dropped 80% since 2008, can be decentralized and put on closed landfills, floating solar plants on lakes, open area on highways, brownfields, and on homes and businesses. Instead of investing in extremely dangerous nuclear power with it’s waste issues, we should invest in clean solar, geothermal, and wind power, which produce no nuclear waste which must be stored for the next 100,000 years. Solar, geothermal, and wind could power the world 10 times over so this notion that we can’t power the world with renewables advanced by these ignorant scientist is absurd.

  • Can we please get this views? This counter argument needs to reach [at least] the social media conversations on cop21. I would like this to be more widely read and I would support/request a cop21 debate response to your analysis.

  • The biggest gap in their understanding may be where battery storage already is today and where it will soon be. Even with the current subsidy structure solar plus storage is cheaper. Give solar and batteries the same subsidies as nuclear gets and where will the argument on price be?

  • Let me say that at this point in time it is not important to be able to prove we can get the last 10% without nuclear. Lithium reactors have been 10 years and $1T way from working for 30 years, same with several other NUCs (remember 2nd and 3rd gen were going to solve all the issues). Focus on deploying what we have, remove FF support, and do a carbon fee/dividend system. In 2025, we can look again and see if the NUC have any better data. By then all the other RE and batteries will be cheaper, load response better, and EVs will be much farther along. And we will know better soft spots to focus. By 2035 we could have zero point energy or cold fusion which are each about as likely as the plants they want are of making all in cost electric at less than $0.10/kWh. Well that might be too harsh on ZP and cold fusion.

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