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.
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.
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.
Who are the deniers here?
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 thesaid 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:
- prominent energy researchers from Stanford, including leading energy scientist Mark Z Jacobson
- prominent energy researchers from the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical College
- NOAA, including the director of NOAA
- 3 prominent energy researchers from Ecofys (with their own PhDs in physics) — Kees van der Leun, Yvonne Deng, and Kornelis Blok
- and many others in the energy research realm…
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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