What Environmentalists Are Getting Wrong: Articles of Interest and Commentary
Green Tech Media
by David Keith
Although quite upbeat about solar PV (and I’m also a big fan of solar PV), this article generated almost 300 comments because it was also frank about the limits of solar PV, and wind, and to make matters worse, he concluded the article with the following statement:
My view is that only two forms of energy — solar and nuclear power — can plausibly supply tens of terawatts without a huge environmental impact.
This is tantamount to blasphemy in most green (whatever exactly that means) technology websites. Which explains much of the action in the comment field but one comment in particular by Susan Kraemer caught my attention. She feels that CSP (concentrated solar power) with molten salt for heat storage is the answer to solar intermittency. I found this interesting because she had recently written an article at Earth Techling titled How a Hotter Climate Destroys Thermal Electricity Generation. CSP is thermal electricity generation (spins turbines with hot gases and must dump waste heat). The irony (is that the right word?) is that I had explained this to her in a comment under her article:
Thermal power simply becomes less efficient. It will be no more “destroyed” than solar photovoltaic:
“As part of Power System Program of the International Energy Agency (EIA), a study was conducted to analyze data from 18 grid connected PV plants located on different geographic locations and it showed a direct relation between temperature and PV module efficiency. The plants were located in Austria, German, Italy, Japan and Switzerland. The study concluded that 17 out of the 18 systems showed annual losses in efficiency due to temperature changes by 1.7% to 11.3%.”
Also, solar thermal power plants have the same efficiency loss as any other thermal power source.
So, that leaves wind. Nobody is planning to run civilization only on wind. The future will be some mix of wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear with just enough natural gas to stitch them all together. The fact that higher temperatures will reduce efficiency is just something engineers will compensate for, and the lower efficiency would, all things being equal, result in higher prices, but I suspect the price difference will be negligible.
…you can lead a horse to water.
But the the study she wrote about also pointed out that hydro, the undisputed king of renewable energy, is going to be in a world of hurt. There are a lot of environmental bloggers out there without any kind of engineering background who write about energy issues, and the fact that they don’t always understand the engineering principles behind what they write is obvious, at least to an engineer.
VOX doesn’t allow comment under its articles. I try to make it a policy not to provide links for (or usually even read) articles without comment fields under them. Comment fields go a long way to keep blog authors honest. Would you buy stuff on Amazon from a retailer that does not allow reviews of their products? Me either. Why should you have to buy what an author says without seeing what reviewers think? I’m making an exception in this case because I’m essentially providing a comment field for these articles and anyone is welcome to participate.
Two articles by David Roberts caught my attention.
by David Roberts
This article was about getting millennials to vote, and by vote, they of course mean …vote for politicians who support renewable, or clean energy (whatever that means), not necessarily low carbon energy (nuclear is, of course, never mentioned). One proposal to reach them is with authenticity:
For instance, one commonality across all polling of millennials is that they are obsessed with authenticity and disgusted by what they see as the corruption of politics.
For this tactic to work, we would need to corner the market on authenticity. My articles are often about degrees of authenticity …in things like the antinuclear arguments from Greenpeace and Bill Nye, Musk’s Battery Wall presentation, Think Progress’s repeated use of a nonsensical bar chart to stifle critique of wind, and on, and on. For this authenticity strategy to work, we environmentalists need either to become more authentic, or more adept at faking millennials out.
by David Roberts
This article caught my attention only because it appears in Dave’s queue as if it were written on the third of May, 2016, but I could have swore that I read it before. If you look at the fine print, it says it was “updated” on May third. But when was it published? I poked around and finally discovered a date as part of the URL address, which I assume is the actual publication date, which was about a year ago. And what was updated? There’s no mention I could find of what was updated, and why would it leap to the head of an article cue just because it was updated.
Not a big deal in my opinion, but I’ve never had an article in any of the three websites I’ve blogged for move up in my queue because of an edit. Internet articles need to show a publication date. Readers shouldn’t have to to sleuth it out. Nobody wants to be reading an old article thinking it was just published. And updates bigger than spelling errors really should be explained in the article somewhere.
You can imagine how a comment field associated with this article might have prevented this:
But while I’m here, I may as well comment on what appears to be a year-old article. It’s a discussion of the research by Mark Jacobson, which unlike the dozens of other studies done on this topic, claims that the entire planet can go 100% wind, hydro, and solar for all energy use in the next few decades. Researchers typically bite off just electricity generation which might encompass maybe 25 to 40 percent of total energy consumption, and they tend to focus on a specific area, like France, or Germany rather than the entire planet.
I made a point of saying that the scenarios demonstrated technical and economic feasibility, but represented enormous, heroic assumptions about social and political change…
No one can say any longer, at least not without argument, that moving the US quickly and entirely to renewables is impossible. Here is a way to do it, mapped out in some detail…
They’ve got a detailed grid modeling and reliability study coming soon that makes the case in more detail, but the short story is that reliability is assured through three measures.
David pretty much assumes every study that comes along is proof that an 80%, or 100%, or whatever percent renewables scenario is “doable” (technologically and economically feasible)…
Much of that government activism is scheduled for the next five to 10 years, while Republicans, who fervently oppose nearly every one of these goals, are expected to control the House of Representative and well over half of the 50 state legislatures…
… and then blames Republicans for the lack of implementation. I can see at least two problems. Even the Republicans would be all over a cheaper energy grid if it were really obviously so, and being an American political party, they have little to do with the fact that globally, low carbon energy (nuclear + hydro + wind + solar) as a percent of total energy is less today than it was decades ago.
One potential outcome (of many) from an attempt to implement Jacobson’s hypothesis in the time frame allocated is economic ruin with little to show for it. This is actually the main concern from climate skeptics, and it’s actually, dare I say this, a legitimate one. German renewable energy expenses are making nuclear look cheap and they have not reduced emissions for six years now (see graphic below).
Studies about renewable energy, and there are literally dozens of them, are positing a hypothesis that should be tested, not implemented. Not being roads, or maps, they aren’t roadmaps. They are specifications for the design of a machine prototype. Their conclusions are sets of theoretical potentials. They don’t prove anything. The proof, as we all know, is in the pudding.
The forward of one of these studies by ADEME commissioned by the French government tries to explain: “The electricity mixes examined in the ADEME study are theoretical [based on or calculated through theory rather than experience or practice].“
Insisting on 100 percent WWS — excluding nuclear, biomass, cogeneration, natural gas, etc. — almost certainly raises the total-system costs relative to a broader portfolio of low-carbon options. Just a little bit of nuclear or biomass power, for instance, would reduce the amount of power-plant overbuild necessary.
Lots of people are extremely skeptical of Jacobson’s work for just this reason. They say, Why not accept a little bit of asthma, or some nuclear waste, in exchange for a cheaper system?
But I think that misses the point. Jacobson has set out to create a benchmark…
He didn’t set out to create a benchmark. He simply created a more grandiose version of the dozens of studies that have preceded his. The reason other researchers have not come to the same conclusions is likely a measure of ideological zeal. Jacobson’s antinuclear energy stance has quite simply added yet another stumbling block to getting greenhouse gases under control.
…this is what we could do if we aimed to create an entirely sustainable, pollution-free energy system.
An untested hypothesis does not show what we could can do. Look to the real world testing of these hypothesis to see what we can do. No energy source has proven to be entirely sustainable. Are hydro dams being built in tropical rivers that eventually silt up sustainable? No solar panel or wind turbine has ever been made, operated, and recycled using only solar or wind energy, just as no gallon of corn ethanol has been made using nothing but corn ethanol. Not to mention, no energy source has a pollution free life cycle. The overarching concern is low carbon energy sources. This emphasis, this prioritization by the old-school greens of renewable, or sustainable (whatever those mean) energy over low carbon energy is yet another major stumbling block to fighting climate change. Maybe it’s time to stop blaming others for the lack of progress and look in the mirror, or better yet, look at the chart below and see if you can spot (as my youngest daughter did in a matter of seconds) why low carbon energy as a percent of total energy is less today than it was decades ago.
After all, the cost-benefit trade-offs of less sustainable systems almost always mean higher benefits for the already privileged and more costs for the already less privileged.
If David is saying we should end the use of coal for health and climate change reasons, why didn’t he just say that? I’m at a loss as to what he means when he says that sustainable systems benefit the less-privileged more than they do the already privileged. There has been critique over the years about how the privileged get to take advantage of solar panel subsidies, while the poor who can’t afford to install them or don’t own a home, pay taxes to support the privileged. And it certainly isn’t the quality of being sustainable (whatever that means) that matters when it comes to climate change.
There’s a growing awareness that climate change is being used to try to implement the green ideal of a world powered by simple, cheap, emissions free, infinite energy sources …even at the expense of fighting climate change. Carbon emissions are the overarching concern with respect to climate change, not renewability. That’s another issue altogether, and never mind that nuclear probably fits the definition of renewable (or, ah, sustainable) as well as some renewable sources do.
by Roger Andrews
This article describes in detail one of those real world tests of a hypothesis I’m always talking about.
The Gorona del Viento (GdV) plant on the Canary Island of El Hierro is a flagship project designed ultimately to provide the island with 100% renewable electricity and to demonstrate that hybrid wind/pumped hydro systems can be used to generate 100% renewable electricity in other parts of the world. GdV comprises a wind park with 11.5 MW capacity and a pumped hydro storage plant with 11.3MW capacity, installed at a total cost of €84 million. This is the fifth in a series of operational updates that began in September last year. Details on GdV plant layout, operation and capacities are given in the September update. Previous posts on GdV are accessible through the El Hierro Portal
And a comment from Roger Andrews about Murphy’s law:
Murphy was involved in the initial project design. He’s the one who came up with the idea of converting wind to hydro (soon abandoned), the one who said that wind power could be readily admitted to the grid with the help of synchronous Pelton turbines (it clearly can’t), the one who grossly overestimated wind generation (there’s evidence to suggest he assumed a 50% capacity factor) and the one who failed to recognize that the reservoirs were twenty times too small. Nothing went wrong that wasn’t bound to go wrong.
by Ben Adler
Ben’s article was in response to an article in the NYT titled Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change by Eduardo Porter. It also generated a lot of comments (120 at the time of this writing), many of them coming from me. Ben feels that the design of our low carbon grid isn’t so much a matter of science and engineering, as it is a matter of politics. Sound familiar?
Below I repeat my first of many comments where I parse Ben’s remarks (feel free to drop into the comment field to read others):
Even if we were to concede Porter’s questionable premise that liberals oppose nuclear power …
Did he mean to say that “most” liberals oppose nuclear power? In any case a recent UT energy poll of U.S. citizens found “39 percent strongly or somewhat support nuclear energy, 26 percent strongly or somewhat oppose nuclear energy, and 35 percent neither support nor oppose.” But polls are very sensitive to context. Google the term “Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy: Where is it Headed?”
It’s not even a scientific question.
I suppose that depends on your definition of science. Clearly, anti-nuclear organizations like Greenpeace reject the science showing nuclear energy to be one of our safest sources. Google the term “Terrorists, Nuclear Powerplants and Snakes.”
Whether we should use more nuclear power is a political, not a scientific, question.
…the decision to use it or not had better be based on sound science, not politics. The science is clear about its safety. The energy mix to provide the lowest cost energy per unit of abated carbon had also better be based on science and many such studies have shown that nuclear should be a major part of the energy mix.
The question of whether we build more nuclear reactors has environmental, public health and safety, economic, and even moral dimensions.
If the science is clear about its health and safety, why would its use be immoral? Even the economics are comparable to integrating renewables into the grid as the German experiment has demonstrated. Many studies have found that a strong mix of nuclear and renewables would be the most cost effective way to decarbonize grids.
Voters must balance the low greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear against the environmental damage of uranium mining
Wind and solar require vastly more mining for materials per unit energy produced than nuclear: gravel, concrete, steel, aluminum, copper, rare earths, silica, you name it, all just as environmentally damaging as uranium mining, and a lot less so than coal mining.
…the threat of nuclear meltdown
In over half of a century of operation, there have only been three melted reactor incidents of note. Of those three, only the now extinct primitive Soviet design that didn’t even have a containment dome, caused fatalities. The grand total of those fatalities over thirty years is less than a single percent of global annual car deaths. Fukushima proved that even a triple reactor meltdown of a modern reactor design with modern containment domes, in the middle of a magnitude 9 quake and 60 foot tsunami, results in a non-fatal event.
… or terrorist attack on a reactor
We are still flying after the terrorist attack on the twin towers (because nobody wants to take public transportation)
…and the problem of storing spent fuel rods.
Anti-nuclear organizations are responsible for the fact that all the spent fuel from a half century of operation is still sitting quietly in nuclear power plant parking lots. There would have been a centralized repository decades ago were it not for their efforts to prevent one.
This is partly because many liberals view the nuclear energy industry as dependent on corporate welfare
If the definition of science is the seeking of facts, how does the fact that nuclear energy is at present receiving no subsidies, while wind and solar are receiving substantial subsidies, fit the science?
Our energy utilities are corporations, not government entities.
Actually, most of our utilities are regulated by their local governments. They have to get approval for things like rate hikes and infrastructure investments from those government regulators and that government can mandate things like renewable energy sources and energy savings programs, like LED bulb discounts etc.
They generally haven’t been building nuclear power plants for the last few decades because they’re extremely expensive, almost five times as costly upfront as a gas-fired power plant
By extremely expensive, you mean they require a great deal of cash up front compared to a gas plant, and have a long payback period. But over their long lives, they are on average very cost effective because, unlike natural gas, fuel is a tiny part of their operating costs. Five are currently under construction in this country and one is about to start delivering power (and when it does, it will be eligible for a subsidy per unit energy delivered). China is breaking ground on a new one about every month.
…and frequently suffer from cost overruns.
Large renewable energy projects also frequently suffer from cost overruns, as do new airliner designs, road tunnels, and just about anything else.
And they already get plenty of help from the government.
Are you saying that solar, wind, and my electric car did not get help from the government?
Nuclear plants depend on federal loan guarantees to support their construction
There also wouldn’t be any wind or solar and a lot fewer electric cars without government assistance. Fossil fuels are hard to beat.
…and enjoy subsidies that help cover the costs of mining uranium
Government funding of uranium mining for weapons during the cold war is not a subsidy for nuclear power plants. Most of our raw material for fuel comes from whatever country has the lowest prices.
…providing plant security
Why would the government fund the minuscule cost of plant security for a utility which is already reflected in electricity bills? Try walking into the control room of a major hydro electric dam, or even into the factory of any aerospace company. The government aviation security fee for the airport screening of a single passenger is $5.00.
…free access to cooling water
Nuclear power plants are not run by the federal government. They are run by utilities in whatever state they are located in. Why would nuclear thermal power have free access to water but not solar thermal power? If utility regulators want to charge for water, they can, and I’m sure they often do. It doesn’t matter. The cost is minuscule and would be reflected in competitive electric bills.
…and waste disposal.
No, no. Waste disposal has all been paid for by a nuclear power plant operators. Look it up in Wikipedia. It’s called the “Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 — and has an unspent balance of $25 billion.”
They also, given the history of reactor meltdowns, would be too expensive to insure without the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability for a nuclear accident.
German nuclear operators have unlimited operator liability, so, obviously, they got by without the equivalent of the Price-Anderson Act, which has cost taxpayers nothing. Every country has its means of insuring nuclear. Google the term “Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage” for a detailed explanation of how each country does it.
The cost of nuclear energy, like its other downsides, is not mentioned in Porter’s column.
A mostly nuclear gird isn’t really more expensive than a mostly renewable one. Lots of studies have suggested this but we also have some real world examples. Residential electric bills in France are a fraction of what they are in Germany. And from Bloomberg:
“…Germany must reduce the cost of its switch from atomic energy toward renewables to protect growth, Sigmar Gabriel, Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy said. German companies and consumers shoulder as much as 24 billion euros a year for renewables because of subsidy payments, Gabriel told an energy conference in Berlin. “I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden,” Gabriel said today. “We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it.” Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices, he said. Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the top priority of her third-term government, which took office last month, reforming clean-energy aid after rising wind and solar costs helped send consumer bills soaring. Germans pay more for power than residents of any European Union nation except Denmark. While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said…”
Germany is demonstrating the real world cost of trying to reduce emissions with only renewables; $25 billion a year, according to Germany’s economics ministry. $25 billion a year would pay for thirty three $7.5 billion AP1000 reactors over ten years ($25 x 10 =250, 250/7.5= 33). Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 80% of Germany’s electricity by 2025. And their emissions reductions have been flat for the last six years …six years of carbon in the atmosphere we can’t get back.
Future grids will likely be a mix of renewables, nuclear, and just enough natural gas to stitch them all together.
The real question, then, is whether we should heap more subsidies on the nuclear industry to lower the cost.
What a strange thing to say in light of all of the subsidies for things like wind, solar, and the $7,500 tax credit for my electric car.
Most liberals think that any subsidies would be better spent on safer and cheaper renewable energy.
The science has shown that renewables are not safer, and Germany has demonstrated that they are not cheaper to integrate into a grid.
Porter can disagree, but his view does not entitle him to smear liberals as anti-science.
Anti-science is a matter of degree. I clearly fit the definition of a liberal, and trust me, many of my liberal peers happily ignore the science demonstrating nuclear power safety. It’s a tribal marker. Nobody can write pro-nuclear articles at Grist and keep their job. Google some of the terms I provided and read the articles they lead to. I’d have provided links but would have risked having this comment end up in moderation and never seeing the light of day.
Oddly enough, Porter neglected to mention the public policy that truly does impede nuclear power: subsidies for fossil fuels. By not taxing carbon emissions, we allow gas and coal-fired power plants to stick us all with the bill for climate change.
Remove all subsidies from fossil fuels and renewables, and only renewables would fade away. Nuclear has been coal’s main competitor for half of a century.
It’s a subsidy that makes fossil fuels artificially cheap.
Not a supporter of fossil fuels but when you divide the amount of subsidy by power produced you find that fossil fuels receive far less subsidy per unit energy than renewables. If subsidies are what make them cheaper, why are used everywhere around the world, China, Africa, Indian, Russia, Germany, and on and on? American subsidies have little impact on their prices here, and certainly no impact everywhere else in the world.
Practically everything is subsidized in some way by the government. Gasoline, natural gas, and coal might cost slightly more without any government subsidies, but certainly we would still be using them to drive our cars, heat our homes, and fly our planes anyway, unfortunately. Displacing them is going to take every low carbon weapon in our arsenal.