Renewable Energy Can’t Save the Planet… Can Nuclear?
Michael Shellenberger suggests that the “obvious” solutions to decarbonising the energy sector, such as wind and solar, are not commercially competitive or environmentally friendly. He convincingly argues that increasing the production of energy from renewable sources may save the climate, but they will destroy the environment.
Shellenberger is a proponent of using nuclear energy to transition to net zero, solve the climate crisis, and preserve the natural environment. His Ted Talk demonstrates why we must open a healthy dialogue on the potential role for nuclear in the transition to net-zero.
Just to clarify, renewable energy includes sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro because they are naturally replenished. Clean energy is from zero-emission sources, such as nuclear.
Renewables Could Save the Climate but they Will Destroy the Environment
Conservation biologists often oppose solar and wind farms for several reasons. Firstly, wind turbines are one of the biggest threats to birds of prey and migratory bird species. Secondly, it is estimated that about 6,000 birds die every year by catching on fire above solar farms. Thirdly, renewable energy projects require large scale land clearing.
To build the Ivanpah Solar Farm in California, BrightSource Energy cleared 3,500 acres of the Mojave Desert. Hmmm, clearing desert doesn’t seem too bad, does it?
Unfortunately, the Mojave Desert is home to a threatened species of desert tortoise. The tortoises were removed from their habitat and transported to captivity where most of them died.
Shellenberger argues that a nuclear facility could produce the same amount of energy with 450 times less land, therefore having a less negative impact on the environment
The Intermittency of Wind and Solar
The most significant challenge to wind and solar is intermittency. They only generate electricity about 10-30% of the time. Sometimes when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining there is too much power. If the excess electricity cannot be diverted away from cities, we risk having a blowout of the grid.
Shellenberger suggests that one solution is to convert hydroelectric dams into gigantic batteries by pumping water uphill when you have excess electricity, and letting it run through turbines when you have an electricity shortage.
However, to convert dams into batteries, the dam must have the right topography and it is extremely expensive to undertake this conversion. We should not construct new dams because that requires the flooding of entire ecosystems.
Shellenberger argues that solar and wind cannot be produced at a competitive or commercially viable price. For example, Germany and California have increased their use of wind and solar energy quite rapidly. Unfortunately, the price of electricity has also increased significantly.
Conversely, France sources twice as much of its electricity from zero emission power generation than Germany does. Yet, France pays almost half the price for its electricity.
The reason? France sources about 0 of its electricity from nuclear power. Had Germany spent the same amount ($580b) on nuclear instead of renewables, it would be generating more than 100% of its electricity from clean, zero-emission sources.
The benefits of nuclear power do not stop there. Nuclear power is extremely reliable, it generates power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 90% of the year, and it produces zero emissions during energy generation.
Shellenberger suggests that if France wanted to increase their renewable energy production, they would have to increase their gas production to counteract fluctuations in power generated by wind and solar. Consequently, oil and gas companies, such as Total, are promoting solar and wind because they know that if the world becomes dependent on wind and solar, they are likely to also be dependent on natural gas. Therefore, if France increases wind and solar production, their emissions will increase too.
While the cost of energy does not seem important in the context of the climate crisis, the competitiveness of clean energy in the market will determine how quickly the public and private sector implements zero-emission sources of energy. This coupled with the importance of stable energy sources for national security and politics, suddenly nuclear becomes an attractive option.
Shellenberg proclaims that no amount of technological innovation will make the sun shine or wind blow more regularly. We can make wind and solar energy production more affordable, but they will always be dilute sources of fuels that require very large masses of land. He argues that nuclear will cause less environmental degradation than solar and wind, and it will provide more affordable clean energy.
Solutions not considered by Shellenberger
Three solutions which Shellenberger fails to consider are the use of batteries, gravity blocks, and green hydrogen. To effectively decarbonise the energy sector, we must use a combination of energy production and storage technologies. For example, we can use batteries for residential vehicles and short flights, use hydrogen for ships, trucks, planes and trains, and use gravity blocks for residential, commercial, and manufacturing.
1. There is no single solution to decarbonising the energy sector. Solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, batteries, gravity blocks, and nuclear will all be necessary to achieve net-zero.
2. We can use a combination of energy production and storage technologies to manage the problem of renewable energy intermittency.
3. Nuclear is a clean source of energy that does not destroy the environment, however nuclear is not the only solution to decarbonising the energy sector.
4. The transition to net-zero is hindered if the efficacy of nuclear is ignored.
5. Decommissioning nuclear power plants to replace them with wind or solar will extend the life of fossil fuels and increase emissions.
Issues that remain:
There are two issues not touched on by this article: material throughput/nuclear waste, and the safety of nuclear. In short, the material throughput and safety of nuclear are equal or better than the throughput and safety of renewables and fossil fuels. If you are interested watch Shellenberger’s Ted Talk from minute 8:28 or watch Kurzgesagt’s very balanced discussion on renewables vs nuclear.
For more information:
For a very balanced argument on nuclear vs renewables: https://youtu.be/EhAemz1v7dQ
For an short explanation on the current state of nuclear energy technology: Nuclear Energy Explained: How does it work? 1/3 – YouTube
Michael Shellenberger’s Ted Talk: Why renewables can’t save the planet | Michael Shellenberger | TEDxDanubia – YouTube