We need to get serious about the renewable energy revolution—by including nuclear power
By Michael Edesess | May 5, 2022
Illustration credit: iStockphoto.com
One of my favorite quotes is from Sherlock Holmes: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, must be the truth.” This motto implicitly guides the ambitious plan to decarbonize all energy envisioned by most renewable energy enthusiasts. The only problem is that, not only is the alternative they dismiss not impossible, it could be much less implausible than the one they advocate.
The renewables army. A huge number of extremely earnest and bright people are working on trying to make the renewable energy future come true. They work at, or have passed through, the most elite institutions of our time, the top universities, the top financial firms, the most innovative corporations and startups. At the center of much of their effort is the Rocky Mountain Institute, the nonprofit research think-tank whose board I chaired more than 20 years ago. (They call it a “think-and-do” tank, which is more fitting.) RMI coordinates meetings (recently mostly Zoom meetings) with very smart participants from some of the foremost companies working on decarbonizing their businesses, companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft. It’s a pleasure to watch them think, discuss, and work out problems. It was an enormous pleasure to be on RMI’s board, especially to interact intellectually with the most brilliant individual I have ever met, RMI’s co-founder Amory Lovins.
In 1978, I abandoned the finance field I had started work in to switch to a research job at the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). When I finally found the mentor there I wanted to work with, an engineer and scientist from Bangalore named Jay Jayadev, I was thrilled to see a placard on his wall with the slogan, “Be realistic, do the impossible!”
This is what drives these earnest, ethical, smart, and motivated people. And even if it turns out they can’t do the impossible, their efforts will have gained us an enormous amount of useful knowledge and insight.
Even recently, I myself wrote an article titled “Net Zero as Moonshot.” Although my thought in writing it was more that the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was unrealistic, it probably read, to the committed, as an optimistic aspirational piece: “Be realistic, do the impossible!”
Nevertheless, we must, in the final analysis, be realistic. Being real means that the renewable revolution requires nuclear power.
The gigantic difference between the energy problem then and the energy problem now. There was a huge upsurge in interest in renewable energy in the 1970s. The reasons for it were:
- The price of oil skyrocketed in the ‘70s due to OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) raising the price by a factor of 12 over the decade.
- The United States was a net importer of oil and was concerned that the price it had to pay for this crucial resource was subject to the whims of Saudi Arabian princes.
- Gas, oil, and even coal were thought to be running out. “Peak oil” was a popular assumption—we would soon become less and less able to extract oil from the Earth—and peak gas was believed to have already occurred.
- Coal and oil were dirty fuels that badly polluted the air in cities. At that time, the air in Los Angeles and many other US cities was almost unbreathable. The problem hadn’t been solved yet by scrubbers on the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants, low sulphur coal, and catalytic converters on automobiles.
Those were all of the concerns. Notice something missing? Climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions was barely even on the radar. In the 450-page 1979 book Energy Future, the widely-read report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School, there was only one single, brief mention of climate change.
The solution aimed at by pursuing renewables at that time was not 100 percent reduction in the use of fossil fuels, as it is now. It was reducing their use by enough over time to control their price and make them last, and to make the US self-sufficient in energy. It was a less ambitious goal than now. The alternatives were the same then as now, but there were concerns that nuclear energy was dangerous—because much less was known or understood about its dangers then, they were seriously overstated, and there had been much less experience with its operation than there is now. Its costs had been deliberately underestimated by sellers of the technology and by government, which increased scepticism about it.
And besides, who needed it? We only needed to reduce the oil we imported from the Middle East. Solar and wind could do that if only we could drive the cost down. That became the main objective for wind and solar. For nuclear, driving the cost down was not the objective. The objective was to make nuclear power ever safer and safer. This drove nuclear power’s cost up, for multiple reasons, including costs and delays incurred fending off an increasingly vehement protest movement; regulation calling for measures to prevent the release of even very small amounts of radiation, absent cost considerations; the protected status of nuclear-operating utilities, enabling them to recoup their increasing costs from ratepayers; and the concurrently rising costs in the 1970s of competing electric power generation technologies, such as coal.
Electrify everything. The all-renewables scenario—wind, water, and solar, or WWS—is represented most prominently by a 2015 article by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and co-authors that led to an increasingly vehement series of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. The all-renewables conclusion is that “low-cost, reliable 100 percent WWS systems should work many places worldwide.” In a recent book, Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, energy expert Saul Griffith elaborates on the application of this scenario.
Griffith argues that to decarbonize energy, we must make all energy electric or derived from electricity. No more oil- or gas- or coal-sourced energy. This means only electric vehicles and electric-powered heat pumps to heat and cool buildings. It means most other needs for energy—such as shipping, air travel, and industrial heat—must make use of either electricity generation from the grid or rooftop solar, or electricity stored in batteries, or intermediate fuels created by electricity like hydrogen or ammonia. For this argument, Griffith finds broad agreement from other energy experts. For example Robert Hargraves, who teaches at Dartmouth University, also advocates electrifying everything in his similarly-titled—but very different—book Electrifying Our World.
Thus, it is agreed that in order for energy use to reduce or eliminate carbon dioxide emissions, the primary energy source must be electricity. Converting all uses of energy to electricity in the United States means a tripling or quadrupling of the quantity of electricity generated, according to Griffith, and that assumes no growth in demand for electricity. (In other, more populous but at present much poorer developing countries like India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and countries of Africa, the increase in electricity production will have to be far greater.)
While there is general agreement that virtually all the energy used globally must eventually be electric, that leaves open the question of how to generate that electricity. On the answer to this question, there is not broad agreement.
We do at least know what the options are. They are very few. They are wind, solar, and water energy (wind turbines, solar panels or solar-thermal-electric, and hydroelectric); biomass; geothermal; nuclear fission; nuclear fusion; and waves and tides. There are no others. The potential for wave and tidal energy, and for growth of hydroelectric power and geothermal is severely limited, so those are not candidates to meet the enormous growth in electricity generation that is called for. Biomass likewise, because it converts sunlight to chemical energy very inefficiently and requires too much land and competes with agriculture. Nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission) would solve the problem in theory if it were practical, but it is not as yet, and it is not known whether or when it will be.
That leaves wind, solar, and nuclear fission. At present, nuclear fission generates more electricity globally than wind and solar, but wind and solar are growing rapidly aided by heavy subsidies.
Griffith indicates, in very brief sentences, that one of these, nuclear fission, cannot be the ultimate solution. What remains, therefore, are wind and solar. Hence, he must make those not only plausible, but eminently feasible as the ultimate solution—and he must do this cheerfully and optimistically, as his subtitle implies.
How to eliminate the impossible. Although Griffith is not totally negative about nuclear energy, he embraces the scenario delineated by Jacobson et al, claiming that decarbonisation can be done entirely using wind, water, and solar. Says Griffith, “I believe history will side with Jacobson, and we’ll be able to do this with WWS technology, and others agree with me.” In his scenario of the all-electric future, he assumes 50 times more solar capacity than we currently have in the US and 30 times more wind.
Nuclear plays by far the smallest role of all the zero-carbon emitting energy sources under Griffith’s consideration, and he doesn’t provide any details at all about what role it might play. This is strange for a technology that over a 20-year period, from the 1970s to the 1990s, was built up rapidly to provide 75 percent of the electricity of France, and 20 percent of the electricity of the United States, even though its growth in the US stood still beginning in the ‘70s. If fast decarbonisation is necessary between now and the year 2050 to combat climate change, shouldn’t this be seriously considered?
But no. In a very brief review of various options rejected as major solutions, toward the end of the book—for example, a section “What about Autonomous Cars,” and one on “What about Growing Trees”—there is a short section on nuclear energy. This one is titled “What about the Dangers of Nuclear Power.” This section concludes simply, “Nuclear power will remain a very difficult political topic unless we have a breakthrough in waste management.”
Dismissed because it is a very difficult political topic? But as we shall see in a moment, so are the renewable options he proposes increasing by orders of magnitude.
The problems that WWS will confront. In Energy Future, the 1979 Harvard study, my former fellow RMI board member Chip Bupp wrote in his chapter “Nuclear Power: The Promise Melts Away”:
Nearly everyone involved in the initial commercial success of nuclear power helped to create and to sustain the illusion that a difficult task that had barely been started was, instead, almost finished.
I fear that, like the enthusiasts and sellers of nuclear energy in the 1950s to the 1970s, renewables enthusiasts are “sustaining the illusion that a difficult task that had barely been started was, instead, almost finished.” Like the nuclear advocates, they are not considering all of the costs, and they are not taking into account the full power of NIMBYism.
I hear echoes of Bupp’s statement when I read climate activist Bill McKibben’s New Yorker article subtitled, “The truth is new and counterintuitive: We have the technology necessary to rapidly ditch fossil fuels.” Among the renewables army this is the standard, enthusiastic proclamation.
Is it true? Let’s consider the difficulties. The renewables future that activists like Griffith and McKibben tout so enthusiastically (Griffith calls himself an activist and exhorts others interested in preserving the climate to be activists) confronts two problems: the intermittency of the resource over time, and diminishing returns to scale.
Renewables enthusiasts treat the fact that renewable energy from wind and solar power is not available whenever it is demanded as if it were no problem, or an easily solved problem. In fact, they repeatedly state as if it were an established fact that electricity from wind and solar is cheaper than both fossil fuel-generated electricity and nuclear. For this comparison, they invariably cite research by Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm, not an energy firm.
But Lazard’s comparison is utterly inappropriate because it ignores intermittency. Its energy cost is “LCOE,” or levelized cost of energy. In other words, it is the average cost of energy over time, without regard to when that energy is available for delivery.
If electricity is delivered whenever it “feels like” being delivered (when the wind is blowing somewhere or the sun is shining), it won’t meet the demand—unless the consumer for that electricity has its own gigantic battery storage (which Griffith actually recommends that a household buy). But Griffith does tell us the real cost of solar energy—at least of rooftop solar. He says, “Remember that the average US cost of grid-based electricity is 13.8¢ per kilowatt-hour. If rooftop solar achieves the price point it has in Australia of 6–7¢ per kilowatt-hour, and if batteries achieve a price point of around the same 6–7¢ per kilowatt-hour per storage cycle, then we will have arrived at that moment when our battery storage can beat the grid on cost.”
In other words, if we could get the cost of rooftop solar down to its cost of 6-7¢/kWh in Australia (a very sunny place, remember), and if the cost of batteries could be brought down to 6–7¢/kWh (very far below their current cost), then the cost of reliable electricity from rooftop solar would be competitive with the current average price of electricity from the grid in the US.
That’s a lot of ifs. It doesn’t warrant Griffith’s flat-out statement, as if it were established fact, that “The real miracles are that solar and wind are now the cheapest energy sources.” This is the self-delusion in which the entire renewables army indulges.
The scale problems are also thorny. It should be obvious that for a resource like wind or solar, the most financially attractive projects are put into place first. That means projects in the locations where the wind or solar resource is most plentiful and reliable, and the ease of delivering the electricity the greatest. Later projects as wind and solar scale up will be those with less abundant resources and less attractive financial viability.
There are other problems with scaling up wind and solar, perhaps more intractable ones. Except for rooftop solar—which could continue to be widely installed where cost-effective, even if nuclear power were to provide most electric utility generation—wind and solar power occupy a lot of land, an estimated 360 times as much land area for wind to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity as for nuclear, and 75 times as much for a solar photovoltaic power plant. At some point competition for land and the amenities provided by unobstructed land will become fiercer; it has already become fierce. Partially to reduce the competition for land, it is assumed we will deploy offshore wind in addition to onshore wind, in order to use land (or in this case ocean) on which less other claims will be laid.
But here is a quote from an article by climate scientist Kerry Emanuel:
I am writing this essay in a small fishing village in Maine, where there is widespread opposition to a proposed offshore wind farm because it would seriously limit available territory for fishing (not just to support the turbines themselves but the undersea power cables that connect them to each other and to the mainland) and they would pose a navigational hazard.
And another from Bill McKibben’s New Yorker article itself:
A reason I supported shutting down Vermont’s nuclear plant was because campaigners had promised that its output would be replaced with renewable energy. In the years that followed, though, advocates of scenery, wildlife, and forests managed to put the state’s mountaintops off limits to wind turbines. More recently, the state’s public-utility commission blocked construction of an eight-acre solar farm on aesthetic grounds.
These things are happening before Griffith’s proposed scaling up of wind power by a factor of 50 and solar power by a factor of 30. What will happen when we attempt to scale them up by merely a factor of five or 10?
In addition, the resources don’t scale up the way it is assumed they will, even where the resource is abundant. An analysis recounted by Jack Devanney, whose book Why Nuclear Power Has Been a Flop I recently reviewed, explains why the offshore wind resource in the German Bight cannot be calculated by simply multiplying the wind resource for the area required for a small wind farm by the area of the German Bight:
Agora Energiewende, an outfit fully committed to an all-RE [renewable energy] German grid, has done a study of the wind potential of the German Bight in the North Sea. They concluded … that attempting to produce this much wind from this area would reduce the standard capacity factors by about a third.
The problem is not the individual turbine wakes, which are allowed for in spacing the turbines; but the area-wide extraction of energy. The horizontal flux of wind energy is of the order of 500 watts per square meter. Horizontal energy extracted by a large wind farm needs to be replaced by the vertical inflow of energy from higher in the atmosphere… Unfortunately, this flux is around 2 W/m2.
Avoiding the possibly dire result of renewables groupthink. I fear we may soon be reprising the rise and untimely fall of nuclear energy in the 1970s, but this time the fall will be due to more intractable and enduring factors. A groupthink of over-optimism is widely shared by an army of renewables enthusiasts who fervently believe that we can replace all energy use with energy derived from electricity generated by wind and solar. They are smart, dedicated people who are inspired by a motto that I have myself shared, “Be realistic, do the impossible!” Fully inspired by that motto, they believe we can reach “net zero” carbon emissions by the year 2050.
- But I will make a prediction. Within 20 years it will become apparent to anyone who is willing and able to admit it that this scenario is a failure. At that time, if we haven’t given up on climate change abatement completely, we will revert to the not impossible, but merely implausible Plan B, nuclear fission—unless nuclear fusion has proven commercially viable by then—and we may even find that it’s not so implausible after all. Unlike wind and solar, nuclear power can scale up without significantly diminishing returns to scale, and while the NIMBY concern about nuclear energy is real, it is due to widespread misunderstanding of the risks rather than conflicts over the sharing of large areas of physical space.
Serious concern about climate change is rampant among a small segment of the population, but it is at best a sleeper for the rest. Concern among scientists, however, is ramping up rapidly. Recently, the latest United Nations report on climate change called the need to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere “unavoidable.” Temperatures in the polar regions are sometimes hitting 40 degrees Celsius above normal, and more. It is not inconceivable that something could happen that could suddenly turn the “sleeping” concern among the general populace about climate change into panic. Removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere will not only carry an unimaginable cost, it could use as much as half the electricity generated on Earth. It is, frankly, impossible to imagine it being done entirely with wind- and solar-generated electricity.
Numerous others have already made the detailed case for nuclear power, and I will not repeat everything they have written. Many climate scientists, such as James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, and my friend Richard Somerville, strongly support nuclear. But they are barely noticed amid the din of excitement about renewables.
Before it’s too late, we need to persuade that brilliant army of enthusiasts for the all-solar-and-wind energy scenario to apply their supremely impressive talents and accomplishments to the very serious consideration of—and planning for—the nuclear scenario. With their dedication, and their talents at planning, analysis, advocacy, and action, we could actually make a decarbonisation scenario come true. They might even find themselves with an army of followers, from the ranks of those with simple common sense.
 Variants of this assertion appear in The Sign of the Four and other Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
 I am not including the possibility that carbon capture and storage could enable fossil fuels to continue to provide the majority of energy supply because I believe it is not feasible. It would require capturing, compressing to a liquid, injecting and storing deep underground in highly secure locations at least 25 billion tons of CO2 each year, which is much more than the entire amount of coal, oil, and gas currently extracted annually. Griffith, among other energy experts, makes a good case against it.
 Irwin C. Bupp