Nuclear vs. 100% Renewable Energy: An Unnecessary Battle

Nuclear vs. 100% Renewable Energy: An Unnecessary Battle

The debate around carbon emissions and the energy path forward should be a deliberation that acknowledges realistic constraints and concedes that whichever path we take will require trade-offs since there is no zero-risk technology. In the case of the daunting energy-climate-economic issue staring us squarely in the face and the global scale at which we’re trying to work, prudence and pragmatism would call for negotiation and compromise. But that doesn’t seem to be an option with the 100% renewable energy movement. Instead, its supporters have mandated a false choice between two necessities that are not mutually exclusive. Two perfectly compatible zero-carbon energy resources, nuclear and renewables, have been forced into the center ring of an unnecessary and regrettable battle, even though both resources are needed. Not everyone wants this death match to continue—some of us want the fight to stop with both declared as winners, still standing and ready to fight the bigger battle of reducing carbon emissions, providing dependable electricity to billions living in energy poverty and supporting global economic development.

The Debate Continues

Global carbon emissions are increasing, and as countries around the world develop their economies to lift billions out of poverty those emissions will increase even more. Yet nuclear power, the only energy resource on the planet capable of providing dispatchable zero-emission electricity is struggling for its life in the U.S. as indicated by a recent DOE summit organized for the sole purpose of discussing how to improve the economics of America’s nuclear power plants and prevent the loss of existing zero-emission nuclear capacity.

A recent article in Scientific American conveys the ongoing debate as to whether nuclear power should be a part of our energy future; not only in the U.S., but in the world. On one side are those who see nuclear as necessary in order to reduce carbon emissions while meeting what is certain to be an unprecedented demand for energy consumption in developing nations. On the other side are those who see a 100% renewable energy economy as not only the necessary path to a sustainable future, but also an achievable path. Given the potentially dire consequences associated with climate change, it’s remarkable that two perfectly compatible and necessary carbon-free energy resources have been pitted against each other in an energy resources death match. But, that’s where we find ourselves today.

In this article James Hansen, a renowned expert on climate science and a supporter of nuclear power, is quoted:

“I’m a physicist, and I’m looking at energy data,” Hansen said. “I have as high a level of expertise as anyone I know.”

In response to Hansen’s position on nuclear, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, himself an expert in climate issues and renewable energy, is also quoted:

“He’s a great climate scientist, and he’s real passionate about solving the problem. I completely admire him for that,” Jacobson said about Hansen. However, he said that Hansen and many scientists who have joined him haven’t published any peer-reviewed research on comparing energy sources, while Jacobson has published dozens. “Most of the people who do talk about it, they’re not actually doing an evaluation of the science,” Jacobson said. “They’ve examined the problem, but they’ve never examined the solutions.”

Scholarship vs. Professional Experience

Mark Jacobson has conducted numerous studies on the prospects of a 100% renewable energy scenario and has concluded that the world’s energy needs can be met with wind, water and solar—no fossil fuels or nuclear required. Jacobson isn’t alone; he’s joined by scientists, politicians, activists, political correspondents, and actors from around the world; many of whom are not scientists and haven’t published peer-reviewed journal articles.

I don’t believe for one second that Mark Jacobson has even the slightest inclination to silence the opinions of anyone who doesn’t agree with him. But based on his assertion, solutions proposed by those who haven’t published peer-reviewed journal research comparing energy sources aren’t as valid as the proposals of those who have published in peer-reviewed journals. By the same standard it should hold that only those who have published peer-reviewed journal articles on climate science should promote action and propose solutions for addressing climate change concerns. But there is no shortage of voices in the climate change issue promoting something along the lines of: “It’s time for action”, “We must change direction”, “Leave fossils in the ground”, or “No more nukes”. Are their opinions less valid because they haven’t published peer-reviewed journal articles in climate science? Many climate activists welcome these voices.

However, if James Hansen promotes nuclear as part of the solution, the reaction is that Hansen is a climate scientist but hasn’t published in the energy resources area. It’s noteworthy that Hansen doesn’t oppose renewables—he simply supports nuclear. To say that James Hansen’s position on nuclear power is diminished by his having never published a peer-reviewed journal article on nuclear power or other energy sources is demeaning to non-academic professionals and industry itself. This logic would preclude most practicing industry experts who have spent their entire professional careers in the generation, transmission, distribution and finances of electricity yet haven’t published a single theoretical paper in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. In fact, a counter question might be appropriate: “How many published academic researchers advocating 100% renewable energy have operated a grid or dispatched electricity during peak hours while balancing the system and minimizing costs?” Should that lack of experience preclude them from proposing solutions for an industry they have never personally been immersed in or for a system they have never operated? Many in industry may actually answer this latter question with, “Yes”. In fact, most power generation professionals I talk with shake their heads in disbelief that a 100% renewable energy proposal is taken seriously, much less considered as science. Maintaining the line that renewable energy alone can sustain current national economies and support the development of liberal, inclusive economies for billions currently living in poverty is as unfounded and unrealistic to power generation professionals and to some of us in academia as the climate-denying argument is to climate scientists.

100% Renewable Energy: Fact Or Proposal?

My concern isn’t that researchers are proposing 100% renewable energy options. Indeed, such publications represent necessary efforts to publish on controversial topics that force the science and engineering communities to critically think through options that may be considered too risky or too challenging. In this regard, Mark Jacobson and others have made tremendous contributions and I regularly share their work with students in my classes, even though my own opinion is that 100% renewable energy cannot sustain economic growth and development and that it is impractical and insufficient at the global scale. Instead, my concern is that proposals for a 100% renewable energy global economy might be construed by some as proven facts of science, stamped with the approval of the peer-review process, rather than as untested proposals based on models and simulations under narrowly constrained conditions.

Proponents of 100% renewable energy acknowledge that the barriers to their plans are primarily social and political1. In the Scientific American article, Jacobson contends that the only thing lacking is political will, a point reiterated by environmental activist Bill McKibben, who was quoted:

“To me Jacobson’s work seems rigorous and detailed, and more to the point countries like Denmark are now showing it’s entirely possible. The technology is there; we need the political will to match.”

However, political will is the essential issue of concern. For any technological system if all assumptions, constraints, parameters, and conditions hold then the system should function as predicted. But when that system includes people, governments, economies, along with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of billions seeking access to basic energy services, then all prior predictions are off because the advantage of system control is lost. Our world is fundamentally social and political and one of the core arguments against the 100% proposal is that a technological solution, even though the math works out, doesn’t align with the complex reality of the human element—a reality that is now a global conglomeration of nations pursuing economic growth and consuming more and more energy, yet giving little indication that they will constrain their economic objectives and yield to climate concerns by foregoing fossil fuels and relying on renewable energy alone.

A False Choice and an Unnecessary Battle

As we transition toward low-carbon energy resources, we should include in that transition as many of the world’s people as possible–including the improverished. This will require the deployment of not only intermittent renewables, but also dependable dispatchable resources with a tested and proven history of supporting economic development—nuclear being one of these resources. Drawing a line in the sand for 100% renewables, to the exclusion of all other resources and without compromise, is risking the energy and economic future of billions on an unproven proposal. They deserve better than that, and we can provide them with better than that.

The debate around carbon emissions and the energy path forward should be a deliberation that acknowledges realistic constraints and concedes that whichever path we take will require trade-offs since there is no zero-risk technology. In the case of the daunting energy-climate-economic issue staring us squarely in the face and the global scale at which we’re trying to work, prudence and pragmatism would call for negotiation and compromise. But that doesn’t seem to be an option with the 100% renewable energy movement. Instead, its supporters have mandated a false choice between two necessities that are not mutually exclusive. Two perfectly compatible zero-carbon energy resources, nuclear and renewables, have been forced into the center ring of an unnecessary and regrettable battle, even though both resources are needed. Not everyone wants this death match to continue—some of us want the fight to stop with both declared as winners, still standing and ready to fight the bigger battle of reducing carbon emissions, providing dependable electricity to billions living in energy poverty and supporting global economic development.

Nuclear and renewables should not be forced upon the world’s economy as an either-or dichotomy of energy resources. They are compatible and necessary.

1Jacobson, M.Z. and Delucchi, M.A., 2011. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy, 39(3), pp.1154-1169.

…ilyh…

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9 thoughts on “Nuclear vs. 100% Renewable Energy: An Unnecessary Battle”

    1. For the purposes of making my point, I’ll stick with classifying nuclear energy separately from the traditional renewables of solar, wind, etc. Your point is a separate discussion that can be carried out in another article.

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  1. The value of peer review is way overstated by scientists who spend time writing such papers. I think I can go head to head with mr Hansen when it comes to energy, but I’m simply an engineer with 40 years experience. And I question whether “zero carbon emissions” is achievable, economically justifiable, or a rational goal.

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  2. About peer-reviewing and those who are allowed to speak:

    1) Mark Jacobson has published at least one paper on a peer-reviewed journal where two of his many co-authors are 2 of his children, both in high-school at the time (if I remember correctly)… so these two youngsters, according to Jacobson’s opinion, are more entitled to speak out about energy than James Hansen?

    2) The anti-nuclearism of Mark Jacobson is legendary: it is sufficient to read the rebuttal of Hansen’s paper on the advantages of nuclear (published in a peer-reviewed journal with co-author Pushker Kharekha), this one..

    http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abs/kh05000e.html

    …. to understand how silly his comments can be. The vitriolic reply of Hansen is worth reading:

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es402211m

    3) In a previous “peer reviewed” paper, Jacobson and co-authors have compared all electricity-generating technologies, and the only way to leave out nuclear has been the inclusion of a totally arbitrary “probaility” that some plutonium from civil reactors is used by some rogue country to produce a bomb, which is then exploded… I can’t find right now the exact reference to it.

    Many more examples of the one-handedness of Jacobson, and ideological anti-nuclear stance can be found just by reading his papers.

    In addition to that, his bottom-up approach to the possibility of utilising solar and wind on large scales to cover all of mankind energy needs has already been proven, on peer-reviewed papers, several times, like in Energy Policy, De Castro et al, of a few years ago.

    Personally, after having read all of Jacobson’s papers, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are not worth the cost of the paper on which they could be printed.

    Cheers, and keep up the good job with this blog.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jacobson and Delucchi refer to nuclear weapon concerns in their 100% Renewables Part I paper, which I included as a reference in my blog post. In my opinion, this is an insufficient reason to deprive the world of civilian uses of nuclear power to support economic growth and development.

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  3. The intermittent nature of wind and solar bring diminishing returns as Europe is finding out:

    http://www.climatechangenews.com/2016/06/03/europes-renewables-investment-hits-10-year-low/

    You should also remember that the word “renewables” can be misleading. It usually includes a substantial portion of hydro (which is fixed) and biomass (which means burning stuff). Bjorn Lomborg shows how wind and solar have been exaggerated for Germany:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The share of hydro in the overall renewables contribution to power generation certainly isn’t lost on me. I appreciate you reiterating it here and including the video clip.

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  4. Very well put.

    I would say that Dr. Jacobson publishes contrarian papers on energy science not in order to convince other experts, but to mislead the public.

    Climate ‘skeptic’ scientists do a similar thing to mislead the public about global warming.

    Ironically, people like Naomi Oreskes have called Dr. Hansen a “denier” for his pronuclearism, even while it is Dr. Jacobson’s antinuclearism which has all the hallmarks of actual denialism. FWIW, I expect people like Oreskes to apologise for the mistake they are making, sooner or later.

    Liked by 3 people

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