Growing Recognition of the Limits and Drawbacks
Although this is supposed to be a blog about nuclear energy, I keep finding myself drawn to discussing the world in which nuclear energy operates, including the pros and cons of alternative energy sources. As readers of this blog know, I have long been concerned that most of the public seems to believe that there are easy solutions to our energy problems. That the intermittency problems of "new" technologies such as renewables can be solved quickly, reliably and economically. That these technologies are more "natural" and cleaner and greener.
In other words, the "paper reactors" of Admiral Rickover's day have been replaced in people's minds by "paper solar power plants" and "paper wind farms."
I was therefore very pleased to find a couple of articles that raise some specific points that reinforce the arguments I have been trying to make. While I may not agree with the authors in every respect, I do agree with some major points they make. Since most of the press seems to focus on the issues associated with fossil and nuclear power, I hope that highlighting articles such as these will help balance the dialogue.
The first article I want to discuss is an interview with Ozzie Zehner, the author of a new book called "Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism." The article starts by pointing out what I said above--that many people believe that the answer to climate change (as well as to other downsides of current fossil fuel energy sources) is to shift from fossil fuels to "clean, green, renewable, alternative energy." The problem with such a solution, the article goes on to say, is that things are never as simple as they seem, and that "there's actually no such thing as a free lunch" when it comes to energy consumption and production. Further, what we're often told is "green" and "clean" is actually neither.
While I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, Zehner's description is clearly very much along the lines of my own thinking. He says that this book "...isn't a book for alternative energy. Neither is it a book against it. In fact, we won’t be talking in simplistic terms of for or against, left and right, good and evil ... Ultimately, this is a book of shades."
In answer to a question about whether we can move from fossil fuels to solar and wind energy, Zehner says:
There is an impression that we have a choice between fossil fuels and clean energy technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines. That choice is an illusion. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels through every stage of their life. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels for mining operations, fabrication plants, installation, ongoing maintenance and decommissioning. Also, due to the irregular output of wind and solar, these technologies require fossil fuel plants to be running alongside them at all times.
Zehner goes on to say that every energy generation method has side effects and limitations. He mentions several, but I will highlight one:
Finally, we have to consider the mining, health, pollution and waste problems of renewable technologies. For example, we are now learning that the solar cell industry is one of the fastest growing emitters of virulent greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has a global warming potential 23,000 times higher than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
This, coupled with the fact that solar power usually relies on fossil fuel backup, makes it unlikely that converting to solar power will really solve climate change.
I can't subscribe to everything that Zehner says. In particular, he sees the only solution as being to "bring the population down over time as we also reduce per-capita consumption." While I can see improvements in energy efficiency, even possibly substantial ones, it is harder to see how we will achieve enough through efficiency alone, and achieving the kinds of reductions in population that he seems to think are necessary is far easier said than done. I am more optimistic that a spectrum of advanced energy technologies (including improvements in efficiency) can meet the world's energy needs.
Although that is an important point to Zehner, I think we can disagree on that but still agree that every generation method has both pros and cons. Zehner has provided a service by bringing greater attention to the challenges we will have to face as the use of renewable technologies grows.
The articles on Zehner's book brought my attention to a two-year-old op ed by Paul Krugman on "renewable energy's not-so-bright side." Krugman takes issue with some reports that came out two years ago that claimed that "we can have a fully renewable-based, nuclear-free economy by 2050." And, "What’s more, the world wouldn’t have to pay that much more for energy than it does today."
Krugman points to his personal experience, early in his career, where cost projections for energy proved wildly wrong. "They were much too optimistic about the costs of alternative energy sources, especially alternatives to oil. Basically, the engineers were understating the difficulties involved. Later, economist Marty Weitzman would formulate a law: the cost of alternatives to crude oil is 40 percent above the current price — whatever the current price is."
Krugman implicitly acknowledges that this formula may also be too simplistic, saying that, "To be fair, we probably have much more solid ideas about the costs of wind and solar power than we did about shale oil and coal liquefaction back in 1973: wind is already a widely used technology, and concentrated solar power is pretty well understood, too."
Nevertheless, he concludes, "But there will be surprises, not all of them positive."
This is a caution we all need to keep in mind, whether we are making projections about renewable technologies, advanced nuclear technologies, or new carbon-capture technologies for coal plants.