The broken promise of renewables

Back in 2011, Google engineers came to a conclusion guaranteed to give Greenpeace nightmares:  “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”  Google promptly dropped its work on renewables and looked at other options.  The dirty secret of renewables is that, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, “the plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants“.  Fitful wind and shaded sun are just a coat of greenwash over the fracking industry.  That is, unless they are greenwash on the coal industry.  Even wind-leader Denmark still generates nearly half of all its electricity from coal.  Germany’s carbon emissions, formerly on a steady downtrend, rose slightly after 2011 and German policy apparently relies on burning lignite forever, having no concrete initiatives to ever replace it.

Recent data suggests that leakage makes natural gas as bad for the climate as coal.

Worse yet, the emphasis on “wind and sun” since 1995 has also been a period when fossil fuels maintained their share of world energy at about 87%.

If the aim of renewables is to eliminate fossil fuels, they have been a miserable failure.  The entire reason fossil fuels were developed is that wind, sun and wood were inadequate and taxed beyond their limits to meet our needs.

The 20 years previous to the Renewables Era (1975-95) saw the fossil share of world energy drop by about 7%.  Renewables were not responsible for this.  Nuclear power did it.  Denmark reported its 2012 emissions at more than 350 grams of CO2 per kWh, compared to Sweden’s 35 gCO2/kWh for 2012.  Nuclear power has cleaned up the grids, and the air, in France and our neighbor Ontario.  Toronto had no smog days or advisories in 2014.  That the last coal-fired power station in Ontario shut down in 2013 is no coincidence.  It shut down because the Bruce Point nuclear station came back to full power.  Despite 30 years of nuclear paralysis in the USA, nuclear power still generates 60% of our carbon-free electricity.

People are so afraid of radiation that they will take dirty air and expensive electricity instead.  But is there anything to fear?  Fukushima is the worst nuclear plant accident outside the Soviet Union, and so far there have been no injuries to the public and the UNSCEAR says there probably won’t be any.  People live, work and vacation in places with radiation far higher than most of the Fukushima evacuation zone.  If small doses of radiation were dangerous, people would not go to hot springs for their health.  Hot spring waters are often full of radium, and the gases carry radon.  The EPA hypes radon as a danger, but lung cancer rates in the USA fall as domestic radon increases.

Radiation is nowhere near as dangerous as it’s been made out to be.  To quote FDR, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  We should not let a little radiation dissuade us from doing anything worthwhile, whether it is getting an X-ray or using nuclear power to replace fossil fuels.

Nuclear power does a very good job of displacing fossil fuels almost completely.  A coal-fired plant emits around 950 grams of CO2 per kWh (the average US coal plant emits more than 1000 grams; see below).  The USA emitted about 570 grams in 2011, Germany 477 grams in 2011 (or 510 grams, if you prefer a German source), and Denmark emitted 315 grams.  Ontario’s grid is averaging somewhat over 100 grams, France is somewhere in the 60-80 gram range, and Sweden (touted by climate scientist James Hansen) lately reported emissions of 35 grams.  If the world had gone the way of Sweden 30 years ago, we would probably not have a climate problem staring us in the face today.

The push for wind and solar has been going on since the 1970’s and it has barely cut the growth of fossil-fuel consumption; by contrast, nuclear energy has essentially replaced fossil fuels on just about every electric grid where it’s been allowed to.  Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing and expecting a different result”.  Even the countries most dedicated to renewable energy continue to use a very high proportion of fossil fuels.  It is time to conquer our irrational fears and go to nuclear power.

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Facts, figures and calculations

The most recent EIA figures for the USA go up to the year 2011.  In that year, the electric power sector reported total generation of 3796.9 terawatt-hours (billions of kilowatt-hours):  1687.9 TWh from coal, 24.1 TWh from petroleum, and 809.2 TWh from natural gas.  The reported CO2 emissions were 1718 million metric tons from coal (1018 gCO2/kWh), 411 million metric tons from natural gas (508 gCO2/kWh) and 25 million metric tons from all forms of petroleum (about 1040 gCO2/kWh).  (The figures for petroleum are dominated by “petroleum coke”, which a coal-like byproduct of the refining of heavy oils and bitumens and is burned much like coal.  Since all US generation from petroleum of any kind is barely 1.5% of the total, it is easier to disregard it than to try to deal with all the details.)

Total 2011 non-biomass CO2 emissions in the electric power sector were 2,166 million metric tons.  Averaged across the entire US electric power sector, this comes to 570 gCO2/kWh.

Japanese utilities are trying to limit the amount of solar electricity on their grids, claiming that they cannot guarantee reliability of the system if there is too much unreliable, uncontrolled power simply dumped into it like water from a bucket.

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Addenda

The Motley Fool writes about Illinois transition from a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to a Clean Energy Standard (CES), and what it means for Exelon and nuclear energy.  We do not need “renewable energy”.  We need energy that doesn’t use the atmosphere as a dump.  There’s a lot more of that on the US grid today than just wind, solar and hydro.  The majority of it uses uranium.

Japanese utilities can only handle a fraction of the solar power that others want to connect to their wires.  When the sun is shining bright, solar power overwhelms the grid and is without value; when the sun goes down, solar power isn’t available at any price.  It is time to stop paying people to create problems instead of solving them.

Ben Heard addresses the nuclear waste issue in a talk worth watching in its entirety.

Shortlink to this post:  http://wp.me/pMnGx-C

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