I enjoyed watching the debate on CNN the other night following the showing of the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise. The anti-nuclear voices argued consistently that wind, solar and efficiency are the answers to our energy and climate problems and we should reject nuclear and natural gas. The argument is that wind is cheap, solar is getting cheaper fast and that efficiency is the most cost effective means of all to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Each one of these statements taken alone is true, and I am certainly not going to argue against embracing all three of these as they are all useful. But the evidence simply does not exist than any of these actually replace a single btu of fossil fuels. Nuclear and natural gas offer the proven environmental and engineering performance we need to move beyond toxic coal and oil.
First of all energy use is growing around the world and all the wind and solar capacity installed in recent years has been to meet growing demand and government incentives, not replace existing supply. To the extent that coal plants have been shut down they have been replaced by natural gas, not wind and solar.
Wind and solar are also driving demand for natural gas as gas is used to make up for the intermittency of these sources. Both wind farms and concentrated solar plants are being built using natural gas as back up and could be described as hybrid gas-electric systems.
Efficiency is a false argument, not because it is ineffective. Efficiency should always be pursued, it is a sign of good engineering and conservative use of resources. But efficiency is not a fuel, it does not put gas in the tank. If your car gets 500 miles to the gallon, it still needs a gallon of fuel. Unless you can present an alternative fuel supply then efficiency is simply a defense of the status quo. In today’s terms efficiency means getting more value out of fossil fuels.
Efficiency also makes a given device more cost effective and desirable to operate, therefore more are put into use and net energy demand goes up even when energy use per device goes down. Iphones and Ipads are substantially more efficient than computers of just a few years ago, but this has not ushered in a new era of low power computing, it has only increased the demand for power as more people now have access to computers than before. Industrial history has followed the same pattern. Industrialists always sought to make their factories more efficient because less waste was good for production and profits, this made factories more cost effective and ever more were built. Net energy use has only gone up since the industrial revolution. There is simply no historical evidence that efficiency gains in devices translate to net reductions in energy use.
Wind is similar in cost to hydro power, in fact wind and hydro power have many similarities. If cost was the only issue the world run on hydro power because it is cheap, clean and more reliable than coal, yet coal dominates. The reason is because hydro only works where you have the right rivers, hydro is useless elsewhere. And once you have built out all the good sites then there is no more room to grow. Wind has the exact same characteristics. Wind works great in the correct locations, but it is of little use elsewhere and once the good locations are built out that will be it.
Solar can scale more than wind but it needs storage to get there and there is no good solution for large scale storage. Batteries only store a few hours’ worth of power, have short life spans and are very resource intensive to manufacture. Pumped hydro works in the right locations, but those locations are not common. Flywheels only work for very short periods of time and other solutions are unproven. One of the best solutions for electricity storage may prove to be power-to-gas; produce hydrogen and store it in the gas pipelines as synthetic natural gas.
Solar and wind both require energy intensive manufacturing to be produced in the first place. Neither industry can support itself energetically, yet we are supposed to believe that they can power all of society? Minerals must be mined from the earth and refined. Materials and components are shipped all over in the global supply chain. Heavy equipment is used in the installation. Can anyone demonstrate the complete life cycle of wind and solar being energetically self-sustaining?
Meanwhile the heavy machines of the world that consume thousands of gallons of fuel a day are transitioning to natural gas in order to meet emissions requirements and take advantage of low gas prices. Machines like heavy mining equipment, container ships and tug boats, freight trains and drilling rigs, are transitioning to natural gas without losing engine performance. By replacing dirty fuels with natural gas toxic contaminants like particulates, heavy metals and sulfur are being eliminated and lives are being saved, today. Additionally the machines run much quieter, minimizing stress on operators and neighbors and LNG has an excellent safety record on land and on sea.
Nuclear is an option that must be pursued. There are hundreds of different design possibilities available including designs that consume today’s nuclear waste as fuel. It may take decades to get the technology right, but once perfected nuclear can run for centuries. Radiation fears are wildly overblown. We all live with low level radiation every day from the sun and the soil and it is simply not accurate to believe that there is no safe level of exposure.
Wind, solar and efficiency are all important to pursue, they are all useful. But the big solutions will be driven by the resources that are the most energy dense, productive and clean. Natural gas is abundant, high performance, versatile, clean and even renewable. Nuclear fission is one of the great breakthroughs in human history and offers the ability to produce gargantuan quantities of power. We are going to need more energy in the future, not less, if we want to solve the big problems like lifting billions of people out of grinding poverty, cleaning up the environment and desalinating water. Our energy vision should be based on the principle of on unleashing dramatically more energy, not making do with less.