Solar and wind power have been embraced by activists since the beginnings of modern environmentalism. The notion of a 100 percent renewable world was first suggested in a paper in Science published in 1975 by Danish physicist Bent Sorensen. Soon thereafter, Amory Lovins coined the term “soft energy path” to describe a future where renewable energies, like wind and solar, steadily replace the centralized energy system powered by fossil fuels. Lovins’ ideas represented a historic turn in our understanding of the importance of moving away from dirty, nonrenewable energy sources in order to conserve our livelihood.
This philosophy has continued to move its way into the mainstream. In early 2019, hundreds of grassroots environmental groups got together to write an open letter to Congress, demanding a lighting-speed transition to 100 percent renewable energy. They explicitly repudiated all forms of emissionless energy, aside from solar and wind.
For all intents and purposes, the ambition of these efforts is great. There is no path to decarbonization without solar and wind playing a major role. They are crucial pieces to decarbonizing the electricity sector. But in order to get to net zero carbon emissions nationally, we are going to need more than just wind and solar.
The biggest problem with wind and solar is variability. They are not dispatchable, meaning they can’t be turned on or off—they change with the weather. During the windy and sunny months, there’s an energy surplus, which is then wasted or stored (for some cost) for later use. And in the winter, there’s an energy deficit. If storage technologies were able to manage seasonal timelines, then this would be less of a problem. But the storage that’s available today is just not able to handle the intermittencies and lapses in energy across seasons.
We are going to need a mix of options. In fact, we will need to take advantage of all emissions—free resources at hand.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international authority on climate change and research thinks so too. In their Fifth Assessment Report, they underscored the dangers to human well-being of continuing along a business-as-usual scenario where average temperatures rise by four degrees celsius or more annually, and emphasized the importance of committing to the goal of limiting the increase to two degrees.
The “Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project,” an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, seeks to demonstrate to countries how they can transition to a low carbon economy and how the world can achieve the two degree celsius limit. The analysis had several key takeaways. This was one of them:
“Low-carbon electricity: Decarbonization of electricity generation through the replacement of existing fossil-fuel-based generation with renewable energy (e.g. hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal), nuclear power, and/or fossil fuels (coal, gas) with carbon capture and storage.”
Note several important mentions: hydro, geothermal, carbon capture and most contentiously, nuclear power. And yes, I admit—nuclear comes with significant risk. But how risky, and how does it compare to its alternatives? Nuclear energy has garnered a reputation for being extremely deleterious to society, associated with images of radioactive disasters and bombs. And these things do happen—but relatively speaking, they’re rare. It’s important to overcome these biases and examine the facts at hand. And the facts tell us this: nuclear energy is not only the most reliable carbon-free energy source, but it’s also significantly safer than coal, oil and natural gas.
Bill Gates has long been a supporter of nuclear energy. He once stated in an interview with Andrew Sorkin of the NYT: “Nuclear has actually been safer than any other source of [power] generation,” Gates told Sorkin. “You know, coal plants, coal particulate, natural gas pipelines blowing up. The deaths per unit of power on these other approaches are—are far higher.”
I use the example of nuclear to illuminate a bigger point—it is becoming increasingly important for us to become energy-source inclusive and open minded. We need to embrace all carbon-free and carbon-mitigating technologies at hand. While imperfections exist, our fight against climate change cannot take further delay. The utopian ideal of a green world covered and powered merely by wind and solar is impossible and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding in real deep decarbonization pathways. Nuclear power, among others, must be embraced until another best option presents itself.
Good article. I think you have a typo at “…rise by four degrees celsius or more annually” where the referenced report does not suggest that annual rate of temperature rise. I commend the effort to frame nuclear as a ‘green’ option (relative to coal). Part of our failures with nuclear stem from not fully dealing with its risks, rather than an inherent risk that cannot be properly mitigated with good engineering and a commitment to improving the technology. I agree that if we could power our Teslas and iPhones with solar and wind alone, that would be great. But we can’t. So in the real world, we have to pick our poison and blanket opposition to nuclear is tantamount to support for coal. And, yes, I did watch Chernobyl and yes it scared the hell out of me too.