Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Nuclear? No Coal? Now What?

I had the pleasure of meeting Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson during his visit to Ivey Business School a couple of weeks ago. Mark argues that there is no reason why we can’t power all our energy needs with renewable sources. Ranked in order of most sustainable, he suggests the following:

  • Wind
  • Concentrated solar power
  • Geothermal
  • Tidal Power
  • Photovoltaic
  • Wave Power
  • Hydro
  • Nuclear – this would drop to the bottom when considering the potential for nuclear fallout which is happening right now.
  • Coal using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – carbon capture does not capture the carbon used to transport the coal and extract it out of the ground – which represents a large percentage of where coal related CO2 comes from

In a debate on Mark goes up against one of the fathers of the environmental movement, Stewart Brand, who argues for nuclear energy as our solution to climate change. Although Brand puts forward some good arguments, Mark comes back with some impressive statistics that counters many of Brand’s claims. I asked Mark about the growing number of environmentalists and climatologists advocating nuclear power as the best approach to replace coal. He finds it frustrating when these scientists put forth opinions that are not based on their area of expertise. In Brand's argument he says that those who know the most about nuclear are least worried. But then he puts up James Hansen as an example of a person who is not worried about nuclear. Climatologists are not experts in energy and neither are environmentalists. James Hansen is an Earth and Environmental Scientist and Andrew Weaver is a climatologist – both of whom advocate for nuclear – perhaps until recent events in Japan. Listening to some of the experts on nuclear these last few days, I would say they're worried!

With the growing distaste towards nuclear energy, Mark’s assertions are likely to gain popularity. Mark is the first to accurately map out global wind and solar energy creating capacity. He published these findings in the Energy & Environmental Science Journal* where he reports that global wind capacity can generate up to 1700 terawatts of electricity while solar capacity can generate up to 6500 terawatts of electricity. On land, these sources of energy can generate up to 70-170 TW of electricity (excluding Antarctica) and 340 TW respectively. Today’s population demands 12.5 TW of electricity with an estimated 16.9 TW by 2030 – a small percentage next to what is possible.

So what’s the problem?

Mark tells me that wherever he goes to present his work, he receives a typical set of questions from the audience. The first is the issue of availability. How can we assure a stable supply of energy when the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine? Mark asserts that the energy solution requires a combination of energy sources that work in unison depending on what energy is available. In a pilot test in California over a two year period, Mark found that based on a stable supply of geothermal energy, available wind and solar energy, and hydro-electricity, the population in the experiment would not have to resort to natural gas sitting in reserve. His experiment ultimately trumps those who would argue that renewable energy is an unreliable source of energy. Mark calls this “load-matching” whereby the source of energy remains flexible so that energy utilities can draw on the source most available at a given point in time. Hydro-electricity is particularly useful as a backup because it allows for quick on and off if and when solar and wind are not available.

What about the ecological footprint and negative health effects of wind turbines? This is another popular question and was the source of resistance to an off-shore wind project in Ontario. In a presentation I attended here at UWO, a medical doctor from Doctors without Borders presented results of a study that showed no significant health effects originating from wind turbines. In fact, compared with coal and the potential fallout from nuclear, wind turbines are essentially benign. Mark too reamed off a number of studies suggesting no health effects. With respect to bird wildlife, he spoke of an interesting study showing that birds are in fact worse off from the indirect effect of coal than any direct effect of turbine blades. Finally, there’s the ecological footprint of the wind turbine itself. James Lovelock, another environmentalist and self-declared energy expert, is a nuclear supporter because of the impact wind turbines have on ecosystem health. But Mark says that this is a myth when you consider the fact that the base of the wind turbine is quite small and that turbines need to be a minimum distance from one another, leaving huge plots of undisturbed land. If we were to power the entire US vehicle fleet on wind energy, we would need 1-3 square kilometers of land for the bases of the turbines (larger once you consider the natural land between the turbine poles)

The final question he typically receives is related to the prohibitive costs and time of construction associated with renewable energy. He is alarmed that the Ontario government’s feed in tariff awarded individuals and organizations $0.11 for each kw of energy generated from wind and $0.41 from solar. He argues that wind should cost between $0.03 and $0.05 per kw hour whereas coal costs between $0.12 and $0.14 once you include health costs ($0.07 to $0.09 if you don’t). What about transmission of wind and solar power? This cost is included in the calculation. Wind and solar are two of the quickest in terms of construction.

Mark then goes so far as to advise what the global energy mix should be based on his findings. He says that wind should power 50% of global energy needs (6-8 TW of electricity), which means that we need 3.8 million wind turbines. Concentrated solar power should represent 20% of our power which would require 49,000 concentrated solar power plants (300 MW per plant). Photovoltaic comes in at 14% with 14,000 solar PV plants at 300 MW each. The rest is geothermal, hydro, tidal and wave power with relatively small proportions of the energy mix.

So what’s going on here? Why aren’t we moving in this direction? In asking him this very question, he says that this is where his work ends. He’s not a social scientist but knows that there are some very powerful players who would be quite upset if we moved away from coal, oil and nuclear energy. It’s estimated that existing energy companies receive 8-10 times in subsidies as renewable energy companies and spend 8-10 times more in political lobbying than their renewable counterparts**. I was saddened to hear a Professor in Anthropology in Japan talking about the attack on democracy as he describes how the interests of a few powerful actors pushed forward nuclear energy policy in the country in the past.

Although Mark’s study is the first of its kind, we’re likely going to see more of the same. This study is perhaps a starting point in refuting those who claim that renewable energy is too unreliable, costly, unproven, and not pragmatic. It may also show that resistance has more to do with protecting a group of elite interests who have a lot to lose from changing the status quo than it does with science or physics.

* Source: Jacobson (2009). Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution and energy security. Energy and Environmental Science. 2: 148-171
**Nick Parker, CEO of CleanTech. Presentation at the Ivey School of Business: Steering the Storm. March 9th, 2011.

Nuclear plant photo taken from Renewable Power News reproduced under Creative Commons
Wind turbine photo taken from Erie Shores Wind Farm Reproduced under Creative Commons


  1. Actually, Mark's study was the second of it's kind.

    Check out the 'Energy Revolution' scenario, led by the European Renewable Energy Council and Greenpeace, in cooperation with over 30 scientists and engineers from research institutes around the world:

    And, Greenpeace's involvement takes this work a step further - because they are experts in social change.

    100% renewable energy is possible. We don't need nukes. We don't need coal.

  2. Let me understand. It was wrong to drill for oil in scenic areas, we had to save the desert tortoise and we couldn't mine in sage grouse areas, but forget the regulations if we are using "clean" energy. The landscape can be destroyed, trees cut, roads put into roadless areas, thousands of acres of desert covered if the technology is called carbon neutral. Biodiversity was only important with carbon based projects. As was quality of life. Now we kill or cut whatever gets in the way, mine and refine toxic rare metals (no radioactivity there....) because it's all environmentally friendly. With friends like this, give me enemies......

  3. Coal Statistics shows that there are many companies answers to the call of a cleaner coal to help the environment preserve it's purity and as well as the coal industries longevity. Both must work hand in hand to see the sky rocket success in the coal market news and green house effect. Cherry of