100% renewables and 100% nuclear are both practically impossible

I’ve been following with interest how some nuclear power advocates are suggesting that building anything else than nuclear power is sidetracking us from the climate goals. These advocates claim that variable, non-dispatchable renewables will not be ultimately capable of delivering a deeply decarbonized energy system, and therefore we shouldn’t waste time or money on building them because we’d only have to replace them with dispatchable sources of low-carbon power – which in practice means nuclear.

It should be noted that this is very much a minority position among those who support nuclear power as a weapon in the climate fight. The anti-nuclear establishment’s most common strawman argument against nuclear supporters is to claim we want to solve climate change with nuclear only. This is not true, and there are only a handful of pro-nuclear activists who see no need at all for anything else. However, the 100% nuclear argument is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first, and before arguing why I don’t quite believe in it I must first explain what it is all about.

The key issue at the root of the problem is that variable renewables begin to cannibalize their own profitability long before the energy system will be decarbonized. As a rule of thumb, increasing the market share (penetration) of variable renewable energy sources (VREs) beyond their capacity factor will be increasingly difficult.

Why? Because when the market share of a VRE begins to equal its capacity factor, the occasional full output of all these VRE generators – say, during a sunny or windy day – will begin to exceed the total demand on the electricity grid.

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Figure 1: Production from wind and solar in Germany + Austria on one ordinary day if solar generation is increased 4x and wind generation 8x from current. Black line denotes demand.

Because of the way electricity is valued, this will cause the price of all electricity produced during such times to fall close to the lowest marginal cost of production – which is close to zero with VREs. At worst, inflexibilities in grid operation may mean that producers have to pay to users to consume the excess electricity. At this “inflection point,” as John Morgan has dubbed it here, adding more of the said VRE will not be economic any longer. If, for example, grid electricity will be almost free when the sun shines, where is the incentive to install additional solar panels?

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Figure 2: What electricity can be sold at non-zero prices. Note in particular how little solar electricity has any value at all. For more thorough discussion, see my post here.

(See also here the excellent essay by Jesse Jenkins and Alex Trembath examining this very problem. I’ve also written about the issue here.)

The problem stems from the fact that realistic capacity factors for wind may remain below 40% and for solar, 15% is already optimistic in the northern latitudes. Furthermore, these figures aren’t truly additive: because wind turbines often produce while the sun is shining and vice versa, we cannot simply add up the capacity factors of various energy sources to determine what is the maximum total the electricity grid can economically manage. It may turn out that in large-scale grids, a 50% total market share for VREs could already present substantial practical difficulties. Smaller – that is, national – grids could easily exceed this, provided they have neighbors willing and able to both absorb occasional excess production and provide backup when weather isn’t cooperating. However, high VRE penetration in one region would also mean that its neighbors cannot economically build as much VREs themselves.

The limit will also bend depending on how much we can assume energy storage and demand management. In theory, with economic and scalable energy storage (or perfect demand flexibility), the problem could be solved easily. However, it is still unknown whether we can rely on these technologies to develop the way we want – and there may be other difficulties that reduce the overall limit, such as existing low marginal cost generation, problems in building enough transmission lines, and so forth. Nevertheless, whether the economic limit will be 40, 50, 60 or 70% is not very relevant. As long as the limit is not close to 100% the question is where do we take the rest from?

It is very likely that if we exclude hydropower, which cannot be realistically expanded in most developed countries, the least-cost option for covering the rest of the demand will be by burning stuff – and there aren’t that much carbon neutral fuels to go around, not even if all the waste and all the sustainable biomass is burned for energy. The likely end result will be blown carbon budgets and a failure to prevent dangerous climate change.

Thus, say the 100% nuclear advocates (who typically do not believe that energy storage and/or demand management will develop fast enough to matter), shouldn’t we focus on low-carbon power plants that deliver power up to 90% of the time? And if we have low-carbon power that delivers with a 80-90% capacity factor, then variable sources do not really add anything we actually need from an emissions standpoint. Aren’t wind turbines and solar panels therefore superfluous, and isnt the “all of the above” energy strategy doomed from the beginning?

Why do we nevertheless need all of the above?

I don’t buy the 100% nuclear argument, and in the following I try to present several reasons why. Due to the complexity of the issues, the following four points are necessarily more like thought experiments than anything you should take as a gospel, and I’d value your feedback.

1. All low-carbon energy reduces fuel burn and conserves hydro reservoirs.

The first reason why I support all low-carbon energy sources right now is because the world energy system still runs mostly on fossil fuels. This is true even for electricity system, which is in theory the easiest to decarbonize.

Therefore, with some important local exceptions, all new low-carbon energy can reduce fuel burn and conserve water in hydro reservoirs, which in turn helps to reduce fuel burn during peak demand. In most places, we are still so far from the point where new low-carbon energy will not reduce burning that the question “which low-carbon energy we should build” is largely academic. Anything helps.

2. Totally discounting technological change is unwise.

The problems of large variable renewable market shares outlined above are real. However, they may be solvable with a combination of partial solutions. So far, the pessimistic analyses I’ve seen have focused on some proposed solution, typically energy storage, and proceeded to “disprove” its feasibility by quoting high prices, low energy returns (EROI), lack of critical raw materials, or similar limitations.

These cautionary messages have their place, but just as very few people are claiming we should solve the climate/energy problem with nuclear alone, very few people are saying some single solution would solve the problem of intermittency.

More likely and more feasible is a combination of solutions. Many different forms of energy storage, from batteries to gas generators to heat and cold storage will help; some demand response will do its bit; grid interconnections and “smart” grids do theirs; and optimizing renewable energy generators for maximum capacity factor instead of maximum annual energy production will increase capacity factors and thus raise the rule of thumb limit described above. (For solar panels, orientation can make quite a bit of difference in capacity factor, while wind turbines can be optimized for low wind speeds at the expense of annual generation. The reason this hasn’t been widely done yet is because many subsidy schemes reward peak generation, not firmness of supply.)

Furthermore, price trends in e.g. batteries do make the more pessimistic assumptions outdated even as we speak. It may be that battery prices will not follow the most optimistic trends, but there is still clearly room for improvement, and such improvements are happening. Ditto for EROI issues, and for determining whether we should install some particular source or not, EROI is a problematic metric anyway.

That said, we should be careful not to draw the opposite conclusion – that very real technical issues will be solved just because solving them would be very beneficial for the society. Demand alone does not guarantee a technological solution; this is one of the key takeaways from my forthcoming PhD thesis that examines the technological response to resource scarcities. We shouldn’t discount the capabilities of our scientists and engineers nor the power of suitable incentives, but we also shouldn’t rely on them.

3. Electricity price crashes build necessary niches for critical decarbonization technologies.

Related to point #2, I actually believe that we need electricity price volatility to develop the necessary components for a truly decarbonized energy system.

Decarbonizing current electricity system alone is relatively easy, and in developed countries, it might be possible solely with renewables or solely with nuclear. However, electricity accounts for only about a third of global carbon emissions. To get to the rest, we urgently need technologies that can reduce fossil fuel use and emissions in other sectors. Transport is particularly important, but other sectors, such as construction and industry, also need to be decarbonized.

The simplest and, probably, the most reliable way of getting from here to there is by electrifying just about everything. That is, we need to learn how to use electricity, either directly or indirectly, for tasks that now need fossil fuels. For example, we need to learn how to transport people and goods with electricity, and how to make iron with it.

Most of these tasks are likely to require technologies that, in essence, convert electricity to some other form of energy or to some other material, or transfer demand for electricity from one moment to next. For example, we might turn towards battery-powered electric cars, and make iron in a hydrogen process where hydrogen is separated from ordinary water via electrolysis. Likewise, we could design heaters and coolers to operate only when electricity is plentiful.

At the same time, such technologies could help us solve the problem of electricity overproduction. Given cheap enough methods for storing electricity for later use – the hydrogen route seems one of the more promising ones, either directly or after conversion to methane – the problems outlined in the introduction evaporate. Excess electricity production would simply be absorbed in storage systems, to be released when production flags.

But the problem right now is that these storage systems are prohibitively costly. Likewise, electrification of fossil fuel-demanding industrial activities proceeds only slowly, because electric alternatives are usually more expensive.

To get the prices of these technologies down to where we need them to be, we are very likely to need substantial innovation. This, in turn, is likely to require what is known as “niches” in technological transitions literature. Niches are specific market conditions or other safe havens for innovations to occur and be improved before having to compete with more established technologies. Absent such niches, it is unlikely that even good ideas can be developed to mature enough levels.

Quite obviously, technologies that require us to store or convert electricity would benefit from a niche where electricity is very cheap – or where the grid operator might actually pay for users to spend excess power.

This is increasingly the situation we’re seeing in grids characterized by large percentage of variable renewables or relatively inflexible (for economic reasons, mind) nuclear. What’s more, I suspect that increase in solar power in particular will be crucial to the emergence of low-cost electricity niches: this is because household solar PV is soon becoming a fairly attractive proposal, particularly in markets where transmission costs are high. It may be that new houses in particular soon begin to come with solar panels as standard, and even though they might generate excess electricity, the absence of transmission costs alone may make them profitable – at least until transmission cost structure changes to account for this. Such installations could, in the next ten years or so, provide quite a bit of low-priced electricity gluts that help energy storage, conversion and demand management technologies to grow.

I believe we need these low-carbon technologies no matter what the 2050 electricity grid will look like. Even though nuclear power hits the capacity factor wall much later than variable renewables, a 100% nuclear energy system would also need energy storage, conversion, and demand management. Therefore, having regular electricity price crashes has its upsides as well.

A caveat worth keeping in mind, however, is that electricity glut may be used for other purposes as well. It is quite conceivable that alongside, and perhaps instead of storage and conversion, we’re simply going to see electricity being used more when it is cheap for needs we don’t even know we have right now. An example I’ve toyed with is that cheap electricity might well be utilized to mine for bitcoins; this could be a much more profitable activity than storing the electricity for later use, particularly if the electricity grid is firmed up by the least-cost solutions – fossil fuels. And this last, very real possibility is in my mind the most important reason to support all low-carbon energy sources now.

4. Both 100% RE and 100% nuclear by 2050 are politically and technologically unrealistic pipe dreams.

The recent U.S. elections showed that climate change is still one of the least-motivating political issues in most developed countries. In our environmentalist bubble, where we’ve been sharing climate change news and worries for the last decade or so, this may sound all wrong. But this is simply the reality where we seem to live in.

Going either 100% renewable or 100% nuclear would require an enormous public program to build what would be, in effect, nationalized electricity grids. This would be necessary simply because the required build rates are so immense that there is no hope to achieve them on a commercial basis alone. In case of nuclear industry that has been allowed to wither, the required build rates for 100% nuclear would present significant bottlenecks in manufacturing capability alone. Furthermore, the economics of low-carbon power would require state intervention even for major decarbonization of national electricity grid. This has been done before with nuclear in France and to lesser extent in other countries, but the only real justification for going this route today would be avoiding dangerous climate change.

Compared to other scenarios, 100% nuclear has an additional problem: nuclear is by far the most hated energy source there is. That this hate and fear is based on decades of misinformation is regrettable, but immaterial. Mobilizing opposition to any plans to build an energy system that’s even mostly nuclear would be laughably easy. To be fair, right-wing populists today have begun to oppose renewable energy and wind power in particular with the same blatant disregard for facts, logic and research the shrillest anti-nuclear advocates perfected and weaponized in the 1980s, but this does little to make nuclear more popular, even though some do support nuclear simply to spite “the Greens”. Those of us who continue the fight against low-carbon energy sources they dislike are studiously ignoring the elephants in the room: that the most likely alternatives, and the largest beneficiaries from this fight, are fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the fight between low-carbon sources takes our time, saps our resources and results to personal animosities between those genuinely concerned about climate change. All these are regrettable enough outcomes of infighting in the best of times, and deadly threats today.

My interpretation of the world is that particularly right now, we environmentalists do not have the slightest hope of building the 2050 energy system we might really want. But we might have some hope to influence decisions so that we can reduce emissions instead of increasing them wildly. In other words, when we see proposals that might help, we should rally to help them come to fruition.

Barring several technological miracles, the Paris targets of 1.5°C, tenuous from the beginning, are almost certainly unachievable as the United States now puts her might against climate change mitigation. But we need to remind ourselves that this fight isn’t about 2°C or bust; every tenth of a degree counts, as there are degrees in any catastrophe.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Economy and the Environment, Energy, Innovation, Nuclear energy & weapons, Scarcities and constraints | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

There is now a far-right environmental movement, and I welcome it

I predicted a year ago that we’re going to see more diversity in the global environmental movement, because there are people who actually care about the environment but cannot buy into traditional, heavily Leftist and Western-centric environmentalism – or are not even welcome there.
Just after I wrote about how there is now a dire need for pragmatic environmentalism, I learned that the French far right now has their own environmental organization. I don’t agree with their policies, but at least they have one thing going on in their favor: they support nuclear power, which allowed France to reach in 1989 the climate targets Germany is hoping to achieve in 2050 – even despite great increases in energy consumption. Even if this movement opposes global climate treaties, simply keeping nuclear power operational could very possibly do more good than what the traditional French environmentalists could in reality achieve.
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CO2 emissions per capita and the fastest 10-year emission reduction rates in four countries, alongside means used to achieve them. Data from CDIAC carbon database and BP World Energy Outlook, figure from our book Climate Gamble: is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering our Future? 

This is going to be a test for those actually interested in protecting the environment instead of fighting a political proxy war through environmental issues: can we work together on issues where we agree, despite there being many issues where we can’t possibly agree? And can we, coming from the more traditional environmental mindset, learn to negotiate about our desires instead of demanding that the rest of the world must accept the set of solutions we set in stone in the 1980s and haven’t really bothered to adjust thereafter?
This fragmentation of environmentalism is, in my opinion, the inevitable result from increasing environmental awareness. Besides political differences in Western countries preventing many people from joining, the traditional environmentalism hasn’t really caught on in the wider world. This is for a good reason: for all its talk about inclusiveness and global responsibility, the traditional environmental movement is extremely Western-centric in just about everything. These values and attitudes may simply not speak to the people in other parts of the world as they do to some of us here in the West. The rest of the world needs, and will have, its own forms of environmentalism, just as different political groups are likely to form their own environmental organizations. All this can lead either to the death and fragmentation of environmentalism, or to a broad coalition of people who disagree on many things but might agree that we need to, for example, wean ourselves off fossil fuels. I believe we need the latter if we want to win the climate fight, but fear the traditional environmentalists are only going to denounce all new approaches as heresy of the highest order.
I believe it would be foolish to denounce these new environmental movements just as tools or trolls. The far right has always had a strong Romantic attachment to “blood and soil” and “unspoiled nature”, and it’s no secret that some former Nazis and fascists were involved in the founding of the modern Green movement – though claims that the Green movement is somehow fascist because of these connections is just paranoid fantasy. But these people still exist, even though they’ve been driven out from the traditional environmental movement, and there are legitimately people who hold political ideals I, for one, find odious, but who nevertheless care about our common environment.
The environmental problems we face are so severe that this is no time for making more enemies than is absolutely necessary. At this point, if the Devil himself were to increase global low-carbon energy supply or reduce emissions, I would find in myself to say something nice about the old fellow.
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The bubble of traditional environmentalism has burst; long live pragmatic environmentalism

In case any more confirmation was needed, 11/9 (or 9.11. for us Euros) was the final nail to the coffin of traditional environmentalism – at least when it comes to stopping the existential threat of climate change.

For years now, established environmental movements like Greenpeace, WWF, and Sierra Club have taken the prevention of dangerous climate change as one of the, if not THE, key objectives for the environmental movement. They are not mistaken to do so; out of all our current predicaments, only asteroid impacts and full-blown nuclear war are even on the same scale of existential threat for our civilization. Besides human civilization, climate change threatens to wreak havoc on the global ecosystem, and could make the sixth mass extinction one of the worst ones yet.

But for decades, the traditional environmental movement has also been extremely strict about the means it approves for averting this coming calamity. Most environmental organizations, for example, are dead set against the most important, second-largest source of low-carbon energy – nuclear power – and are highly critical about carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, and anything other than renewables and demand reductions as the answer. It’s all too often that these antiquated attitudes, dating from the 1980s or even earlier, cause these organizations to prioritize opposing nuclear power even at the expense of increased emissions.

As the urgency of climate change mitigation increases while the results of policies so far remain lackluster, there are more and more people who question the traditional prescriptions of the environmental movement and ask whether there might be a need for a more pragmatic policy and for all the options we can muster. In response, the traditional environmentalists explain their selectiveness about the weapons we use in the climate fight by saying that we don’t need them. There is a very strong 100% renewables movement that keeps repeating the same mantra all over again: given sufficient political will, renewables (and conservation) alone are sufficient to wean us off from both fossil fuels and nuclear in time to forestall a climate catastrophe. When pressed, these people generally admit that their plans would be very costly – but that when the external costs of energy sources and climate damage are “properly” accounted for, they’re actually cheaper than alternatives!

All this may be true, but it is also largely irrelevant. The Trump victory underscores the fatal flaw in the 100% renewables plans: outside our green bubble, we may never be able amass the required political will to put high enough  – “proper” – prices on carbon and other externalities so that the expensive 100% RE plans could become reality. There are various reasons why this is so, from economic costs inherent in high RE penetration to science denial to fossil fuel lobbyists to the uncomfortable fact that too many people oppose anything the “Greens” propose purely as a matter of principle.

And this is not just about Trump, as damaging as his policies may be to our chances of stopping climate change. Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would still have been bound by limitations of political capital. The problem here is not that half of the Americans voted for Hillary; the problem is that nearly half voted for Trump. And this is not an American problem, far from it. Similar discontent is on the rise in other countries as well, and Europe may well see more right-wing populists in power in the near future. (France, I’m looking at you.)

The uncomfortable truth which too few environmentalists have acknowledged publicly is that our current renewable energy and emission reduction trajectories are taking us nowhere in particular. While renewable energy sources are increasing, the rate of change is pitiful compared to what is actually needed. Even more ominously, the quantity of annual new installations is actually dropping in some areas with more variable energy sources – like Germany – long before required installation rates have been achieved. Nevertheless, the traditional environmentalists are behaving as if the climate fight is going well and right-wing populist victories represent merely a temporary setback. In reality, the problem is that climate fight has never really even got started properly, and now it may be aborted altogether. This graph summarizes the problem, and underscores the folly of spending energy and resources to fight nuclear power in addition to fossil fuels.

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Build rates, normalized per capita – and the required sustained level for 2°C. If we want to save low-lying countries, we’d need 1.5°C and even higher build rates. Source

The political difficulties inherent in attempting a major acceleration of current trends in renewable energy and emission reductions make it tremendously difficult to believe the massive economic realignments and public works envisioned in the more optimistic energy plans could possibly come to fruition. To pick just one example, a recent much-publicized 100% renewable electricity simulation required Germany to build some 800 gigawatts of electric transmission capacity by 2030. Aside from the small problem of the world cable industry being totally unable to provide the quantities of cabling needed for the plan in total, the reality is that even relatively modest additions – about ten gigawatts – in transmission capacity are now bogged down in local resistance, some of which is led by environmental organizations. It’s a deja vu from nuclear energy boom of the 1970s; the environmentalists just assumed this time that new energy sources would be totally acceptable to everyone, and seem to be genuinely surprised this isn’t always so. (See also here about the uncanny similarities between 1960s-70s nuclear boom and the current renewables enthusiasm.)

Is it really even ethical anymore to keep on believing – and suggesting to others – that political problems of 100% renewables are simply swept away once the people suddenly see how wrong they’ve been all these years? (Perhaps in 2020, or maybe in 2024, or at least in 2028…) How can we continue to believe this when the U.S. state most likely affected by climate change, Florida, voted solidly for Trump?

We in the environmentalist bubble may be willing to reduce our consumption and bear the costs and discomforts of emission reductions. Unfortunately, we tend to extrapolate and believe other people would do likewise only if we could provide them with more information about (say) climate change. But the world doesn’t seem to work that way. Some people actually see the proposals we have as threats to their identity and well-being, and may oppose us just out from spite. This is a fact that should be acknowledged, even if we shouldn’t pamper to such groups. We cannot make sustainable progress as long as we rely on plans that require the world to elect green leaders wholesale. Instead, we need plans that are resilient even if the populists win occasionally. (No conceivable plan could survive sustained populist rule, though.)

Traditional environmental movements have failed to come up with such plans, and continue to present extreme optimistic outliers (see graph below) as the only options. The sad truth is that while these plans may be technically feasible – that is, they probably do not break any laws of the nature – they cannot achieve meaningful climate mitigation unless everything goes just right. Technology has to develop in precisely the manner and schedule the optimists envision; economic problems need to be solved in time; and all this requires unprecedented political will while the economy is likely to undergo wrenching changes. And all this has to be sustained over decades. Take any one leg off this stool, or simply fail to sustain it, and the plans collapse in humiliation.

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164 different 100% renewable energy scenarios assessed by the IPCC in IPCC SRREN (2011). 100% RE plans that actually could deliver enough energy for a world of 9 to 10 billion people in 2050 are extreme outliers and often require, for example, devoting 1 to 3 Indias solely for biomass plantations and the invention of so far unknown technologies.

It’s not by any means certain that any plans could now avert dangerous climate change. We’re simply too late, and there are no silver bullets. But it’s certain that plans that require a revolution to occur first are even less likely to come to fruition. Sadly, the traditional environmental movement seems to be doubling up its demands for just such a green-red revolution – because it’s required for their extremely optimistic plans to work, and apparently heedless that these very threats of revolution mobilize conservative resistance. Revolutions may yet occur, but there’s an even chance they turn out to be fascist ones. In every revolution, it’s the scum that tends to float to the top.

What we need now are plans that openly acknowledge the political difficulties, the inertia, and the vagaries of human nature, instead of simulations that assume our technocrats can build everything from a clean slate and with cost or difficulty as no object. Traditional environmentalists have been extremely adept at pointing out various problems with increasing nuclear power generation rapidly, but so far they’ve all but ignored even the possibility that renewable energy sources and the infrastructure they require might also hit the wall of political opposition. This is a serious omission, since there is a chance better preparation might have reduced resistance. Perhaps it still can.

Environmentalists now also need to learn, and learn quick, that all the alternatives we have are imperfect, and that the utopian perfection is often the worst enemy of good enough. All energy sources suffer from their share of problems, and silver bullets simply don’t exist.

If we environmentalists continue to oppose the adequate because there is theoretically a perfect solution somewhere (generally, as long as it remains on paper), we all are committing the mistake many people made when voting for Jill Stein on the last elections. Voting for the “perfect” or even “least bad” candidate is a morally defensible position – but it can increase the risks that the worst option will actually be chosen. We now need to be extremely careful not to increase those risks simply because we don’t happen to like the more likely but less perfect candidate.

A pragmatic and extremely powerful message about climate change would be delivered if major environmental organizations stated that the situation now is so threatening that we need to think about all the options seriously – and not discount them with motivated reasoning. To discount any low-carbon, emission-reducing alternative, we now should demand very strong evidence.

However, it may well be that if the climate movement actually wants results in climate action, it now needs to make a break with traditional environmentalism, at least as far as much-hated solutions like nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and – yes – natural gas are concerned. Fighting two-front wars against fossil fuels and nuclear (among others) is just stupid; fighting a three-front war against fossil fuels, nuclear and nebulous concept of “capitalism” all but guarantees a defeat. (Just ask the Germans about the difficulties fighting two-front wars.)

If we can reduce emissions even somewhat using solutions that right-wingers can accept, we should do so. We simply don’t have the time to pout in our own bubble anymore and hope for a mass conversion of humanity to Green-Red principles; we need to engage in pragmatic policies that could work even if the United States doesn’t elect Jill Stein in 2020.

I’m saying this as a Democratic Socialist, who strives to see a world order based on justice, fairness and equality. It’s just that I’d prefer there is going to be a world, and a civilization, where my descendants can also strive for such outcomes. That’s why I support Ecomodernists and not the traditional environmental organizations, as much as I still like much of what these old-fashioned folks are doing.

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After the U.S. elections

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

Continue reading

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Why we don’t have the luxury of saying no to low-carbon energy, in one chart

Science Magazine

Reproduced as a public service from Anderson & Peters (2016), Science 354(6309), pp.182-183.

I’ve long maintained that the climate crisis is so acute that humanity simply does not have the luxury of picking and choosing which low-carbon energy sources we’d use. That option was foreclosed perhaps two decades ago, but the idea that we’ll lick the climate change with only our favorite technology dies hard.

Two recent studies highlight an important yet almost totally ignored problem with current climate plans and show why energy cultism must end. In short, these studies (and others like them) show just how much our plans depend on magical CO2-sucking technology conveniently appearing, and suggest that the Earth’s ability to sequester carbon on its own will decrease if we’re able to decrease atmospheric CO2 levels, causing a need for more active measures.

However, for the short term the more important of the two, and therefore the one I’m going to focus on in this post, is this paper from the hallowed pages of Science (one of the two “gold-plated” scientific publications in the world). In it, Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters dissect the assumptions that have gone into climate models and scenarios the world’s leaders believe might deliver us from excesses of runaway warming. What they find is alarming, to say the least: with few outlier exceptions, these models will not work without so-called negative emission technologies that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Without, the Paris target of 1.5°C (necessary to save small island states and many low-lying, poor countries from drowning) is right out, and even the more conservative 2°C is looking very unlikely.

The problem is, these technologies don’t actually exist. As the authors note in their paper, two decades of research have failed to produce a viable, economical technology for the easiest use case: removing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power plants. This failure bodes ill for the more difficult but, for climate plans, absolutely necessary use case, removal of carbon dioxide from bioenergy power plants. This largely theoretical technology, known as BECCS, or burning biomass while removing and storing its carbon dioxide emissions, is supposed to be widely used from 2030 onwards. But there’s very little indication it’ll be ready by then – if ever.

Even if the technology works, we’d still be faced with the problem of finding enough biomass to feed its voracious appetite. We’ve long criticized existing environmental organizations for their energy plans that blithely assume we can find as much new arable land for our energy plantations as is currently used for our most important staple crop, wheat. Similar problems abound in more “official” climate scenarios: the two authors helpfully calculate that we’d need the total land area of one to two Indias just to grow the feedstocks, note that logistics of such undertaking (equivalent to up to half of the total global primary energy consumption) aren’t considered, and conclude that even if we make it work somehow, the biodiversity loss could equal that projected from 2.8°C warming.

I’m not an expert but can forecast that if a plan requires harnessing a subcontinent or two, there could be some difficulties ahead.

Negative emission technologies such as BECCS are used in the climate scenarios because they are easy fixes for a very difficult problem. However, the magnitude of our reliance on them is rarely communicated to decision-makers and the public, partly because climate scenarios are reported using net carbon emissions only. But what if BECCS and other fantasy technologies fail to deliver, as they very well may do?

Then we’re in a deep doo-doo. And the depth of the hole we’ll find ourselves in is greatly influenced by the existence of lamentable energy cults. Even at this late hour, there are very influential persons arguing that we shouldn’t use – or won’t need – technology X or technology Y for emission reductions.

This, too, is fantastical thinking. It’s an energy cult straight from the trenches of 1980s energy debates, and it’s woefully out of date when the world is headed towards four or more degrees of warming. All technologies have their challenges and if history is anything to go by (see my previous piece on historical energy transitions here), all technologies will suffer from problems and issues the optimist boosters won’t see in advance. Renewable energy revolutions have already shown they’re not as quick or easy as some believed, if we failed to learn the exact same lesson from the stalled nuclear energy revolution of the 1960s. I predict BECCS “revolution” will also suffer from a variety of unforeseen (or, more properly, foreseen but ignored in the initial optimism) problems, and that its rollout will not be as easy as the official scenarios believe.

The bottom line, therefore, is clear: as long as we’ve actually demonstrated in practice that we can get deep enough emission cuts with a given set of solutions, we should be extremely wary of opposing any potential partial solution to the climate crisis. These, by the way, include degrowth, downshifting and other “social” solutions – we shouldn’t think only technology will or even can help us out here, although we shouldn’t discount technological solutions either.

We don’t have a plan or planet B nor time to concoct one: we have one shot and one shot only to make this thing work, so let’s make sure we throw everything we’ve got at this mess and hope and pray some solutions at least work. Either get on the act or get out of the way, and stop trying to derail projects that might help, even if you don’t love the solution.

PS. I’d strongly suggest everyone follow Kevin Anderson (Twitter: @KevinClimate) and Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen), and listen to their many recorded presentations about the scale of the climate/energy problem. (This one is a good start.) As I’ve often noted, everyone who thinks climate/energy problem is easy to lick doesn’t really understand the problem.

PPS. Following a great suggestion from an actual anthropologist (@NuclearAnthro, follow him as well!), I’ve corrected this article so that it talks of “energy cults” rather than “energy tribalism.” I like the word “cult” more (IÄ FTAGN!), and “tribalism” has some rather unfortunate, not to say inaccurate connotations. I suggest all energy/climate peeps switch over as well.  

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The problem is, islands is what we have now – some thoughts on Stewart Brand’s essay “Rethinking Extinction”

If you want to read an article that simultaneously enlights, delights and gives hope, you could do much worse than to read this excellent Aeon essay on extinctions penned by one of the titans of the environmental movement – Stewart Brand.

Brand provides a fascinating counterargument to oft-heard discourse about species extinctions and the “Sixth Mass Extinction” now caused by humans. He argues that biodiversity is in fact increasing dramatically, and has been doing so for the last 200 million years (see the chart below). Despite the sometimes horrendous damage humans can inflict upon the environment and the undeniable plight of many species, we are not destroying the environment as a whole. Instead, “the frightening extinction statistics that we hear” are largely about small island ecosystems that comprise only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but are the site of 95% of all bird, 90% of all reptile, and 60% of all mammal extinctions since 1600. (The island ecosystems have not, by and large, collapsed as a result – they’ve evolved to a different form.) Besides, these extinctions have already happened, since most vulnerable species are already gone.

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Fossil record shows biodiversity has been increasing for 200 million years. Chart courtesy of Wikimedia and the original Aeon article.

Regrettable as they are, these local losses have very little effect on the overall ecological health of the planet. Brand argues that since continents and oceans are much larger, it is unlikely even major die-offs or habitat destructions would collapse the ecosystems there. Species can move to new locations, and if a species dies, it leaves a niche free for some other species to exploit – and there is some evidence that die-offs are actually accelerating the global evolutionary rates. Islands have been a special case because of their simpler ecosystems, which is also a major reason why they’re also the best studied: they’ve been used as laboratories.

However, the fly in this ointment might be that all we have left may be islands. This was the opinion of a Finnish academician and conservation biologist Ilkka Hanski, who devoted his distinguished career to the study of threatened animal and plant species. Based on his experience on habitat patchiness, developed in part on innumerable small islands in the Finnish archipelago, he developed a theory of “island ecology” on mainlands. (More accurately, “metapopulation theory for fragmented landscapes” – PDF link.) Even though continents are indubitably larger, human activity has in effect made the remaining habitats as islands: small patches of nature amidst a sea of paved roads, power lines, cities, farms, mines, factories and wastelands.

Hanski, whose untimely death in May will be sorely regretted, repeatedly stressed how even seemingly healthy populations that on paper have enough square kilometers to roam may in fact teeter precariously on brink of extinction because their habitats have been fragmented through human activity. This is a major issue that isn’t adequately addressed in many simpler measures of environmental health, and which may well resist quantification into a simple metric.

Nevertheless, habitat fragmentation is a real problem, and while there are some ways to mitigate it (for example, roads may be built with tunnels or bridges that let animals across), it seems clear we simply cannot continue our encroachment into natural spaces without a risk of causing major damage even to continental ecosystems. The nature of this beast is that impacts are nonlinear: habitat fragmentation may go on for quite a while without many noticeable ill effects, but after some threshold is reached, a cascading collapse might well result. Worse, habitat fragmentation also hinders the mechanisms Brand hopes will help restore ecosystems after collapse of keystone species. Species may migrate and there may be a species capable of filling the hole, but what if they can’t move because their remaining habitats are isolated islands in the human-built world?

I cannot claim to know biology in more than the most rudimentary fashion, but Hanski’s writings have impacted me at least quite a bit. Fears of habitat fragmentation are one of the reasons I disagree with traditional environmentalists, as their energy scenarios seem to pay lip service at most to this problem. While all environmental organizations agree that ecosystem degradation is a major problem, they nevertheless see no problems announcing or supporting grand plans that would harness vast areas of the world solely for energy production. As this image shows, such plans are likely to result to significant added habitat fragmentation, even considering that some buildup can be done on areas already disturbed by human activities.

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The simple, unavoidable fact is that less dense energy means more ecosystem fragmentation per energy unit generated. Image from our book Climate Gamble, based on actual projects.

Some may think bringing up energy in a discussion about ecosystem damage is tedious, but I disagree. These things really are interconnected, and it is very hard to conserve and protect Earthly life if, at the same time, we must gird the Earth with the harness of power grids, power farms, and energy plantations.

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A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling. (Reblogged)

In the following post, Nicholas Thompson performs a very good examination of the much-publicized study that sought to “prove” commitment to nuclear power slows down CO2 emission reductions. Well, turns out the paper suffers from a basic math error – among other problems. Correcting the error turns the conclusions upside down and shows countries with active nuclear policy achieve on average better emission reductions, but I have a suspicion these corrections will not be reported as widely as the original paper. Nevertheless, here goes:

A few months ago I read a paper, “Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence?” and after reading it,…

Source: A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling.

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