I’m no longer advocating for clean energy; here’s why.

My Finnish readers will already know that I announced some time ago that I’m done with energy/climate change discussions. I’ve been following the debate actively since about 2007 and have been writing about it since late 2010. I’ve written two books about the topic, one of which is translated to five languages, and blogged fairly regularly. But now it’s time to do something else.

The main reason why I’m refocusing is because I think the debate is going nowhere, and I don’t want to waste my time on a futile project. We are not going to get a decarbonized energy system by 2050. We are going to fail the climate targets, probably by a large margin, and I suspect that a warming of about 3 degrees centigrade is going to be almost inevitable. It’s perfectly possible that self-amplifying feedback mechanisms under way will amplify this change even more. What this will mean for humans is difficult to assess, but I doubt it’s going to be anything good for the vast majority. The global poor will suffer the most, while we here in the rich North may be able – at least in the short term – to insulate ourselves from the worst effects and retreat to our own virtual bubbles to avoid hearing the cries of the others.

The reason why we’re going to fail is because we’re lulled into optimistic complacency. An occasional follower of the energy and climate news will inevitably conclude that climate change is as good as solved: page after page gushes about the relentless, inevitable progress of renewables and the just about imminent downfall of fossil fuel behemoths.

The reality, of course, is quite different from these uncritical pronouncements.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.001

Share of low-carbon energy as a share of total energy supply. Graph from our book Climate Gamble.

14947747_10154783178612728_7588800298934503291_n

Actually achieved build rates for different energy sources in history, and the required rate for 2°C target. Picture by Carl Hellesen.

Despite the very real advances of low-carbon energy sources in the recent decades, fossil fuels are still – relatively speaking – just as dominant as they were in 1980s. Since the global energy use has increased from those days, the problem of replacing practically all fossil fuel and most of the biomass use by 2050 (which would be required to stay at accepted climate targets) is hideously difficult.

However, nothing about this urgency is communicated to the broader audience. In general, people want to hear happy stories that fit their preconceptions; and the looming Ultimate Victory of renewable energy fits perfectly to the preconceptions of almost all environmentalists (who are also the only ones really concerned about the climate change). The people want to hear that the new energy messiah will deliver us from the evil; and scores of people around the world deliver. Very vocal groups argue that accomplishing 100% renewable energy system by 2050 is going to be easy and cheap; I can’t but keep on thinking how long it will take for the optimist groups to begin asserting that THEIR plan can do it by 2049 while giving everyone a pony as well.

Because we’ve been here before. In the 1960s nuclear energy was supposed to be THE energy source for the 2000s. Oil drilling was supposed to become unprofitable by the turn of the millennium, and the only real question was exactly how many nuclear power plants we’d ultimately end up building. The gushing, completely uncritical rhetoric that totally ignored any and all concerns about technical, economic and political issues inherent in such grand, technocratic schemes is almost word to word identical to the rhetoric employed today in 100% RE circles, as I’ve documented in several essays (e.g. here, here, here and here).

I and many others have tried to point out that there are still unsolved issues and potential pitfalls between the rhetoric and the ultimate, total victory of renewable energy. I at least have done this because I’d like to see renewable energy prosper: most if not all of us really are concerned about issues such as RE growth curve being logistic, integration costs, hidden environmental issues and local resistance to massive projects such as wind parks and power lines. We think that these issues have been downplayed or ignored entirely in the optimistic discussion, and that in order for renewable energy industry to avoid making the mistakes the nuclear industry made in the 1970s and 1980s, these issues would need to be addressed – soon. And, yes, we’ve been saying that a prudent climate mitigation strategy should include nuclear power as well, at least for as long as it is ACTUALLY DEMONSTRATED IN PRACTICE – not just in theoretical modeling – that major nations can get most of their energy from renewable sources alone.

All this has been to no avail. Realism never makes for a good copy, as long as there are people who make a living from selling a dream instead. No matter what we do, critical discussion of problems that are likely to crop up when renewable energy use increases has been confined to the blogs and discussions between a small group of like-minded people. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising: after all, this is also exactly what happened with nuclear energy as well. Critics of the nuclear dream were ignored, downplayed and vilified – until at some point, with enough experience, the actual techical, economic and political challenges became too large to ignore.

And that brings me to the last reason why I’m quitting. It’s bad enough that people who claim to be critical thinkers for the environment have swallowed the renewable advocacy hook, line and sinker (to the extent that it is environmentalists who most vocally deny that renewable energy could possibly have inadvertent environmental impacts) and are actively trying to undermine other low carbon energy, such as nuclear. However, the last straw to me is to keep on hearing that those who don’t uncritically buy the wildest renewable energy dreams and have some good questions about the research and thinking behind the dreams are shills for fossil fuels or nuclear power, and therefore the enemies of “proper” environmentalists. (See e.g. this piece.)

The fact that James Hansen, probably the most prominent climate researcher ever, is one of those critics (as are many other climate researchers around the world) makes no difference to these accusations.

I’ve been involved in environmental issues for a very long time now. I was a founding partner of the first eco-design consultancy in Finland in 2007, and I’m one of the founding members of the most recent environmental organization in Finland – the Finnish ecomodernist society. I’ve made major life choices to reduce my personal environmental impact, and have lectured for nearly a decade on how to design products that are less bad for the environment. (I always tell my students that if they want real change, they need to be more active politically – that designing “greener” products is good but a bit like rearranging deck chairs on board the Titanic.) I’m going to continue doing so, and I’m going to continue to advocate for climate change mitigation and clean energy in my own circles if the topic crops up. I may also comment every now and then if I feel like it, but I’m not going to follow the debate closely any longer.

temperature rise and its effects

My reasons to support almost all solutions that can reduce our carbon footprint, in one image.

But, since I’m so concerned about climate change that I favor keeping the options open until very high penetration of renewable energy is demonstrated in practice, I’m not welcome to the climate or environmental community, where opposition to nuclear power is a foundational precept of their beliefs and takes priority over practically all other considerations. I have no doubt that if, and probably when, the current wonder energy stalls in a manner very reminiscent of the stall of the nuclear power in the 1980s, I will be one of those people who are going to be blamed for the outcome. The explanation (that is already being practiced as renewable expansion is encountering the first signs of real trouble) will be that naysayers and the fossil fuel industry were in cahoots to stop the perfect energy source of the future. After all, this is the explanation the most ardent supporters of nuclear power have concocted: since they’ve convinced themselves that the technology was already very nearly perfect, the only possible reason for its demise has to be a conspiracy of critics and fossil fuel interests.

This attitude where the echo chambers of the faithful convince the participants to simply ignore the very real limitations of renewable energy, and the complacent optimism bred into the broader public by absolutely uncritical coverage of renewable energy claims and the renewable energy industry (which, by the way, is vastly larger, more profitable and more powerful than “big bad” nuclear industry), are the prime reasons we’re going to fail. We’d need much more effort to climate mitigation, but how on Earth can we persuade the people to vote for more effort and more hardships, when every environmental organization shouts out loud that the victory of renewable energy is just around the corner?

Perhaps we’d be losing even if this wasn’t the case. Fossil fuel interests and the logic of current capitalism are so powerful and they have such a grip on world’s economy (and hence politics) that this may have been a losing battle regardless. Nevertheless, these divisions within the environmental movement critically diminish our influence just when we all ought to be advocating for more clean energy – not less, as many “green” organizations are de facto doing. We ought to fight and defeat the Great Enemy first, and then – only then – resume the old fight between nuclear and renewables. But that’s not going to happen. Some blame for this lies within nuclear advocates, too – too many are nothing but mirror images of the individuals and organizations they claim are anti-science or unwilling to change their outdated thinking. That said, it is only from the ranks of the 100% RE advocates where I keep on hearing that we should exclude some potential solutions just on principle; there is nothing close to similar attitude within pro-nuclear environmentalist circles, few zealots excepted.

Yet nothing changes; we’ve had all these discussions at least a decade ago, and if my stash of old books is any indication, since the 1970s at least. Feel free to continue with this fruitless debate if you want; I’m going to direct my energy elsewhere.

(For those interested, my day job these days is researching the implications of blockchain technologies, the building of trust networks and digital identities, and in place of following the neverending energy/climate debate I’ve recently studied the criticisms of prevailing economic system, and the possibilities of radical left politics that would make “Star Trek socialism” – or Fully Automated Luxury Communism – a topic of serious political debate. Yes, I’m going over to utopianism; after all, based on my experiences in the energy debates, the more outrageous a plan is the more it seems to sell. And maybe it’s also more fun proposing endless pies from the sky, rather than toiling on the details and problems. So many people are doing it in energy discussions, and they must have their reasons.)

 

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About J. M. Korhonen

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19 Responses to I’m no longer advocating for clean energy; here’s why.

  1. Cold Air says:

    Reblogged this on Colder Air and commented:
    “Realism never makes for a good copy, as long as there are people who make a living from selling a dream instead”

    Perhaps those that remain in the quagmire will speak of this one who got out.
    Maybe not.

  2. I consider myself one of nuclear energy’s most ardent advocates, so I felt the need to respond to the following statement.

    “After all, this is the explanation the most ardent supporters of nuclear power have concocted: since they’ve convinced themselves that the technology was already very nearly perfect, the only possible reason for its demise has to be a conspiracy of critics and fossil fuel interests.”

    The history of nuclear technology development is far too complex to point to any single aspect as the only possible reason for a particular outcome at a particular time.

    I am convinced by evidence, both direct and circumstantial that the fossil fuel industry and its allies played a major role in derailing and hampering nuclear technology from both a research & development perspective and from a deployment/expansion perspective. They did not work in isolation, however, and joined forces with people that were critical of nuclear energy for other reasons, including a desire to halt and reverse human development.

    There is no doubt that there were errors committed by true believers in nuclear technology, but there were also a number of purposeful actions committed by people and companies whose loyalties were divided. They might have had some interests in nuclear, but they also had numerous interests in other energy generation technologies. Many individual engineers move seamlessly between designing equipment for nuclear power plants and designing equipment for fossil fuel plants or wind turbines. Their income is not dependent on the success of nuclear, and they often have no emotional attachment to any particular technology other than the one that they are being paid to work on at the time.

    Many companies have similar divided loyalties. In fact, there are very few that have more interest in nuclear than in some other field of endeavor. They are a part of the nuclear industry, but they are not “nuclear” companies.

    There is tremendous room for nuclear technology to improve, especially along the vectors of providing cost effective solutions to the energy supply challenges of a wider range of customers than just large electricity generators. We’ve made plenty of internal errors, but it is a shortsighted mistake to believe that there hasn’t been serious opposition and well funded handicapping involved in the temporary “demise” of nuclear technology development.

    IMO, nuclear is only part way up the first ‘S-curve’ of technology development. There’s a huge body of work necessary, but the asymptotes that will eventually be limiting are not even in sight yet.

    • Thanks Rod, and I wish you all the best. I’m still not convinced that the opposition was as major a factor as you seem to think, but I can change my opinion, so keep working on it!

      Thanks for all the work to you as well, even if we disagree on some issues I still think your work has been of great value.

  3. Your voice in the debate will be a loss. I wish you good fortune in whatever you pursue from here.

    • Thanks! I’ll probably write another post later, explaining the environmental motivations for my pivot towards more direct political advocacy. In short, I think we need political change because climate change cannot be solved, and there is a real threat of descending to fascism as as a result.

  4. I enjoyed your blog. It is a lone voice of Reason in the climate change debate wilderness. Not to worry though, some of this crazy stuff on the internet just might work.

    • Thank you, and I hope others pick up the slack. I’ll be posting more about my comparison project between rhetorical histories of dream energy systems, but as that project isn’t funded I’ll be working on it only occasionally.

  5. I know of no serious history of nuclear that agrees with this claim:

    “In the 1960s nuclear energy was supposed to be THE energy source for the 2000s. Oil drilling was supposed to become unprofitable by the turn of the millennium, and the only real question was exactly how many nuclear power plants we’d ultimately end up building.”

    You appear to just be uncritically repeating that famous oft-cited speech of Lewis Strauss.

    Here’s what two of the best nuclear historians of the era write:

    “Further, the financial inducements that the AEC offered through its
    power demonstration reactor program did not eliminate the
    risks to a company’s balance sheets. The capital and operating
    costs of atomic power were certain to be much higher
    than those for fossil fuel plants. Across the industry, the
    prospects of realizing short-term profits from nuclear power
    were unlikely. An American Management Association symposium
    in 1957 concluded, “The atomic industry has not
    been—and is not likely to be for a decade—attractive as far
    as quick profits are concerned.” When Lewis Strauss made
    his oft-quoted statement in 1954 that nuclear power could
    provide electricity “too cheap to meter,” he was indulging in
    a flight of fancy. His remark did not represent the views of
    the AEC or the fledging nuclear industry that knew that the
    heavy investments required were a major impediment to the
    growth of nuclear power.

    “In addition to technical and financial considerations, recognition
    of the hazards of the technology intensified industry’s
    reservations about nuclear power. Based on experience
    with Government test reactors and the prevailing faith in
    the ability of scientists and engineers to solve technological
    problems, the AEC and industry leaders regarded the
    chances of a disastrous atomic accident as remote. However,
    they did not dismiss the possibility entirely. Francis K. McCune,
    General Manager of the Atomic Products Division of
    General Electric, told the Joint Committee in 1954 that “no
    matter how careful anyone in the atomic energy business
    may try to be, it is possible that accidents may occur.”
    Mindful of both the costs and the risks of atomic power,
    the electric utility industry responded to the Atomic Energy
    Act of 1954 and the AEC’s demonstration program with
    restraint.”

    You seem motivated to create a false equivalence of nuclear and renewables, but that just leads you to distort the actual history.

    Thanks for your good work and sorry to see you go.

    Good luck on whatever you decide to do next.

    Michael

    • Note that I’m comparing rhetoric aimed at popular consumption and optimist prognostications, not recounting actual policy as these fine historians have done. If you read popular press of the day – say, Popular Mechanics – it’s almost impossible to miss the gushing pronouncements how the “Age of the Atom” is going to change everything. There were more sober assessments as well, mostly from people who were better versed in actual technology; but there were also quite uncritical supporters who confidently proclaimed that oil would be obsolete by 2000.

      This had real effect as well: two of my favorite examples are early 1960s discussions within the Finnish Agrarian Party (not known even today for innovativeness) about the possibilities of “uranium and thorium energy”, and a regional energy plan from 1968 where the question for the 1990s would be whether to build a single atomic power station to cover the entire energy (not just electricity) demand of the Satakunta region, or whether it might be preferable to distribute the generation to _two_ stations. Finnish paper mills were planning to build as many as 20 reactors to provide distributed power to individual paper mills, and there were announcements that nuclear power would make the existing grid obsolete, because small reactors and “atomic batteries” would provide all the power needed. Poor countries could leapfrog the development and ignore building expensive grids entirely, and so on and so on.

      Sounds familiar, eh?

      I’ll be continuing with this comparison project, particularly if I get funding for it, but results may be some time coming.

      Thank you, and I hope all the best for your efforts, even if I sometimes disagree on tone and details. I’ll try to provide some support every now and then; it’s just that I can’t stay current on the debates any longer.

      • As you probably know, I agree with Mike’s perspective on this.
        AFAICT, it’s reasonable to say that IF antinuclear advocacy had stuck honestly to evidence-based criticism of nuclear energy – rather than concoct the most misleading, fear-inducing falsehoods – to argue their case, the nuclear debate would likely have been settled decades ago, and all but the most optimistic projections of nuclear progress may well have come true. They may have come true because the process of enabling nuclear energy would not have been so severely hobbled by the need to be (literally) a million times safer and cleaner in relative terms than the most relevant competition: coal power.

        The situation with the current (100%) renewables debate is a almost a mirror image of the long running nuclear debate. In the renewables debate, it truly is the renewables optimists who are always presenting wild, incredible projections of renewables performance and growth, while it is their critics who present arguments that are solidly fact-based.

        (It is the inherent complexity of the relevant issues that allows renewables advocates to deliberately wield flawed arguments with impunity, like the antinuclear advocates have been doing through modern history: They know very well that they do not need to convince experts, they just need to confuse the public.)

        While I can see how your efforts pointing out apparent similarities between nuclear optimism at the time, and renewables optimism today can serve a useful purpose, I would say that in the course of noting similarities, noting the crucial differences should not be neglected. When the renewable optimists are ultimately proven wrong, it will be because their projections weren’t credible to begin with. The early nuclear optimists – on the other hand – were very likely proven wrong largely because the organised opposition succeeded in undermining crucial public acceptance through the use of misinformation only, to create extraordinary fear, uncertainty and doubt.

  6. You made a great, lasting contribution. Thank you.

    We’ll always have Paris ;).

    Ben

  7. Gene Preston says:

    I agree we might have a chance at solving climate change with nuclear. Without it not a chance.

  8. Ikemeister says:

    Janne, sorry to see you go. I’ll miss your contributions to the ongoing energy debate and your advocacy for nuclear even though I consider your acceptance of the newables as part of the solution to be a dead end. I especially appreciated your open approach and willingness to take the time to explain your position even if the audience may have been merely one person. 😉

  9. Bernt Førre says:

    I see hope in what China is doing. They are investing in large renewable facilities and power transmission at the same time as they streamline present nuclear technology and invest in long time-scale development.
    China is facing serious environmental challenges and looks to me to be trying to face up to realities.
    The Responsible Party model may not be the worst concept of government to tackle large-scale grave issues. The Politics as Marketing Exercise shows are certainly not showing capability to do serious problem-solving work.

  10. “I’ve recently studied the criticisms of prevailing economic system, and the possibilities of radical left politics that would make “Star Trek socialism” – or Fully Automated Luxury Communism – a topic of serious political debate. Yes, I’m going over to utopianism; after all, based on my experiences in the energy debates, the more outrageous a plan is the more it seems to sell. And maybe it’s also more fun proposing endless pies from the sky, rather than toiling on the details and problems.”

    I sure can relate to that. And maybe our paths will cross again as we’re working to get the energy source realized that fits this dream: the thorium MSR. Lobbying to get its research funded is the fun part of this journey. The debate on clean energy is the dirty part of this work – so I’m gratefull you have been doing it.

    I wish you all the best – and just drop by on our fb page every year or so, maybe we’ll manage to get one pie out of that sky!

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