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Movie review: SWITCH

Filed under: — raypierre @ 2 April 2013

This year, the Geological Society of America is rolling out their SWITCH Energy Awareness campaign . The centerpiece of the campaign is a documentary film, SWITCH, which purports to be about the need for a transformation in the world’s energy systems. Recently, I attended the Chicago premier of the film, presented as part of the Environmental Film Series of the Lutheran School of Theology. I had high hopes for this film. They were disappointed. Given the mismatch between what the movie promises and what it delivers, it would be more aptly titled, “BAIT AND SWITCH.”
Switch Still

The film is soporifically narrated by Scott Tinker , of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, who was also the major content advisor for the film. This a guy who has never met a fossil fuel he didn’t like. Dramatic footage of giant coal seams being merrily blasted to bits and carted off by hefty he-men driving 400 ton trucks are interspersed with wide-eyed kid-gloves interviews of energy-industry workers and executives in which Tinker looks like he’s overdosed on Quaaludes by way of preparation. There are a few segments on renewables thrown in, and even the token environmentalist or two, but the impression you get over most of the film is that only the fossil fuel guys have the right stuff.

Fossil fuels are unrelentingly portrayed as powerful, cool and desirable. Problems are swept under the rug, or given only the barest mention, mostly as a prelude to casual dismissal. Shots of the giant scar of an open pit coal mine in the Powder River basin cut over to shots of a credulous Tinker nodding like a bobble-headed doll while the foreman explains to him how it will all be all right because they saved the topsoil and will put it all back the way it was. Maybe that’s true, but given the intuitive implausibility of recreating a living, breathing ecosystem from the lunar lanscape the mining created, one would like to see at least a little probing of how well that all works out. Imagine Tinker coming upon a bunch of kids fiddling with a disemboweled flayed cat. This is how I imagine the interview would play out:

TINKER: Looks like you guys got yourself a dead cat there!
BOYS: Yep, did it ourselves. But dontcha worry, we saved the fur, and we’re gonna put everything back JUST THE WAY IT WAS!
TINKER: (glassy-eyed and nodding) Why, that’s just AMAZING!

Be that as it may, you never get to see or hear anything about mountain top removal coal mining (hint: they don’t save the mountaintop and put it back). On a tour of the Alberta Tar Sands, you get to see the insides of an antiseptic lab where happy technicians reverently pass around an adorable little flask of dilute bitumen (it looks so pure don’t you just want to drink it right down) while Tinker gapes in awe, but you never get to see the vast scale of environmental destruction wrought by tar sands mining outside. And while the film eventually gets around to loving natural gas, it skirts around the paradox that the tar sands consume a relatively low-carbon clean fuel (natural gas) that could be used directly as transportation fuel, to produce a dirty high carbon product (dilute bitumen and petcoke). Happy drillers on a mighty Shell offshore platform duly tsk-tsk about the big Oopsie! that was the Deepwater Horizon blowout, while assuring viewers that they’ve got that one licked, and golly no that couldn’t happen to us. Why, they even have Internet so they can get advice from the mainland if they need it!

Renewables, in contrast, are portrayed in a way that makes them seem wimpy — mainly by making inappropriate comparisons between small scale distributed power production sites and massive centralized power plants or oil production facilities. Tinker makes a lot of noise about the fact that the solar thermal site he visits in Spain was clouded over during the whole time they were filming it, which is probably meant to teach some lesson about intermittency, but instead leaves the viewer with a vague impression that renewables are not to be trusted. The film manages to say some nice things about the benefits of wind power in West Texas, and about Icelandic geothermal power, but on the whole the potential for renewable power comes off as fairly marginal, maybe the sort of thing little countries like Denmark or Iceland or Norway can rely on, but not big important places like us.

The truly fatal flaw of SWITCH, however, is that it never comes right out and explains why it is so critical for the world’s energy systems to switch off of fossil fuels, and why time is of the essence in making the switch. There are some oblique references to CO2 emissions, but no mention of the essentially irreversible effect of these emissions on climate, of the need to keep cumulative emissions under a trillion tonnes of carbon if we are to have a chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, or of how short the remaining time is before we hit this limit at the rate we are going. On the contrary, SWITCH positively revels in the idea that fossil fuels will never run out, given a high enough price (which, by the way, is probably not true). The clueless Washington Post review of SWITCH shows how utterly the film has failed in what should have been its prime educational mission. The reviewer writes “Why not continue to use coal and oil while developing other energy sources and technologies?” The answer, my friend, is that CO2 is forever, and its effects are not nearly so pretty as diamonds. But neither the reviewer, nor any other viewer, could be expected to learn this from SWITCH.

You begin to suspect something is really wrong when the first guy on screen to say something about climate is Richard Muller, of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project fame, who managed to convert himself from a climate change denialist to a lukewarmer by arduously and noisily rediscovering what every working climate scientist already knew to be true. What Muller has to say about climate is that burning fossil fuels will cause the Earth to warm by about 2 degrees (“if the calculations are right”), but it’s going to be too expensive to stop it so we’ll just learn to live with it. There are so many things wrong with Muller’s statement that I hardly know where to begin. First, it is far from clear that a 2 degree warmer world is one that we can adapt to, or that the damages caused by such a climate would not overwhelm the costs of keeping it from happening in the first place. Second, if climate sensitivity is at the high end of the IPCC range or even beyond, we could be facing far greater than 2 degrees of warming even if we hold the line at cumulative emissions of a trillion tonnes of carbon. Third, even if climate sensitivity is at the middle of the IPCC range, that 2 degree figure assumes that we hold the line at burning one trillion tonnes of carbon (and we’re already halfway there). There are probably enough economically recoverable fossil fuels to go way beyond a trillion tonnes, which would take us to truly scary territory, especially in conjunction with high climate sensitivity. It gets worse once you realize that Muller’s cheery dismissal of the problem is essentially all you’re going to hear about the connection between fossil fuel burning and climate disruption. OK, so if the producer’s aim is for this film to play well in Nebraska, you can understand why he might not have wanted Tinker to interview somebody like Jim Hansen who’s been on the front lines of the climate wars and spent time in pokey for it, but how about Susan Solomon or Isaac Held, or Myles Allen or Richard Alley? How about any real climate scientist at all who could give an honest appraisal of what the world is going to be like if we continue unrestrained burning of fossil fuels — especially if fossil fuels never run out, as this film so cheerily predicts.

SWITCH is made to appeal to fans of an “all of the above” energy strategy, but it never confronts the fact that if we want to preserve a livable climate, “all” simply cannot include continued (let alone expanded) use of fossil fuels for very much longer. The biggest challenge we face is not learning how to extract every last scrap of fossil fuel, but learning how to leave most of it in the ground. This fault pervades every nook and cranny of the film. When discussing carbon capture and storage (CCS), an interviewee quite rightly declares that the only clean coal would be coal burned with CCS; Tinker goes on to lament that we could make coal clean, but it’s too expensive so we won’t do it. The only conclusion to be drawn from this would be that in that case coal has to be crossed off the energy menu. But instead Tinker moves on without ever giving a thought to this discomforting conclusion. And it is not very comforting to hear Steve Koonin (former chief scientist for BP/Amoco and currently Obama’s Undersecretary of Energy) and Ernest Moniz (head of MIT’s energy program, Obama’s pick to head the DOE, and a major natural gas booster) spend so much time on screen defending fossil fuels. “It can’t be all bad,” says Koonin, in reference to coal. Well, actually, from here on in, coal is all bad, and the less of it anybody burns, the better.

The segment on the developing world fails because it never addresses the question of what pattern of development could sustainably provide a decent standard of living for the worlds’ poor. Instead, in essence, it asks the question of what it would take to remake the world in Scott Tinker’s image — with all the energy usage that entails. In fact, you never get to see anybody but Tinker’s family using energy in their home, so you get no impression of how much access to a mere 200 watts of reliable power could transform the lives of poor Indians or Africans. At the outset of the film, Tinker arrogantly sets up his own energy consumption in his life as a Texas professor driving his oversized car from his sprawling house in the sprawling suburbs to wherever he is going in the course of his day as the measure of the energy required to support “a person” throughout the rest of the film. SWITCH shows no awareness that living in cities in and of itself leads to a lower carbon footprint, and that sound urban planning can multiply this advantage. This is an especially glaring omission, since most of the world’s people now live in cities, and the proportion is set to increase in the future. SWITCH never tells you that China could attain the standard of living of France without increasing its emissions at all, just by increasing the carbon efficiency of its economy to the current French level; nor does it tell you about China’s growing efforts in that direction, including most recently, a carbon tax. What SWITCH teaches you about the developing world is: They’re all gonna want cars and big houses like us, and they won’t go low-carbon because it’s too expensive, they’ll never pay for it and we won’t pay for them to do it either, so their emissions will soon swamp ours and nothing we do to reduce our own emissions will make much difference. It’s pretty much the standard “But … China!” argument promulgated by opponents of action to protect our climate. The fact that we will all pay for the consequences of a wrecked climate never figures into any of the costs mentioned in this movie.

SWITCH plays Pollyanna on energy technologies to such an extent that I found it off-putting even when the film was advocating things I basically agree with. I think cheap, fracked natural gas has made a useful contribution to reducing the growth rate of US CO2 emissions, but I cringe when SWITCH parrots the industry-sponsored myth that we have a sure 100 year supply of natural gas (we don’t ). Further, as Michael Levi’s cogent study points out, natural gas has at best a very short-lived role as a bridge fuel. Moreover, if cheap natural gas kills off renewables and next generation nuclear, it is not only a short bridge, but a bridge to nowhere. I think expansion of nuclear energy has an essential role to play in decarbonizing our energy supply, and I greatly admire the success France has had with their transition to nuclear electricity. But I doubt I would have found the credulous interviews with American and French nuclear workers particularly reassuring if I weren’t already familiar with the issues from other sources. Even the segment on Norwegian hydropower, with which SWITCH auspiciously opens, manages to give the false impression that most Nordic hydropower is free-run hydro with a relatively light footprint on the environment; In fact, Norwegian and Swedish hydropower rely on a massive network of dams and reservoirs which have disrupted the lives of indigenous peoples killed off salmon runs, and destroyed whole ecosystems. When the Suorva dam created Akkajaure in Northern Sweden, it drowned a biologically diverse chain of lakes and wetlands and turned off what used to be Europe’s largest waterfall.There is no question that hydropower is an important component of a carbon-free energy supply, but it is not helpful to sweep its environmental costs under the rug. Hydropower provides an example of the kind of difficult choice about conflicting environmental goods that global warming forces upon us. Given the facts, some of us might prefer a few more nukes to a few more Suorvas.

Way at the end of the film Tinker finally gets around to the benefits of energy conservation, but by then it’s too late. The message has already gotten through that we’re really good at fossil energy so why bother, especially since the developing world is going to burn them up anyway? None of the incomprehensible moving lines on graphs which are supposed to make the case for the importance of conservation make a dent in this impression. Tinker’s big ideas about conservation seem laughably puny: a new water heater, a bit of attic insulation, and driving his kids to school in … golf carts! One wonders what’s wrong with his kids, or his neighborhood, that they can’t walk or ride their bikes.

It would be easy to shrug off this film if it were just a matter of another hack with a minicam following Bjorn Lomborg around, but this has the backing of the GSA. The GSA has its share of members in the fossil fuel industries, but it is a respectable scientifically sound organization, which has taken a decent position on global warming. The GSA has not only blessed the film with its prestige, but is heavily promoting it as the anchor of its energy awareness campaign, with solicitation for Inconvenient Truth style “ambassadors” to promote the film’s agenda, and even a K-12 educational component. I think I do understand how the film took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. If you want to change minds and touch the heartstrings of a new audience rather than just preaching to the choir, it is probably more effective to find common ground in talking about solutions rather than by scaring the pants off people by talking about the scary consequences of global warming. I’m entirely sympathetic to this approach. But there’s a difference between positive messaging and losing sight of the nature of the problem that needs to be solved, to the point that one even loses sight of the message that needs to be conveyed. That is where SWITCH not only takes a wrong turn, but drives right off the cliff.

The GSA ought to distance itself from this fiasco. Schools should avoid it like the plague. Without being kept on life-support by the GSA, the film is so boring it will probably die a natural death. This film is a lot like those “duck and cover” movies that I saw as a kid, from which I learned that I could survive a nuclear strike if I put my head down against the lockers and covered up with a winter coat (just hope The Bomb doesn’t get dropped in summer). The message of SWITCH is the climate equivalent of the infamous quote by T.K. Jones, Reagan’s civil defense planner, that when it comes to nuclear war “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it” . In the case of SWITCH, the message that gets across is that if we keep figuring out ever more ingenious ways of extracting fossil fuels, and maybe burn more natural gas, insulate our attics and drive our kids to school in golf carts, everything’s gonna be OK. We have a right to expect better from the GSA, and the sooner SWITCH disappears from the public discourse, the better.


255 Responses to “Movie review: SWITCH”

  1. 1

    Raypierre,

    Thanks for reporting this.

    explains to him how it will all be all right because they saved the topsoil and will put it all back the way it was. Maybe that’s true

    I have my doubts. Topsoil is built up in layers over centuries. You can’t just unroll it and put it back like a good carpet being taken out of the way while you renovate. There’s an extensive literature on this; stockpiling topsoil is better than dumping deeper layers on the surface, but it takes a major investment to get anywhere close to restoring the original condition of the land.

    As for this one:

    “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it”

    From your description, this movie sounds as if it rates a lot of shovels.

  2. 2
    hf says:

    Hawks and Doves

    If I’m lucky, I’ll glimpse the shadow as it sweeps across the garden scape. Then the sounds of silence… the chickadees, sparrows, and jays retreat to their nests, doves squat nervously on the horizontal branches, and the hares “slow hop” unwittingly to the brush.

    Great moments…hawks in the garden…anyone for lunch?

  3. 3
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It seems only fair to give equal time to Mr. Prine:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vC65_cq0Js

    [Response: Thanks, I needed that. I feel much better now. --raypierre]

  4. 4
    Bill Bedford says:

    Could someone please indicate just how robust the predictions of the [b]consequences[/b] of global warming really are?

  5. 5
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Bill Bedford,
    Well, given that they are happening even as we speak, I’d say pretty robust.

    [Response: The greater the warming, the more robust the damages look. It's in the lucky case where climate sensitivity is low and we stop emitting at around a trillion tonnes cumulative carbon that the net damages are hardest to quantify. At the high end of emissions and sensitivity, things look pretty simple, since most land photosynthesis stops at around 40C, and Sherwood and Huber make a compelling case that most mammals outdoors in the tropics die, and probably a lot in the midlatitude summer, too. For a discussion of the impacts over a range of temperature, just put "Climate Stabilization Targets" into your search box and you'll find our National Research Council report, available for free download. --raypierre]

  6. 6
    SecularAnimist says:

    In short, it’s a pro-fossil fuel propaganda movie.

    Thanks for watching so we don’t have to.

  7. 7
    SecularAnimist says:

    Raypierre wrote: “I think expansion of nuclear energy has an essential role to play in decarbonizing our energy supply, and I greatly admire the success France has had with their transition to nuclear electricity.”

    Um, are y’all suspending the ban on “debating” nuclear power?

    Because both of those assertions (that expanding nuclear power is “essential”, and the allegedly admirable “success” of nuclear power in France) are eminently debatable.

    [Response: I didn't really want us to get distracted by that debate. I only wanted to make the point that even though I myself am of the opinion that there is a role for nuclear power, I found the discussion of the issues in the film wanting. You'd probably find them even more wanting. If anybody commenting has seen the film and wishes to comment on the specifics of aspects of nuclear power discussed in the film (e.g. whether French nuclear reprocessing really works as well as they say, and whether a containment vessel would withstand a 747 crashed into it), that would be welcome. But please no generalized rambling debates on the subject. --raypierre]

  8. 8
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Bill Bedford, no one knows how bad it will get. If we continue with business as usual, it is likely that a large amount of permafrost carbon will be liberated. That may in turn set some methane free. Risk analysis indicates that we should have quit fossil fuels yesterday.

    There is no planet B.

  9. 9
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Raypierre,
    One of my favorite ballads from one of my favorite balladeers.

    The only way I survived the super-patriotism after 9/11 was by blaring “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”

  10. 10
    Jim Larsen says:

    7 Raypierre,

    You sure have a lot of faith in humanity. I’ll just note that diversity is a grand thing with regard to energy supply. That France took one route while Germany another has improved both of their economies. Megawatts cross the borders of Europe as each country’s choices result in local surpluses and deficits.

  11. 11

    Bill Bedford: the predictions are mostly not robust in the direction of understating the risks, since there is a lot of pressure on scientists not to be “alarmist”. I addressed this recently in another thread: take a look at the points I made there.

  12. 12

    The most depressing message from the review is the view that

    really good at fossil energy so why bother…?

    [Response: Note that that's not my message -- that's the message the movie manages to convey. In fact, in the last few bits of the film, there is an earnest attempt to turn the conversation around to conservation, but the main reason it didn't work is that the film never gave the viewer any understanding of the necessity of a switch out of fossil fuels, so insofar as the viewer gets any impression of the need for conservation at all, it tends to be as a way to close the gap between demand and production. To the extent that SWITCH convinces the viewer that we are really good at fossil fuel production, it undercuts what little argument it had for conservation. --raypierre]

    That being the case, we have to ask what happens when fossil fuels all go. And that’s not as far off most as people think. I’ve seen a figure of 200 years’ supply at current rates of use. The critical thing most miss is that “current rates of use” should be adjusted for growth in demand. I calculated a few years back that at 2.4% growth per year, 200 years drops to 75 years.

    Fossil fuels don’t stop being viable when we’ve used them up. They stop being viable when the supply-demand gap makes them more expensive than the alternatives (or the net energy return goes negative, but I doubt that will be the endpoint). Even throwing tar sands and less accessible oil and gas into the mix doesn’t help a lot because towards endgame, usage under BAU growth is at a much higher level of use than today’s. At a growth 2.4% pa, the doubling time is 29 years. Since I wrote the article using the 2.4% number, I’ve seen an update to 2.5% as the long-term average growth rate in primary energy demand, reducing the doubling time to 28 years. At best, squeezing out every last drop of fossil fuels buys you a few years at the cost of falling off a much higher cliff. And there’s the risk that there’s not enough quality energy resources left to build the alternatives if you wait too long.

    Anything that does not dramatically slow dependence on fossil fuels will take us over a cliff a lot sooner than most realise. Maybe not in your lifetime; very likely in your children’s lifetime, and certainly in your grandchildren’s lifetime. The people running fossil fuel businesses must really hate their grandchildren.

    What the fossil fuel industry desperately does not want is a slow tailing off of usage long before we hit a crunch point, because when we hit that crunch point with insufficent alternatives in place, they score big time. That there will likely be a worldwide economic meltdown and potential for major resource wars is not a concern if profits are your only goal.

  13. 13
    The Raven says:

    I think this may be time for a moderated discussion of the options of nuclear power, perhaps on another related site. Personally, I am not pleased to entertain the thought: I think that the people who are currently running the fossil fuel industry will probably end up running some portion of the nuclear power industry, and they have not proven ethical. And, if we had more time, I believe that there are large-scale solutions that do not involve such risks. But we are looking into the mouth of the dragon, and it is time to consider all our choices.

    [Response: I hope I'm not opening the floodgates here, but since the movie did include the nuclear option, and I did mention it in the review, I suppose it is only fair to have some follow-up discussion here. In other threads we've tended to discourage this because it tends to very quickly wander off-topic, but here it is very much on-topic. So let's have a go at it. From my standpoint, I would start by acknowledging real dangers of nuclear, but to me the dangers of nuclear look more manageable than the dangers of caol. I'd rather see the whole climate problem solved with just renewables and efficiency, and I think probably if we had started 30 years ago we could have done that, but given how much time has been wasted I think taking nuclear off the table would make an already difficult problem much harder -- especially since one needs to allow for energy demand in China and India. The important physical issues concern waste storage, nuclear proliferation, consequences of accidents, and the extent to which all these things can be affected by improved nuclear reactor designs. The important economic issue is the expense of nuclear power, especially hidden subsidies or bad accounting that could conceivably unfairly advantage nuclear over renewables. My take on that is that even with hidden subsidies, nuclear is so expensive that renewables already compete pretty well with it. The real problem economically right now, at least in the US, is that nuclear can't begin to compete with currently cheap natural gas, so there's not much incentive to build nuclear plants. I'm not sure where China and India are going on expanded nuclear power right now, so if anybody knows, please chime in. Are there other important topics I've left out? So let's try having a focused, fact-based discussion on these issues. In this thread only, where it is definitely pertinenent. --raypierre ]

  14. 14
    quokka says:

    On the issue of energy subsidies in the US, there is a 2012 report from the US Congressional Budget Office:

    http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/03-06-FuelsandEnergy_Brief.pdf

    Direct subsidy is mostly in the form of tax preferences, and on that count nuclear drew the short straw since at least as far back as 1977. Fossil fuels got the most, followed by non-hydro renewables with nuclear a distant third.

    The other main source of subsidies is DOE spending, in which nuclear has had a bigger part.

    Nuclear power plant operators in the US have to pay $0.001/kWh into the spent fuel fund and also have to maintain funds for decommissioning – at a rate of generally in the range $0.001-002/kWh.

  15. 15
    Dallas Dunlap says:

    Fossil fuel propaganda is amazing. My sister, who lives in Kentucky, tells me that there is a TV ad that describes how mountaintop removal saves lives.
    The narrator describes how, when he was stricken by a heart attack, an airplane was able to land on an airstrip built on a flat area which formally was a mountain. This allowed the heart attack victim to be airlifted to a hospital.
    So thank God for turning the Appalachians into a series of flat rubble piles.

  16. 16
    Radge Havers says:

    Philip Machanick ~ 12
    re: hating grandchildren generally

    Just cowardice taking refuge in shortsightedness, clinging to the security blanket of political credibility with power brokers.

    About the middle east, but I think it applies here,quoting Edward Said:

    “Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position, which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take,” wrote the late Edward Said. “You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.”

    “For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence,” Said went on. “If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.”

    The Treason of Intellectuals
    Chris Hedges
    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/04/01-0

    In any case, in the eyes of some, oil is well worth killing for.

    They say things like, “no war for oil.” Well, is that just to say, “oil isn’t worth fighting about,” or doesn’t matter what Saddam Hussein does to the oil reserves of the region. I mean, how irresponsible could you possibly get?

    Hitchens
    http://www.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript_hitchens_print.html

  17. 17
    SecularAnimist says:

    Raypierre wrote: “My take on that is that even with hidden subsidies, nuclear is so expensive that renewables already compete pretty well with it.”

    And that’s exactly why there is not going to be any significant expansion of nuclear power. There is no need for it, because wind and solar and other renewable energy sources can easily produce more than enough electricity to power human civilization, and can do so much faster and cheaper and with none of the very real dangers of nuclear power.

    And while the cost of new nuclear power plants continues to skyrocket, the cost of renewable energy is plummeting, and will continue to do so, while the technology for harvesting solar and wind energy will continue to rapidly improve. No one in their right mind is going to invest in new nuclear power plants, OR new coal-fired power plants, knowing that by the time those power plants can come online, they won’t be able to find buyers for their electricity in a market saturated with ultra-cheap solar and wind power.

    With all due respect, I think that folks who believe that nuclear power has a future, or that it is “essential” to eliminating GHG emissions from electricity generation, are simply not paying attention to what is actually going on with renewable energy today — both the rapid deployment of today’s powerful, mature solar and wind technologies, AND the much more efficient and less costly technologies that are approaching commercialization.

    It is quite possible that the old dream of “electricity too cheap to meter” may come true in our lifetimes — but it won’t be electricity from nukes, it will be electricity from ultra-cheap, ultra-efficient, mass-produced, distributed photovoltaics.

  18. 18
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by SecularAnimist — 4 Apr 2013 @ 10:24 AM

    How about some generation IV plants that would not produce weapons grade fuel, would run on waste from the gen I and II plants and thereby help solve this problem, and could provide a little base load or do some desalinization. I think that Hansen may have suggested some of this a long time ago.

    Steve

  19. 19
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#13),

    One thing that you have missed is the incompatibility of nuclear power with liberty. It might be fine for China or other non-liberty based societies from this perspective, but for us it is a problem. Nuclear power requires the extension of state power into the indefinite future to guard the waste from being used for weapons proliferation. Our conception of liberty requires that the state must be, in principle, dissolvable by the will of the people. Nuclear power requires a perpetual security state to maintain the fiction that it can be used safely. It is thus in fundamental conflict with our founding principles.

    It should be remembered that dreams of the perpetual and perfectible security state were at the root of the largest conflicts of the last century so the issue is not a small one.

    [Response: How does your notion of liberty fit in with the way we treat CO2 emissions? Is it more compatible with liberty to just dump them into the atmosphere and not take responsibility for them? Or what about carbon capture and storage, which would seem to engage the same stewardship issues as nuclear waste. It seems that any technology that has long-term impacts would engage the same issues of liberty. --raypierre]

  20. 20
    Pete51 says:

    Regarding: “I’m not sure where China and India are going on expanded nuclear power right now, so if anybody knows, please chime in.”

    There is more nuclear power development going on in China than any other nation. Presently, there are 28 power plants in construction, with many more planned. See link below:
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China–Nuclear-Power/#.UV20Ccq1Vqw

    India also has a major nuclear construction program going on.
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/India/#.UV21Ncq1Vqw

    Unfortunately, even these large programs are small compared to the coal-fired power plants being built in both China and India. Any hope that intermittent energy sources like wind and solar will save the day is nothing but a Green dream. Nuclear has got to play a major role in future clean energy development. That is, if the environmentalist prejudices against nuclear power can be overcome.

  21. 21

    I am not sure it is worth the time writing here, but it sounds like the climate zealotry is about finished. Now maybe there will be time to discuss serious actions to deal with CO2.

    What I call climate zealotry is the notion that the industrial world must be bashed in order to protect our children. I think there are other ways.

    Cautious actions to stimulate plankton seems high on the list of useful possibilities.

    Second is conservation in the use of personal transportation, that meaning a serious rethinking about how we shape cars.

    Third is to vastly expand agriculture through universal irrigation, where standing forests would be part of the new agriculture.

    When these topics become a focus of the ‘climate war’ there might be a chance of winning.

    I am working on this where there is a small area of endeavor that fits in a set of constructive actions, as can be seen at the website linked under my name above.

  22. 22
    SecularAnimist says:

    Installing mainstream, mass-market photovoltaics on every flat commercial rooftop in the USA would generate as much electricity as all the nuclear power plants in the country.

    Concentrating solar thermal power plants on just five percent of the USA’s deserts could generate more electricity than the entire country uses. The same is true of the commercially harvestable wind energy resources of just four midwestern states.

    All of which represents just a fraction of the USA’s vast solar and wind energy resources.

    IF we needed to expand nuclear power to meet our electricity needs while phasing out fossil fuel-generated electricity, then it would arguably make sense to struggle with the very real dangers and problems of a technology that is based on mining, refining, transporting, reprocessing, re-transporting and storing vast amounts of the most toxic and dangerous substances known to science — in perpetuity.

    But we DON’T need nuclear power, so there is no need to deal with any of that.

  23. 23
    Mal Adapted says:

    The most interesting question, IMHO, is whether liberty and high population density are compatible with long-term sustainability.

  24. 24
    KevinM says:

    Discussion of nuclear power relative to global warming exposes the “anti-science” wing.

    1) Which is more dangerous on a global scale, radioactive waste from nuclear energy or carbon dioxide emissions from coal energy?

    2) How many of the most commonly deployed windmills does it take to equal the average power output of one nuclear plant?

    3) How many square meters of solar panels of the most commonly deployed efficiency does it take to equal the average power output of one nuclear plant?

    4) If the cost per kWh is within an order of magnitude, is cost important?

    I expect to be moderated out for applying the term “anti-science” – OK, its your site not mine – but in this case, the shoe fits.

  25. 25
    Andy says:

    Something Mark Twain said about predicting a man’s politics based on his source of “feed” comes to mind. Twain’s quote pretty much sums up the current global climate change debate and pretty much tells you all you need to know regarding the film. Scientists aren’t immune to income-induced bias. Which is why independent academic institutions are essential.

    I ask folks to do some Googling (Tournquist and Morton are especially helpful as is this list of sources from the USGS http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/gc-subsidence/publications.html) on the controversy over coastal land subsidence and oil and gas production in Lousiana and Texas. The USGS notes that subsidence, subsequent land loss and damage caused by oil production was first diagnosed by Texas geologists in the 1920′s and yet today the debate over its existence still lives on.

    Ongoing and future subsidence from oil, gas and produced water exceeds even the high end eustatic-caused land loss predictions for coastal Louisiana.

  26. 26
    Nick Palmer says:

    Anyone got any idea why skepticalscience.com is showing up as “account suspended”?

  27. 27
    SecularAnimist says:

    KevinM, with all due respect, to deploy the epithet “anti-science” against those of us who think that expanding nuclear power is neither a necessary nor particularly effective means of de-carbonizing electricity generation, is to admit that you have no argument and therefore must resort to insults and name-calling.

  28. 28
    SecularAnimist says:

    Pete51 wrote: “Any hope that intermittent energy sources like wind and solar will save the day is nothing but a Green dream.”

    Proponents of nuclear power keep repeating that slogan with increasing shrillness and desperation as nuclear power’s share of the world’s electric generation capacity stagnates and declines, while wind and solar are skyrocketing.

    China, for example, has 75,000 MW of wind capacity installed now, which is projected to double by 2015 and reach 250,000 MW by 2020. China is also building ultra-high-voltage transmission lines to connect windy rural sites to population centers, with 19 such projects on track for completion in 2014. During 2012, for the first time China installed more new wind power generating capacity than coal-fired capacity — AND produced more electricity from wind power than from nuclear power.

    India’s “National Solar Mission” plan calls for deploying 20,000 MW of solar capacity by 2020, to be scaled up to 100,000 MW by 2030. But even this is just scratching the surface — the official Solar Mission report notes that India receives 5,000 Trillion kWh of solar energy PER DAY.

    Green dreams indeed.

  29. 29
    AIC says:

    One view: Nuclear Power: The Last Best Option editorial by Jerald Schnoor, editor of Environmental Science & Technology http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es400852n

    Some quotes:

    I never thought I’d favor nuclear power. But here it is: I believe nuclear energy is our last best chance to stem the tide of climate change.

    …I profess “sustainability” and there is probably nothing in this world that challenges the notion of sustainability as much as the safeguarding of nuclear waste repositories continuously for 40 000 years or more (the half-life of 239Pu is 24 360 years).

    … after 150 years, institutional control is lost and responsibility for protection of a site would no longer exist.

  30. 30
    Jim Larsen says:

    17 SecularA,
    That’s just crap. If I remember correctly, you installed a solar system, but instead of paying for it yourself, you relied over 100% on government subsidies. If you actually believed what you spout, you’d have paid for your system yourself.

    So yep, if I as a taxpayer pay you over 100% of the cost of your system, then yep, to you solar is cheap. But, had you been walkie/talkie/ethical then you’d probably have said, “whew, I paid ever so much more for my system than I could have by merely going with fossil fuels, but I’m ethical and so would never let others pay for my electrical usage.”

    [Response: So how are you more ethical if you burn fossil fuels but pay nothing towards the cost of the environmental and health damaged caused by that? It would be better to put on a carbon tax that reflects the social cost of carbon and then get rid of direct subsidies for renewables, but since a carbon tax hasn't happened, renewable subsidies perform something of the same function, though probably not as efficiently. By the way, try to ratchet down your hostility, please. --raypierre]

    (this is an offer to engage. Please show Your Side)

  31. 31
    SecularAnimist says:

    Mal Adapted wrote: “whether liberty and high population density are compatible with long-term sustainability”

    As for high population density, some of the most densely populated places in the world also have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world, so I don’t see why high population density is necessarily incompatible with sustainability.

    As for “liberty”, it’s an ill-defined term. So unless and until there is agreement as to what exactly it means, it’s hard to discuss what its implications for sustainability might be.

    Having said that, it would seem that technologies like cheap, high-efficiency, mass-produced PV that (1) give people everywhere the ability to generate their own GHG-free electricity and (2) are so benign and harmless that they can be freely proliferated everywhere without danger of, for example, being misused to make weapons of mass destruction, are conducive to both liberty and sustainability.

  32. 32
    Jim Larsen says:

    aic says, “after 150 years, institutional control is lost and responsibility for protection of a site would no longer exist.”

    Nah. either in 150 years the government is still operational, OR we’ve entered Mad Max World, and the dangers of nuclear waste are laughably small compared to other issues. Seriously, give me ONE scenario where nuclear waste is a real issue. ONE. I’ll be waiting with plenty of logic to apply to that scenario.

  33. 33
    David Miller says:

    It’s easy to imagine 4′th generation nuclear being economical, and wonderful to think about a way to consume leftover ‘waste’ from existing reactors.

    I’m hard put to imagine 4′th generation nuclear being well researched and engineered for safety, economy, and reliability – and then rolled out into production in quantities sufficient to make a difference – before multiple tipping points have been passed. Perhaps it’s just a lack of imagination on my part.

    After fukushima, I’m also very concerned about large parts of our infrastructure being maintainable in the increasing chaos that climate change will cause amid natural disasters. Can we adequately protect nuclear plants, for example, after a solar super-storm melts the transformers connecting them to the grid? In a combined heat-wave/drought? These concerns cover more than just nuclear plants, but it’s nukes that are on-topic here. (boy does that sound strange:)

  34. 34
    Ray Ladbury says:

    AIC,
    Although the risks associated with nuclear waste and proliferation are formidable, I think they could be managed. My reticence about nukes arises from the fact that they don’t get us any nearer to the actual goal–sustainability.

    Rather, we will substitute one energy special interest for another, and I expect no less opposition and obfuscation as we progress toward sustainability from the new interest than we’ve had from the fossil fuel lobby.

    That said, I fully expect a lot of nukes in our future, as well as a lot of geoengineering and a whole host of other really bad ideas as we try to mitigate the catastrophe we are creating.

    As such, I really hope we get a lot better at understanding what I call “the stupid factor”, which has been responsible for every serious nuclear accident to date. It isn’t a lack of intelligence–you have to be clever to get around all the failsafes and safeguards in these systems. However, foolishness is the one thing our species does better than any other.

  35. 35

    OK, here we are once again, tiresomely debating nukes vs. wind and solar. SA does a good job of pointing out that many of us are still seriously behind what is happening right now in renewables. It is truly startling, if you look.

    However, I have some serious questions about nuclear power (which I am not opposed to, by the way.)

    Given that we need to seriously scale up some alternative or alternatives to fossil fuels ASAP–two decades back would have been good–what would it take to scale up nuclear generation at the kinds of growth rates we’ve actually been seeing in renewables? What are the limits? More specifically:

    –How many skilled workers can we train in nuclear technologies, how fast? (That would include engineers, technicians, operators, and so forth.)
    –How many suitable sites do we have–seismically stable, featuring available coolant supplies, politically and economically suitable?
    –How do we deal with waste? Can we adopt breeder technology to use it, given proliferation concerns, etc?
    –Can we deal with liability issues in the post-Fukushima world?
    –Can we raise the extremely high capital costs necessary to create the kind of nuclear building spree we’d need?
    –Can the long-promised advanced nuclear technologies improve prospects? For example, China has begun construction on the first commercial-scale Thorium Bed Reactor (if I have this right):

    http://www.iaea.org/NuclearPower/Downloadable/Meetings/2013/2013-03-05-03-07-TWG-NPTD/Day_1/3.Sun.pdf

    My overall sense on this is that given the existing situation, nuclear is just not scalable to what we need, as fast as we need it. But I’d certainly be interested to learn more on this, so pointers are welcome–perhaps off-line, so as not to veer too far OT?

    [Response: The experience in France provides a useful point of reference. France managed to go all-nuclear in something like 20 years. On the other hand, France is pretty good at implementing top-down problems, enforcing uniform designs, educating a technical workforce, etc. It's unclear that the French experience with nuclear could be duplicated in the US, but it shows that if there's a problem it's a cultural one, not a technical one. Maybe we should just subcontract all our nuclear development to Areva . Nuclear engineering is a dying art in the US, but maybe that is changing --raypierre]

  36. 36
    David B. Benson says:

    Fast reactor design is already commercialized and awaiting customers: GE-Hitachi PRISM based 100% on the EBR-II well described in “Plentiful Energy”. Various threads on
    http://bravenewclimate.com/
    , linked on the sidebar, offer descriptions.

  37. 37
    Thomas Huld says:

    @KevinM (#24):

    It seems that one of the major problems facing nuclear power is the poor reasoning used by its proponents. When making arguments, it is normally best if they are actually relevant to the discussion.

    Nevertheless, to answer your obviously rhetorical and somewhat pointless questions:

    1) If the choice was between fossil and nuclear I’d definitely go for nuclear. But they are not the only options.

    2) Assuming a 1GW nuclear power plant, running full power 7500 hours a year, and assuming 5MW wind turbines running 3000 hours a year equivalent full power (that’s a windy place like Scotland, or offshore), you’d need 500 turbines. What’s the problem?

    3) Assuming 7m2 for a kW of PV panels, 1700kWh/kW per year (a sunny place like the southwest US), you’d need around 31km2 of panel area. Land area needed would be about twice that if you’re not too far north. That’s equal to 0.0015% of the land currently used in the U.S. for agriculture. Again, please point out the relevance of this.

    4) This question makes no sense unless you want to insinuate that renewable electricity is an order of magnitude more expensive than nuclear. Actually, for the new nuclear plants proposed in the UK, one number that has been floating around is a guaranteed price for the electricity around 10p/kWh. That is similar to the cost of PV electricty in the not-very-sunny England and considerably more than on-shore wind (offshore is probably a bit more than 10p/kWh).

  38. 38
    quokka says:

    #53 Kevin McKinney,

    The IAEA document you link to is about China’s high temperature gas cooled reactors. It is not thorium fueled. The fuel is uranium in TRISO “pebbles” See here for account of TRISO fuel:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_fuel#TRISO_fuel

    The interest in high temperature gas cooled reactors is partly due to their very high intrinsic safely levels and also because they are “high temperature” offering potential to provide industrial process heat eg for the production of hydrogen.

    Aside from CSP (where climate, location etc permits), there are no other low emission realistic alternatives for generating high temperature industrial process heat than high temperature reactors. Use of fossil fuels in this application is a significant source of GHG emissions.

    The only direct connection with thorium is that in China’s quite separate molten salt thorium reactor research program, the first experimental reactor is planned to use not molten thorium fuel, but TRISO fuel pebbles from the HTGR (because of avalability) in molten salts so that the behavior of the molten salts can be studied. A true, fully molten core experimental thorium reactor is planned to follow than. Don’t expect a commercial molten core thorium reactor from China before the 2020s sometime.

  39. 39
    quokka says:

    With respect to build rates:

    As raypierre points out above, France managed to go mostly nuclear over a period of about 20 years. That’s a build rate of about 2.5 reactors per year.

    By comparison, Germany installed about 20GW of new wind capacity from the end of 2002 to the end of 2012:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_Germany

    At the 18% capacity factor of wind in Germany, that 20 GW of wind produces about the same amount of electricity as 4 GW of nuclear capacity or two and a bit Areva EPRs. Throw in PV deployment, and you end up wind 10 years of wind+PV build producing about as much electricity as about three EPRs.

    The case for rapid deployment of solar and wind as compared to nuclear has been, to put it mildly, greatly overstated.

    Or another way of looking at it. Global PV capacity is now something like 100GW total. At 15% average capacity factor (which may be generous) that PV produces about as much electricity as the 16 new nuclear reactors expected to come online in 2013 world wide.

    The hard truth is that it’s all woefully inadequate, and excluding nuclear power which has proved to be the most successful low emission technology (aside from hydro) demonstrates an attitude to climate risk that I find incomprehensible.

  40. 40
    KevinM says:

    Thanks for free speech.

    According to the American Wind Energy Association, the Alta-Oak Creek Mojave Project in fall 2010 was supposed to generate 150 MW using 50 3 MW (4,000 hp) generators. No capacity factor is stated, but typical capacity factors are 15–50%.

    The Civaux, France site houses two 1450 MWe class (N4 design) reactors, the most recent design operating today. In 2003 the stations were uprated to 1500 MWe. France’s reactors are used in load-following mode, sometimes closed over weekends, so their capacity factor is low by world standards, at 77.3%.

    So it’s about 1000 very new windmills per relatively individual reactor, 2000 windmills for the plant. The windmills have 300 ft diameter rotors and weigh 70 tons. That’s 100 miles of rotor blade.

  41. 41

    #38–quokka, thanks. I’d noticed some inconsistencies between my original search and some of the powerpoint details, but didn’t pursue them since I was asking more than stating.

    Appreciate the clarification and expansion.

  42. 42
    KevinM says:

    @Thomas Huld

    I used 3 MW windmills and corrected for capacity factor, compared to the French N4 reactors and got about the same count. The blades on the 3 MW turbines are 300ft diameter, so it would take 56 miles of rotor blade to replace the Chernay plant. The full assembly is just huge, 130 tons each and comparable in size to the Eiffel Tower.

    I got about 15 square miles for one reactor, 30 square for the plant. The plant I referenced was in Civaux France, near Poitiers. The entire city of Poitiers is only 16 square miles.

    I’m saying that even if the economic cost were equal all around, coal, solar, wind, nuclear, whatever, there is a strong argument that the environmental cost of nuclear is lowest. Some kind of 1960s anti nuclear hangover refuses to allow a subset of environmentalists to get over it.

  43. 43
    Brennan says:

    No mention of Fusion Power? We should be expecting the prototype (commercial) reactor to be at least in the design stage in 20 years or so – and this with the constant underfunding of the technology (to give my unsolicited opinion).

    [Response: Fusion power has been "around the corner" for as long as I can remember. Maybe it will play a role eventually, but we have to get through the next 50 years first without accumulating a whole lot more carbon than we already have. That calls for technologies we know can be deployed, with some more predictable engineering tweaks. Even CCS is farther along than fusion. --raypierre]

  44. 44
    Susan Anderson says:

    Ray Ladbury, thanks for the Prine journey and your all-too-clear points later on:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rwYiBdoWHE

    … expect no less opposition and obfuscation as we progress toward sustainability from the new interest than we’ve had from the fossil fuel lobby.

    That said, I fully expect a lot of nukes in our future, as well as a lot of geoengineering and a whole host of other really bad ideas as we try to mitigate the catastrophe we are creating.

    As such, I really hope we get a lot better at understanding what I call “the stupid factor”, which has been responsible for every serious nuclear accident to date. It isn’t a lack of intelligence–you have to be clever to get around all the failsafes and safeguards in these systems. However, foolishness is the one thing our species does better than any other.

    I suspicion we are in for more serious breakdown within decades, not centuries, and worry about infrastructure (which we are demonstrating an ability to maintain), particularly in the context of nuclear, but join those who are not altogether against it. But it is to trade problems into the future, nonetheless.

  45. 45

    #39–quokka:

    Global PV capacity is now something like 100GW total. At 15% average capacity factor (which may be generous) that PV produces about as much electricity as the 16 new nuclear reactors expected to come online in 2013 world wide.

    The case for rapid deployment of solar and wind as compared to nuclear has been, to put it mildly, greatly overstated.

    Mm. But wind power doubled globally between 2008 and 2011, with upwards of 40 GW added yearly. It’s not clear how longer this accelerated deployment can continue, but it’s not stopping yet, particularly with ambitious targets in a number of important jurisdictions (including, as noted above, China.) At that pace it won’t be long before the capacity added exceeds those 16 reactors–and we won’t be adding any more than that in the next few years, at any rate.

    On solar PV, doubling times have recently been just two years, and it’s less mature technologically than wind. With costs starting to hit grid parity and continued support for the technology, there seems little reason to expect deployment to slow. “GBI Research predicts global solar PV installed capacity to reach 331GW by 2020 from 97GW in 2012, climbing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16.6%.”

    Let’s see, that would be 234 GW of added capacity, times 15% capacity factor, for roughly 35 GW of actual generation, or twice those reactors. That’s still a slower rate, of course–eight years addition versus just one. But the likelihood is that it will still be increasing.

    And wind? “…284GW in 2012 to 685GW by 2020.” Call it 400 GW, or 100 GW of generation. Or about as much per year as those projected reactors.

    I think adoption of renewables is, or very soon will be, well past “woefully inadequate.”

    http://www.onlinetes.com/solar-wind-global-renewable-energy-share-4213.aspx

    But it’s not an either/or proposition, of course. Much of the growth in renewables will be in places where nuclear is not politically acceptable–China excepted; they really are doing ‘all of the above.’ From that perspective, there’s some complementarity between renewables and nuclear.

  46. 46
    Harry Lynch says:

    I’m the director of Switch, and thought I’d address Ray’s criticisms, point by point.

    The GSA carefully reviewed the film, and like the large majority of professional reviewers, government agencies, energy companies, environmental groups, academics and general audience members, found it an educational, entertaining world tour of the energy frontier, which presents the benefits and challenges of each energy source as fairly and objectively as possible in one 90-minute summary.

    You can access other reviews here:
    http://www.switchenergyproject.com/reviews.php

    Fossil fuels are not portrayed as ‘powerful, cool and desirable,’ while other energies are otherwise. We actively sought out the leading production sites for every energy resource then, often with great difficulty, secured permission to film in each.

    Yes, we featured one of the best run coal mines in the world, in the most productive coal basin. Also, the world’s largest solar plants (at the time), both for PV and CSP; the world’s largest wind farm and leading (in per capita production) wind nation; the world’s leading geothermal producers; the world’s leading (per capita) hydro producers; some of the world’s leading biofuel and alternative transportation researchers; the world’s leading (at the time) unconventional gas play; the world’s leading LNG producers; the world’s leading nuclear fuel reprocessing center. The film states this frequently, but Ray neglects to mention it.

    The Belle Ayr coal mine absolutely reclaims their mining areas. The state of Wyoming has very strict regulations, and as a result, the mining companies have extensive programs. The reclamation process is a continuously monitored 7-year process of reintroduction of native grasses in an area that has been stripped of them by overgrazing. Ray could have learned about this with a simple internet search.

    We actually filmed this reclaimed area and an interview with the mine’s reclamation manager, but opted not to include it in the film because of pacing, and we thought that some viewers might construe it as apologist.

    For this scene like every other, we were vigilant to maintain, as much as possible, a neutral stance. That said, for viewers who are far to the left or right, that neutral position is too right or left for them. The result is a review like this one — and we’ve received them from both sides.

    If Ray left with “a vague impression that renewables are not to be trusted,” that’s his impression, not our intention. We rate each energy on how many people (global average citizen) each could power in a year. This metric does not include carbon emissions, fuel use, land use, longevity, or anything except utility.

    And here, stated plainly, is our bias. Over a combined 19 years studying the energy transition, we’ve seen time and again that a technology’s utility is the determining factor of whether we will deploy it. That utility is determined by its ability to affordably, reliably, and to a lesser degree, cleanly power our energy demands.

    Of course, the affordability of competing energies would be impacted differently if we were to price their externalities. But doing so is complicated, imperfect and in most countries politically impossible. While carbon taxes are a partial attempt to do so, these have been sparsely adopted and marginally embraced. Many in Australia, for instance, predict their government to change parties soon and with it eliminate their carbon price.

    The reliability of an energy is often undervalued and misunderstood — I see a lot of that in the comments to this review. Because a technology has the capacity to produce power doesn’t mean it will do so when we need it to. For most of the utilities and governments who play the largest roles in choosing our energy resources, dispatchability trumps capacity.

    There are certainly some countries incorporating more clean energy, often making compromises in affordability and reliability to do so. But for the large majority of the world’s energy consumers, the long term threat of carbon emissions continues to take a backseat to immediate economic benefits. This is simply the reality — though readers here may view this as a disastrous reversal of priorities.

    Similarly, Ray’s opinion is that the central educational mission of the film should have been to advocate for carbon emission reduction, and faults it for not focusing on his area of study. While this has been well explored in several other films including one featuring a former vice president, this was not our objective.

    Instead, it was to try to predict, based on long, well established trends of global energy production and consumption, how the energy transition likely will happen, rather than to prescribe how it should happen. Importantly, the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action. We do factor in efficiency and renewable incentives at slightly increased levels to today.

    (We’ve calculated how this likely transition affects atmospheric CO2 concentration, and since the topic has received understandable attention from sources such as this one, we plan to release a discussion of this on the website in the coming weeks.)

    Finally, different from the large majority of energy films, we wanted to include the thinking of some of the world’s most experienced and well regarded energy experts, rather than views from the margins. You can see a list of these experts, and their long form interviews, here:

    http://www.switchenergyproject.com/experts/allexperts

    They include current, former, and upcoming US and international government energy leaders; heads of energy and climate research programs at Stanford, MIT, Cornell and the UC system; heads of fossil, renewable and nuclear energy companies; and site managers of their resources. There simply is no other energy film with more credentialed interviewees.

    Ray’s treatment of these experts is often unprofessional. In particular, attempting to discredit Scott Tinker’s years of energy expertise by calling him a ‘soporific, Quaalude addicted, bobble-headed doll,’ says more about reviewer than subject.

    I encourage readers to watch the film, available on Amazon and soon other online outlets, and visit http://www.switchenergyproject.com to make their own decisions about our content.

  47. 47

    Raypierre, first on my #12 – I wasn’t accusing you of holding those views. I was trying to focus on the weak point of the argument the movie is making: if it’s this or nothing, nothing will happen in a few decades, so they’d better be wrong. Or: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

    On nuclear, the biggest problem is that alternative fuel cycles haven’t been researched to the level where they can be deployed fast enough to make a big difference. R&D has mostly focused on fuel cycles that mesh with weapons requirements. There’s a lot more thorium (for example) than uranium but no one to my knowledge has demonstrated a working commercial-scale thorium plant. Too much focus on nuclear misses another key point: not all energy demands are stationary or possible to feed from a stationary source. One technology that should be investigated with dispatch (currently funded in low $millions per year) either to show it works or to dismiss it is polywell fusion. The cost of showing definitively if this can work at scale is relatively modest compared with a lot of other money sinks like carbon capture and storage (which is highly unlikely to work at a scale that makes a difference).

    I’m rereading Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren and I think too much of his solar pessimism is grounded in German experience. Germany has insanely low insolation to be focussing on solar. For much of Europe, the solar solution is high-voltage DC connections to North Africa.

    If I were focused on just one thing, it would be storage. If two things, how to scale up biofuels without taking out food supply, because these address both stationary and highly mobile requirements. Storage is a hard one to crack because the alternative to grid-scale storage (meaning huge, and not too lossy) is massive over-capacity, of the order of 3x base demand e.g. for wind. Possibly with continental-scale grids of renewables, these things can be brought more under control since you have your resources spread over a wider geography. Solar thermal can work if you have the right geography, but some parts of the world don’t.

    The most promising biofuel technology is algae though in the spirit of not picking winners I would back anything that has the potential to scale up and not consume food-competing fuel stock. You need biofuels because there is no other practical solution than jet aircraft for fast cross-water travel. On land, you can fall back to stationary energy powering high-speed rail.

    Not picking winners seems like a reasonable logic; what the fossil fuel business is about is picking losers and backing them heavily.

  48. 48
    Harold Pierce Jr says:

    RE:”…, but you never get to see the vast scale of environmental destruction wrought by tar sands mining outside.”

    The surface area of Canada is about 2.6 bilion acres and is a lot more if the surface are of the oceans out to 200 mile economic limit are included. The tar sands are just a mere scratch in this vast unpopulated wilderness.

    The dirtiest mineral mined in Canada is diamond which has no intrinsic worth.

  49. 49

    The problem with the whole climate change movement is that any of the solutions they propose to reduce CO2 emissions absolutely kills economic growth and really screws poor people. Sorry, but raising taxes on someone to double their heating / cooling and then giving them a busstop a half mile away in some form of state redistribution is simply not going to fly because it is fundamentally unfair. Climate aside, one of the largest drivers of wealth inequality is chronic real rises in energy prices. The last oil price surge most likely was the real cause of the 2008 global economic meltdown.

    If the problem is greenhouse gasses, then nuclear power has to be on the table. It’s the only system with the land use, energy density to not only meet current needs, but, also to meet some big future ones. At some point, we will need massive desalination to meet basic water needs. At some point, we will need to do something to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere. After all, and do correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it the case that even if we stop CO2 emissions entirely that it will take 800 years for CO2 to revert to pre-industrial levels if nature is left to its own devices. Both will require enormous amounts of energy, and the kind that only nuclear power can deliver.

    Finally, I cannot even calculate just how much opposition to nuclear power undermines the whole effort to deal with climate change. Climate remodification proponents scream the sky is falling on CO2, and it might be, but, then to turn around and say “we can’t use the most obvious answer”, completely undermines their position. IT’s like saying, well, the ship is sinking, the ship is sinking, but, this lifeboat isn’t good enough. Sometimes, it just has to be.

  50. 50
    quokka says:

    #46 Philip Machanick

    A number of points.

    1. You say that a focus on nuclear misses addressing non-stationary energy issues. I can’t any basis for this. Neither can I see that a focus on renewables for electricity generation would miss non-stationary energy issues.

    However, the engineering to achieve low emission electricity generation is in a much better state than that for say, low emission transport. Also electricity generation is the prime user of the number one enemy – coal. If we are going to get very far, electricity generation will have to lead the charge. It remains of prime importance at this time.

    2. I’m not sure what you mean by alternative nuclear fuel cycles, but once through uranium fueled water moderated thermal reactors (PWRs, BWRs, PHWRs etc) do a good job of generating low emission electricity reliably. There is no impending uranium shortage.

    While there are very good reasons for transitioning to a closed nuclear fuel cycle, there are no particularly good reasons for delaying the deployment of Gen III reactors in anticipation of such a transition. Spent fuel from such reactors can be stored for recycling at some future date. That’s pretty small beer compared to the CO2 problem.

    I don’t think your claim that research on closed fuel cycles has been basically tied to weapons requirements has a lot of basis. The biggest project in the US by far was the Argonne work with EBR-II and pyroprocessing for recycling put together as the Integral Fast Reactor. A primary design goal was a high level of proliferation resistance and that none of the technology could be applied for separation of weapons grade Pu. Of course you could get Pu out of spent fuel by other means, but that would be a major (and readily detected) effort.

    Most (all?) Pu for weapons has been made in graphite moderated thermal spectrum reactors. Shed loads of it, in fact. It’s much easier, cheaper and faster than using fast reactors for the task.

    As for time frame for embarking on a closed fuel cycle, it can be started right now. GEH has PRISM derived from the Argonne work, and you can have one right now if you want (after jumping through considerable regulatory hoops) which would put N of a kind deployment feasibly beginning at around the end of this decade. PRISM is 300 MWe – at the large end of small modular reactors and designed for mostly factory construction. There is a serious possibility of two being built in the UK.


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