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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. 51

    #48–Harold Pierce Jr. said:

    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.

    Thanks for characterizing a nation of 35 million, boasting some of the world’s ‘most livable’ cities and the the world’s 13th largest national economy as a ‘vast unpopulated wilderness.’

    Of course, one of the great things about Canada is its low population density: 3.41 people/km2 (228th–of 241). But the fact that Canada has lots of area in which to contain its pollution does imply that it is therefore wise to pollute massively. The oilsands operation is a huge scar on the Alberta landscape–and the carbon pollution is of global significance.

  2. 52
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    Chris Dudley writes,

    … 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.

    Actually the waste has always been guarded against use for weapon proliferation by its weapon unsuitability. (Hat tip to Ben Heard for showing me what Google Maps can do.)

    It is as if tax revenue on horses and buggies were a mainstay of government budgets, and cars with piston-in-cylinder engines were making inroads.

    There is an undeniable thermodynamic link between pistons in cylinders and bullets in barrels, and so enemies of cars could claim the founding values of the republic were inalienably hostile to the garrison state that would have to exist to guard junked V8s from being turned into eight-barrel cannons.

    Because the horsey money interest would be shared by everyone in government, there might be security theatre around junkyards. The actors might be perfectly sincere in their belief they were guarding against weaponization of car remains, but in fact they would be dramatizing the existence of that threat.

  3. 53
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Larsen wrote: “If I remember correctly, you installed a solar system, but instead of paying for it yourself, you relied over 100% on government subsidies.”

    You remember wrong. That’s ludicrously false.

    But hey, don’t let that stop you from making stuff up and pretending I said it.

    By the way, if you want to know what government subsidies are actually available for residential solar, it’s not hard to find that information online. If you can find a locale in the USA where the Federal tax credit plus any available state subsidies combined exceed 100 percent of the cost of a PV system, let me know.

  4. 54

    #52–Wow. New horizons in discursiveness.

    And I thought that I was getting out there.

  5. 55
    SecularAnimist says:

    Raypierre wrote: “The experience in France provides a useful point of reference. France managed to go all-nuclear in something like 20 years.”

    I always think it’s funny when nuclear power proponents point to France as some sort of example for the USA to follow.

    The USA, not France, operates the largest number of nuclear power plants of any nation on Earth (104, compared to only 58 in France) and generates the most electricity from nuclear power of any nation on Earth (over 100,000 MW compared to 63,000 MW in France).

    So if you want to talk about going big with nuclear power, France has a long way to go to catch up with the USA.

    Conversely, for the USA to go from getting 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear, to getting 80 percent from nuclear as does France, would require building several hundred MORE nuclear power plants — a number comparable to all the 437 nuclear power plants currently in operation on Earth, and far beyond anything that France (or any other nation) has ever attempted.

    It’s also worth noting that China and India, which are often cited by nuclear proponents as exemplars of expanding nuclear power, have tiny nuclear power industries compared to the USA: just 20 nuclear power plants in India, and only 17 in China.

  6. 56
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    It sounds as though “SWITCH” is funded by its subject, and isn’t forthcoming about this.

    A movie that is definitely not funded by its subject, and therefore, in my opinion, more worthy of this assembly’s attention, is Pandora’s Promise.

  7. 57
    Chris Korda says:


    What’s with the troll-bait? You might as well have panned a film linking cell phones to cancer. RC was just starting to become readable again (as in moderately focused on climate science and free of polemics) but goodbye to all that. I thought the goal was to put the fire out, not throw gasoline on it.

    [Response: It was basically the heavy promotion of this film by GSA that, in my mind, made it worthy of comment on RC. It’s not good news when one of the world’s major scientific societies backs an effort like this that so thoroughly messes up the communication of the climate aspects of energy systems. Actually, though I had some fears I would be troll-baiting, I’ve been pretty happy with the discussion. Among other things, we’ve had some of the more calm and fact-based exchanges on nuclear power that I’ve seen on RC, and we do need to figure out how to talk about such things without getting stuck on the hot-button sound bites. –raypierre]

  8. 58
    Mal Adapted says:

    Secular Animist, 4 Apr 2013 at 4:10 PM:

    Yeah, I should know better than to make ambiguous comments like that. With the understanding that I’m way off-topic, I’ll risk elaborating a bit more.

    Discussion of sustainability, to my mind, should always be on a global scale and on a long timespan. It should make explicit references to global carrying capacity WRT human population. It should encompass impacts on biodiversity, among our other planetary support systems. And so forth…

    By “liberty”, I was thinking of something like “freedom to maximize private benefit by externalizing public cost,” including “freedom to buy political influence”, “freedom to control mass media”, etc.

    Both discussions are beyond the scope of this blog, of course, so I’ll say no more.

  9. 59
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Actually, SA makes a very good point that should be amplified most of the challenges wrt nukes scale with either the power generated (waste disposal) or the number of sites (proliferation/security concerns). At some point, these may simply become unmanageable, so it may be the amount of power produced rather than the proportion that is limited by practical considerations.

  10. 60

    #46 Harry Lynch:

    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.

    Why produce a movie then? If you aren’t trying to influence trends, why bother? We need radical change and reinforcing BAU as if it’s incontestable isn’t helpful.

    The tobacco industry knew in the 1930s that their product was linked to cancer. If we follow this reasoning, we should have said, “OK, that’s it, tobacco won” instead of continuing to take them on until we got at least some relief from a predatory unethical industry.

  11. 61
    simon abingdon says:

    #55 “Raypierre wrote: “The experience in France provides a useful point of reference. France managed to go all-nuclear in something like 20 years.”

    #57 “most of the challenges wrt nukes scale with either the power generated (waste disposal) or the number of sites (proliferation/security concerns). At some point, these may simply become unmanageable”

    So France represents some sort of national limit, does it? Sorry Ray, the logic escapes me.

  12. 62
    sidd says:

    Mr. Harry Lynch writes on the 5th of April, 2013 at 1:23 AM:

    “Importantly, the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action.”

    Yes, this is quite important indeed, and most perhaps in disclosing the intent of the filmmaker.

    As I have written before, this is the fourth stage:

    1) It’s not happening.
    2) It’s not us.
    3) It’s not bad.
    4) It’s too hard.

    (I await stage 5: “It’s too late.”)

    Sorta like the “close by assumption” in a business deal. Ignore and dismiss any possibility of doing it any other way. Since for thirty years that “we” have been aware of the slow strangling of this green planet and “we” have ignored her screams, “we” shall continue to do so as long as it suits “our” all knowing fossil fuelled overlords to stuff their ears.

    Speak for yourself, Mr. Lynch. There are those of us who would have it otherwise, and we work for our visions every day. We are not as weak as you imagine, and our opposition is not as strong as you describe. We dare to hope for better futures than you are willing to concede. These futures include the demise of the very companies you so approvingly depict, futures which they cannot countenance, and neither apparently, can you.


  13. 63
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Simon Abingdon: “Sorry Ray, the logic escapes me.”


    Let me try again. It is the amount of waste one must dispose of that poses the challenge–not the amount of waste one must dispose of in proportion to one’s energy generation or GDP or land area. If we were to try to generate the same proportion of our energy with nukes as France, it is likely that the waste could simply become unmanageable (there are only so many places suitable for disposal).

    Likewise, generating more nuclear energy means more dispersed plants, more transport of spent fuel and waste, and so more security problems. This would be an even bigger issue for a country with a large land area than for a small country.

    I’m not sure the problem has been examined in this fashion.

  14. 64
    SecularAnimist says:

    simon abingdon wrote: “So France represents some sort of national limit, does it?”

    Obviously not, since the USA already operates almost twice as many nuclear power plants as France.

    I think it is very likely that the number of nuclear power plants in the USA, and the percentage of the USA’s electricity produced by nuclear power, will decline going forward as the older ones are inevitably shut down — and given the skyrocketing cost of new nuclear power plants and the rapidly plummeting cost of wind and solar, it’s very unlikely that many (if any) new ones will be brought online.

  15. 65
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harry Lynch wrote (#46): “There are certainly some countries incorporating more clean energy, often making compromises in affordability and reliability to do so.”

    Well, that’s some fossil fueled propaganda right there — a standard, boilerplate, utterly false anti-renewable energy talking point.

  16. 66
    Chris Korda says:

    Raypierre @57: I totally understand the rationale, but I worry that endless nuclear debate is a distraction from the larger issue, which in my view is industry capture of science and/or individual scientists. Should we be surprised to learn that the premier geological society is dominated by extractive industries? The core problem is that many of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals got that way by doing things that make no sense whatsoever in the long term, or even in the short term except in some ghoulish Machivellian sense. However absurdly paradoxical it may be, the remaining fossil deposits are currently the most valuable assets on earth. It defies logic that the owners of those assets would willingly pauperize themselves by allowing their assets to remain in the ground forever without compensation. I think of their yachts and planes and mega-mansions and private islands, or the bizarre spectacle of Dubai, with its glittering towers and indoor ski resort, and ask myself: what would it take to buy off the greediest, most rapacious people in all of human history? And yet this appears to be what’s called for.

    [Response: But GSA is not, in fact, dominated by extractive industries. As I said in the review, they have a scientifically sound policy statement on global warming. Heck, they even used Shell (or maybe BP) money to bring in Bill McKibben as a keynote speaker, who promptly went on to tell his massive audience not to go work for oil companies. This movie is an anomaly, and I hope there is some chance to persuade GSA to do some damage control by at least balancing the movie with some better information on climate change impacts of fossil fuels. Regarding your concern about industry, I think that to conclude industry can do nothing right is as bad a mistake as the right makes when they conclude that government is always the enemy and can do nothing right. I would like to think that energy systems could go all-distributed, but I can easily see a continued role for large centralized providers, and the best of industry can do well at that — especially hand in hand with good government policies on standardization and so forth. –raypierre]

  17. 67
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    RayPierre 13: I have always thought nuclear is one viable option we have in our arsenal to combat CC. The biggest drawbacks as highlighted above are the obvious safety issues but like you I consider nuclear’s dangers pale in comparison to the near future catastrophic effects of CC.
    Another point is we have got to start steering the fossil fuel energy sector into renewables or nuclear and not to leave it to the pre-industrial glacial speed of market forces. Natural gas is still 1/3 as damaging than CO2 is and any inevitable gas leaks( mainly methane) will have 20x the forcing effects of CO2.
    As I mentioned in another RC thread -us here in Australia have over 1500 wind turbines but they are not making any dent whatsoever on our carbon footprint, solar energy slightly more so but negligible with regards to fossil fuel sources which this country has copious amounts of.
    Geothermal is still in it’s infancy. Hydro is basically unsuited to Australia except for the little island state of Tasmania in the south. So that leaves natural gas or nuclear ..(or a simply massive rollout in solar energy) as really the only two realistic options.
    Nuclear has got to on the table at any governmental meeting or committee if we are serious at saving civilisation.

  18. 68
    Andy says:

    Re: Korda and Raypierre’s comment: GSA isn’t dominated by extractive industries? That’s certainly not the opinion I formed after attending the GSA meeting in Houston. Perhaps it was the location. The Univ. of Texas BEG (Bureau of Economic Geology) is certainly dominated by the fossil fuel extractive industries.

  19. 69
    quokka says:

    #55 SecularAnimist

    You correctly point out that for the United States to obtain about the same percentage of it’s electricity from nuclear as does France would require approximately the whole world’s reactor fleet. However, you don’t really spell out what you think the implication of this are. Numbers don’t mean much without context.

    Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture of the climate/energy problem.

    Today there are about one and a half billion people in the world without proper electricity supply. Global population may peak at say, ten billion. We are therefore looking at approximately doubling world wide electricity supply this century assuming that per capita electricity consumption does not rise.

    But this is just the start of the problem. Today, just 17% of world energy use is met by electricity. Another 13% by burning waste and biomass and the rest by burning fossil fuels. Not only does essentially all electricity production need to become low carbon, but it also needs to dramatically expand to support electrification of transport, heating and everything else that can plausibly be electrified.

    Put this together and our requirements for a stable climate are looking to be something like a 5-10 fold increase in electricity production that also must be low carbon during the course of this century. It might be more.

    Our 400 reactors for the US, significant as they may be, look a bit puny but certainly no more puny than any plausible deployment of renewables over a multi decade time frame.

    And this is the bottom line – citing the difficulty of dramatic expansion of nuclear as an anti nuclear talking point is a bit dishonest without measuring it against the difficulty of dramatic expansion of the alternatives.

    The following piece looks at the build rates, material and land use requirements of nuclear and some renewables using current technology for a scenario of expanding electricity production five fold by 2050:

    It may be objected that a five fold expansion of electricity production is not likely by 2050, and I’d be inclined to agree, but it is in the right ballpark as a requirement for a safe climate.

    All options look horrendous, but to do it only with renewables looks just plain implausible. The edge goes to nuclear because of a fundamental physical reality – it’s very high energy density. The great weaknesses of renewables are intermittency and low energy density. The jury is still out on the intermittency issue, but the low energy density will never change.

    The scale of the climate/energy problem is completely unprecedented and it is impossible to believe there exits a solution without both renewables and nuclear. What the mix ultimately ends up as is purely speculative as of today.

  20. 70
  21. 71
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS — one notable thing about those three changes in energy production: none of them will involve hiring geologists. This may affect who will be reporting such news.

  22. 72
    David B. Benson says:

    The utilities here in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are incorporating additional intermittent generation, principally wind turbines with now one utility scale solar PV farm. Some homeowners and commercial businesses are adding their own solar PV. There is currently no active interest in building a second nuclear power plant (NPP) in the region, but that may change. [And yes, the hydro capacity is maxed out at about 70% of yearly demand.]

    The utilities are quite concerned about the reliability of the grid in the face of increased intermittent generators, especially as wind farms generation is on a ‘must take’ basis. [Spain is more sensible about that aspect.] Some of my colleagues here are academic power engineers; the best in the West since the days of building Grand Coulee dam. Some of them work closely with two of the computer science professors regarding just those issues of enhanced gird stability despite increased penetration of intermittent generation. I frequently have lunch with one of the computer science professors, a former undergraduate student. [Come to think of it, so is the other.] There is confidence that up to quite high levels (ca. 30%) of intermittent generation can be successfully used.

    But not more, at least in the PNW. So for low carbon generation the remainder of new build is going to have to be NPPs. I’ve looked into (what I hope are) all the issues and I’m in basic agreement with quokka and Barry Brook; there are no insurmountable obstacles. What I don’t consider are the various possibilities of so-called breakthrus in energy generation or storage; as Joe Romm points out those are not schedulable. I only consider what is available now or is forthcoming in the next 7–8 years.

  23. 73

    raypierre inlines to comment 5:

    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.

    That would be:

    Any exceedence of 35°C for extended periods should induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible. While this never happens now, it would begin to occur with global-mean warming of about 7 °C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11–12 °C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 °C are possible from fossil fuel burning.”

    Open Access: Sherwood, Steven C., and Matthew Huber. “An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.21 (2010): 9552-9555.

    Something more recent that may also be of interest:

    The general absence of ichthyofauna in equatorial regions coincides with the temperature maxima reconstructed from the d18Oapatite record, and we interpret this coincidence as recording equatorial exclusion because of inhospitably high temperatures. In contrast, invertebrates remain common in these intervals (19), especially sessile mollusks with their better adapted oxyconforming metabolism allowing them to cope with synergistic stresses of high temperature and low oxygen (17, 20)…. Our compilation of tetrapod fossil occurrences reveals them to be generally absent between 30°N and 40°S in the Early Triassic (Fig. 1), with rare exceptions (25, 26); this is a stark contrast to Middle and Late Triassic occurrences, when they occur at all latitudes (fig. S1).

    Sun, Yadong, et al. “Lethally hot temperatures during the Early Triassic greenhouse.” Science 338.6105 (2012): 366-370.

    People should note, however, that the distribution of the continents at that time was quite different, and likely greatly diminished ocean circulation, and with it, the poleward oceanic heat transport, so in this respect at least, the early triassic may not be that great a guide to the the near future.

  24. 74
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    68: quokka. Excellently balanced and thought out comment quokka.
    I wholeheartedly agree!. 5-10 fold electricity demand does sound daunting doesn’t it. With just renewables it certainly would be impossible given the terribly short time frame that we have to achieve this energy transformation. To throw possibility again into the survival equation we must heavily invest in nuclear.
    If nuclear was as expensive as everyone says it is why do the French pay so little for their power?
    Still realistically it would take a absolute minimum of 15-20 years to get a serious nuclear program off the ground and into the electricity grid. The arctic will probably be ice free in summer within the next 7-9 years, if that doesn’t send a clear message to our respective governments then nothing will.

    [Response: I wouldn’t say electricity is “cheap” in France, but it’s not ruinously expensive either. The base tariff is something like .12 Euro cents per KwH , though you can bring that down by using off-peak power. On a straight exchange rate basis, that’s higher than the US average (about 11.8 US cents per KwH; I pay 10cents per KwH for straight wind power from one of the more expensive providers. Con Ed in NY was up to 25.8 cents per KwH for a while), though exchange rates introduce their own distortions. But keep in mind that in some sense, energy NEEDS to be more expensive one way or another, since that encourages more efficient use. Even though nuclear electricity is low-carbon, it still is worthwhile conserving it, since it frees up electricity that can be sold into other markets and displace fossil energy, or at the very least, frees up capital that can be put to use on other things. –raypierre ]

  25. 75
    Tone says:

    I am glad RC generally avoids the nuclear debate. I am also glad there is a thread which seriously considers the issues.I wish to challenge some of the nonsense about nuclear waste. Please correct me if I am wrong.
    A popular line is that used fuel is deadly for 250.000 years. This is the time taken for Pu 239 to decay to 1000th of it’s original level. There are many isotopes in used fuel, most of which decay within a year. After that there are two main categories, Pu 241 (14 year half life) Cesium 137 and Strontium 90 (both 30 years.) In the long group there is Pu 240 (about 6,500 years) and Pu 239 (about 24,000 years). Of these only the 239 isotope is ideal for bomb making, 241 being fiercely radioactive and 240 being a spontaneous neutron emitter, making the bomb a dud like all the North Korean weapons. Pu 241 decays to the useful commercial product, Americium 241, used in millions of homes in smoke detectors.
    Uranium supplies are limited, with only the 0.7% of the 235 isotope usable in reactors. Fast breeders which produce more plutonium than they burn Uranium have serious safety issues.
    The problem with reprocessing is the dangerous radiation, If we waited long enough this would cease to be an issue. My suggestion is temporary storage for several hundred years before recycling to destroy the Plutonium. Permanent storage would after 20,000 years from a large repository leave enough Pu 239 to make tens of thousands of bombs, a terrible heritage for our descendants. If nuclear is to last longer than fossil fuels we need to recycle. Let us do it safely.

  26. 76
    quokka says:

    #69 Hank Roberts

    Wrt to hydrogen there is this:

    “Hydrogen generation accounts for less than 33% of the cost at the pump. The costs of hydrogen compression, storage, and distribution make up the majority of the cost of hydrogen, offering the greatest opportunities for improvement and innovation.”

    Maybe those improvements will come, and maybe they won’t.

    There are many gotchas in energy.

    [Response: What is certain, though, is that continued reliance on fossil fuels will make the climate warmer — and unquestionably dangerously so if we continue the current rate of emissions growth and don’t run out of fossil fuels before 2150 or so. What is certain is that somethings gotta give. If we don’t make the switch, either we’ll run out of fossil fuels or run out of habitable climate. –raypierre]

  27. 77
    quokka says:

    #74 Tone,

    Wrt fast reactor safety are you aware of the safety experiments performed on the EBR-II (forerunner of the GE Hitachi PRISM) at Argonne that would have catastrophically destroyed any operating light water reactor. Failure to scram and simultaneous station blackout is about as bad as it can get. The EBR-II was completely undamaged and restarted the same day.

    PRISM is passively safe. A decay heat accident as at Fukushima is not possible. Passive cooling by air convection can continue indefinitely without power and without need for makeup coolant as there eg would be with AP1000 after 72 hours.

    There is an account here from the author of the safety testing programme for EBR-II:

    There are other important aspects of PRISM safety too, including low (ie near atmospheric) pressure operation, pool type design with large thermal inertia etc.

    There seems to be very good evidence that fast reactors can be safe and very possibly safer than water moderated thermal spectrum reactors.

  28. 78
    SecularAnimist says:

    Lawrence Coleman wrote: “I have always thought nuclear is one viable option we have in our arsenal to combat CC.”

    We have plenty of other viable options for eliminating GHG emissions from electricity generation — options which are already being deployed at all scales all over the world, which are already having a significant impact on GHG emissions from electricity generation, and which have the potential to reduce those emissions to near zero in a decade or so, without any expansion of nuclear power.

    Lawrence Coleman wrote: “us here in Australia have over 1500 wind turbines but they are not making any dent whatsoever on our carbon footprint, solar energy slightly more so but negligible with regards to fossil fuel sources”

    It’s true that wind power is still a small part of Australia’s electricity supply (around 2.5 percent) but it is growing rapidly, about 35 percent per year for the last several years. There is huge potential for further growth, with 14,000 MW of new utility-scale wind power in the works. The economics are also favorable since new wind power is already cheaper than either new coal-fired power or new natural gas-fired power.

    Solar power is booming in Australia — there are now more than one million Australian homes with rooftop PV, up from just 20,000 in 2008. In 2010-2011 rooftop PV grew by SEVEN TIMES, and installed capacity is now about 2 GW, enough to produce about 8 percent of average daytime demand — and that reduction in demand is already having a major impact on lowering the wholesale cost of grid power. On average 10 percent of Australian households have rooftop PV installed, and some localities are already “saturated” with 90 percent of households having PV installed. Some market analysis projects that rooftop PV could quadruple to 10 GW by 2017.

    And as with wind, the economics are favorable, with typical 5 KW solar PV systems now costing less than $2 per watt, and the cost of electricity from rooftop PV now LESS THAN HALF the cost of grid power.

    While Australia is a world leader in deploying rooftop PV (with penetration rates second only to Japan), it is lagging in deployment of utility-scale solar, even though it has some of the biggest and best solar energy resources of any nation on Earth. However, this is hopefully changing as Australia recently launched its first utility-scale (10MW) PV power plant, and other utility-scale solar projects are in the pipeline.

  29. 79
    SecularAnimist says:

    quokka wrote: “Today there are about one and a half billion people in the world without proper electricity supply.”

    Right. And most of them live in impoverished developing countries which have no resources to build either fossil fueled power plants OR nuclear power plants, not to mention the power grids to distribute electricity from large, centralized power plants to remote rural areas.

    While we in the rich, developed world waste vast amounts of electricity (and energy in general), there is indeed a critical need for electricity among those many millions of people who now lack ANY access to electricity and the literally life-transforming benefits that it brings (e.g. the health benefits of replacing kerosene lamps with electric lights, refrigeration for food and medicine, access to telecommunications).

    But those people are simply never going to get grid power.

    Fortunately, there is an ongoing revolution in rural electrification in the developing world, particularly in Africa and India — using cheap, mass-produced PV to provide off-grid, village-scale electricity.

  30. 80
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by quokka — 5 Apr 2013 @ 10:16 PM

    I am relatively ignorant of how nuclear electricity could help ameliorate our climate problem and maintain something better than a near aboriginal lifestyle in our future, so I am eagerly reading commenters on this problem. For this purpose I have to evaluate the veracity of statements outside my area of understanding by what a commenter says regarding something I do know something about. In this regard, your statement-

    “The great weaknesses of renewables are intermittency and low energy density. The jury is still out on the intermittency issue, but the low energy density will never change.”

    -makes all of your nuclear energy assertions suspect. When there is plenty of land area and the energy is free, energy density is totally irrelevant to decision making. I am looking for honest information brokers.


  31. 81
    SecularAnimist says:

    quokka wrote: “The following piece looks at the build rates …”

    With all due respect, I do not consider BraveNewClimate to be a reliable or credible source of analysis when it comes to renewable energy technology. It is a pro-nuclear advocacy site, and the articles there typically disparage renewable energy technologies with inaccurate, ill-informed assumptions and estimates. The article you linked to is a case in point.

    Moreover, the deployment, and the rapid technological development, of renewable energy technologies make any analysis that is almost 4 years old (that article is from 2009) outdated.

    As I have done before, I will recommend the site as a good resource for up-to-date information on developments in the renewable energy field (as well as storage, smart grid and electric transport technologies). Joe Romm’s site also has good general coverage of renewable energy issues.

    A very valuable site that I highly recommend is the Energy Self-Reliant States blog from John Farrell of the Institute For Local Self-Reliance, which focuses on distributed renewable energy.

  32. 82
    robert says:

    #13 above, raypierre said ” 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”…

    A surprisingly non-quantitative assessment, given the author and the blog. Fortunately, there are quantitiative assessments — one of the most recent and comprehensive being “Re-Inventing Fire” from Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mtn. Institute. They make a convincing, quantitative case that we can, in fact, divest ourselves of fossils by mid-century without invoking nuclear.

  33. 83
    Hank Roberts says:

    > compression, storage, and distribution

    Yeah, distributing hydrogen isn’t likely smart. What makes sense (if production becomes cheap) is using hydrogen (like pumped hydro or molten salt thermal) as a local temporary storage of energy when it exceeds what the grid can accept, that can be used locally to feed the grid later or as a direct heat source for the surrounding area.

    I argue every nuclear plant should dedicate the surrounding acreage that’s kept open for security and safety to a wide variety of renewables, whatever works in that area — yes, they’re producing power that’s more intermittent, and more expensive (when all’s going well). Yes, some are experimental, some won’t work in practice. But when (not if, when) the grid goes away for months on end (another Carrington event), they’ll be cheap.

    That’s when and every operating fission plant and fuel store requires power to keep cooling pumps working, some of those local renewable sources can be switched over and used. That’s the time that local renewable power is invaluable — when hauling diesel or even refining is problematic due to grid and transport failure, and when the fission generators can’t be kept operating because the grid can’t accept their power output so they can’t cool themselves!

    The fission industry should be the best and most faithful friend of renewable power sources — all of them, whatever might work locally around each such plant and spent fuel pool storage. Take some of the benefit of that cheap longterm clean power and build the other half of the fission power system — the ring of renewable clean local power that each atomic plant will need when the grid goes away.

    Yes, we’re fine hauling new power lines or new generators or fire trucks or whatever it takes to protect a single fission operation when the local grid fails from an earthquake — it’s expensive, it’s inefficient, and there are oops moments due to lack of planning. But that won’t suffice when another Carrington event happens — and there’s no reason to think that the Carrington event was the worst case.

    The “cheap gas” profit should be dedicated to investing in a future that we’d like to see happen, not investing in the future we know is a dead end.

  34. 84
    Hank Roberts says:

    > or molten salt thermal
    Note that’s not a single thing, it’s a broad category being experimentally investigated. It’s a subset of phase change stuff. The science fiction suggests someone come up with a nanotech material that winds up like little clock springs to store energy and controllably releases that again in some useful form, whether as heat or rotation or expansion or something else.
    We need Maxwell’s Demons in a variety of sizes to capture and hold energy reversibly.

  35. 85
    Pat Cassen says:

    I saw the movie before I knew that RC had reviewed it. For the technically inclined, it’s an impressive flick, a very classy production.

    I attended the screening with my wife, a physicist, and the two of us discussed it extensively over dinner immediately after seeing it. The more we talked about it, the more disturbed we became (see below). We wound up wondering who foot the bill for this obviously very expensive film, an indication that we were not satisfied with the film’s claim to be agenda free (“…rather than advocate for how it should happen, Switch travels the world to discover how it most likely will happen” [The Switch Energy Project website lists six donors, including the American Geosciences Institute (a venerable consortium of some few dozen geoscience societies, including GSA, AGU, etc.), the GSA Foundation, and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Foundation.]

    Why disturbed? As raypierre says, there is virtually no discussion of the problem – the motivation for the “switch”. There are various references to the undesirability of CO2 emissions, and at first I took this to reflect a tacit understanding that the audience is expected to be hip to the issue. But no way; by the end of the film the “problem” has been reduced, by omission, to an annoyance that, sooner or later, our children will have to deal with, probably by some combination of more ingenious fossil fuel development, a bit of this-and-that renewables, and some common sense turning-off-of-lights. Intended or not, that is the takeaway message.

    Most egregious is Tinker’s summary projection, near the end of the film, that renewables will, perhaps, be contributing comparably to fossil fuels (mainly natural gas) sometime around 2060-2070, with nary a mention of what that might mean for the planet and its inhabitants.

    Also conspicuous by its absence is any mention of policy issues. Lynch states that the intent of the film was to “…predict, based on long, well established trends of global energy production and consumption, how the energy transition likely will happen…the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action.” In other words, the makers of Switch are far ahead of the rest of us; they have divined the outcome of the all the current debates, and concluded that they are essentially futile. And they cloak this message in a flimsy veil of cheery techno-optimism.

    [Response: And they fail to give any honest indication of what the climate will be like if the films assertions about continued reliance on fossil fuels turn out to be right. –raypierre ]

  36. 86
    Martin Vermeer says:

    quokka: “Hydrogen generation accounts for less than 33% of the cost at the pump. …”

    Yep, at the pump. I share Romm’s skepticism on hydrogen for cars.

    Doesn’t necessarily apply for stationary use — though it has its own, different issues.

  37. 87
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, don’t neglect possibilities like this found somewhere along the hopeful-to-scary axis — biobatteries are looking interesting. I wish Tesla had known about them.

    [Response: And even earlier, the Finnish novelist Arto Paasilinna predicted an energy revolution based on biobatteries (liver-loaf was the secret ingredient in that case, I think). Sadly, it doesn’t turn out well for poor Adam, the inventor. For a good laugh, go read Aatami ja Eeva , if you can find it in a language you can understand. I know there’s at least a Swedish translation. –raypierre]

  38. 88
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Tone #74:

    My suggestion is temporary storage for several hundred years before recycling to destroy the Plutonium.

    My suggestion would be controlled storage “until further notice”… the whole paradigm of “dump and forget” is something we should finally get over, IMHO. Actively controlled storage works indefinitely, or until the technology, and the need/desire, comes up to do something else/better — like reprocessing.

    Note that even storage for all eternity will still require a finite amount of “storage work”, due to the exponential decay law. And we shouldn’t second-guess future decisions to be taken in a very different and unknown technological context.

  39. 89
    Patrick 027 says:

    Skipping way ahead in the comments, so sorry if this was covered above, but:

    Regarding using nuclear for desalination (as suggested above): To me solar would make more sense because when you need to desalinate and pump more water you’re likely to be in a drought. But I’m assuming a sufficiently strong correlation between cloud cover and precipitation (and that the solar power is stationed within the watersheds involved). … Well it really doesn’t make sense to dedicate one energy source to one purpose unless you’re off the grid, but anyway – have there been studies of the complementarity between solar and hydroelectricity (PS I’m not referring to usage of hydro as a dispatchable source to help load and supply balance on the hourly+ scale), and/or solar and energy consumption when water supply is a significant part of that consumption?

  40. 90
    Patrick 027 says:

    … and wind can speed the drying of soil, so … (see my last comment)

  41. 91
    David B. Benson says:

    Here, in red, is an actual electricity load (demand) met by a combination of hydro, thermal and wind generators:
    BPA transmits considerable power to other balancing agents in other areas so the total BPA generation greatly exceeds the local demand.

    This demand is representative although other balancing agent areas may not show the dual peak but rather just one with a long tail after about 4 pm. Nonetheless, the demand may be approximated by: 70% from 11 pm to 6 am; 100% from 6 am to 11pm.

    The overnight low part is called baseload. In areas without this significant hydro resource it is met by a combination of nuclear (NPPs) and coal or possibly also combined cycle gas turbines. Neither of the latter two are low carbon.

    The challenge is to met the approximated demand by low carbon generators only under the assumption of little hydro or geothermal. That leaves only NPPs, wind turbines, solar PV, concentrated solar power (CSP) and a modest amount of biomass thermal units. One can fiddle with providing reasonably low cost solutions with the aid of
    and some understanding of the costs of these technologies.

    When I have done this I can never find a solution in which included wind turbines is less expensive than leaving them out (assuming reasonable LCOE for wind). However, including retail (household/commercial) solar PV up to around 30% of maximum demand begins to pay once the cost of solar PV declines far enough. The necessary storage is provided by inexpensive thermal stores hung on the NPPs. However, at higher penetration costs begin to climb.

    Recently Graham Palmer analyzed household solar PV:
    and finds that EROI doesn’t look so good at high levels of penetration in Melbourne.

    Everyone is certainly welcome to try out their own favorite low carbon generation mixes using the idea of an idealized reference grid. Be sure to remember the utility companies ‘n+1’ rule of providing enough dispatchable generation on rolling reserve to accommodate a trip-off of the largest single generator (or wind farm) on the grid. (For a fleet of NPPs this is accomplished by operating the running NPPs at enough less than full capacity to leave room for increase in case one of the fleet trips off.)

  42. 92
    David B. Benson says:

    SecularAnimist — CleanTechnica just provides news, it seems; no analysis.

    Steve Fish — I assure you that energy density is a concern. One has to connect wind turbines to the grid, for example. There are other issues with using deserts as a source of solar energy.

  43. 93
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by David B. Benson — 6 Apr 2013 @ 8:05 PM

    Are you figuring conservation into your calculations? At least for the US, there are nations with a higher standard of living that use one half to one quarter the per person electricity.

    — 6 Apr 2013 @ 8:17 PM

    Energy density and where a generation plant is located are two completely different problems. For photovoltaic solar, for example, every roof on homes, businesses, parking lots, and a variety of other regions of accessible sunshine don’t take up very much usable area. Further, this type of production is locally distributed so that it only requires minimal long range transmission.

    Other types of low carbon energy production that are necessarily localized, such as geothermal, wind, and nuclear will require a new modern grid. The old one is inefficient and dumb.


  44. 94
    quokka says:

    #80 Steve Fish,

    I don’t think much of the “honest broker” snipe. It was quite uncalled for. Now to the substance. First principles tell us that land use is a major environmental issue. Hand waving about plenty of land assumes that energy supply is somehow immune from this. It’s not credible.

    Once again lets start with the big picture. In Germany, PV output meets about 1% of final energy use and wind about 2%. That’s final energy use – not electricity consumption. Making reasonable assumptions that improvements in energy efficiency reduce final energy use by perhaps one third, how much land would be needed to meet all of Germany’s energy demand from wind and solar? Keep in mind that both wind and PV perform poorly in Germany. PV capacity factor is about 11% and on shore wind about 18%. David Mackay quotes a figure of 2 W/m^2 for a well performing wind farm in the UK. In Germany it will definitely be significantly worse.

    If anybody wants to do a “David Mackay” and do their own calculation the IEA energy statistics are here:

    A recent paper that suggests that the magnitude of the potential global wind resource has been overestimated deserves a mention. Modelling suggests that wind starts to be affected when wind farms grow to large size and the energy density drops to 1 W/m^2 for 100 km^2 or larger wind farm. I’m not suggesting that this is the last word on the subject, but it would certainly be a matter of considerable concern if the analysis stands up. As a point of reference, at 2 W/m^2 you need about 500 km^2 of land to produce about the same amount of electricity as a 1GW nuclear power plant.

    Another big picture issue is the effects of big hydro. I have read estimates of between 40 and 80 million people in total displaced by big hydro projects. Many with little or no assistance for relocation and rehabilitation. That’s two orders of magnitude above the numbers displaced by the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents put together. Furthermore it is not an accident – it’s intrinsic to the technology. Hydro has much to recommend it as a means of generating electricity but new large hydro projects are almost universally contentious because of their detrimental effects on local populations and river systems. It’s not contentious to say that many of the worlds river systems are already in a badly degraded state. There is scope for significant expansion of hydro globally, but whether there should be is a very difficult question to grapple with. Hydro remains easily the most important renewable technology.

    More locally specific land use issues abound. A recent study in Scotland suggests that siting wind farms on basically undisturbed peat land could cause sufficient disturbance to result in carbon emissions from the peat negating the carbon benefits of the wind power. Peat is a great store of carbon. These are preferred locations for wind farms because such land has low economic value – which is why it is currently undisturbed.

    In the UK, there have been recent attempts to bring back the Severn barrage from the dead. Large portions of the Severn estuary are wetlands of international importance and an important shore bird habitat supposedly protected by listing under the Ramsar Convention and European conservation agreements. Globally, shore birds are in trouble already.

    Also in the land use category is the issue of the extra transmission line distance and capacity (because of low capacity factor generators) required to get electricity generated by renewables to the large load centres. There seems to be a prevalent illusion that “distributed generation” means getting your electricity from the PV panels on the roof or the windmill next door. Reality is very different in a world of relentless unbanisation and ever larger mega cities. Transmission is certainly not a show stopper, but definitely is a factor in system cost and rate of deployment. It is quite reasonable to ask why Germany still does not not have transmission capacity to get wind power from north to south. Perhaps some bad planning (though blind freddy should have to been able to see that coming) and well … it just takes time.

    When it comes to land use, there are a multitude of issues and this comment has barely started to scratch the surface. There is much work to do with careful assessments.

    [Response: I read this comment not as an attempt to show that nuclear is the only way out of our energy dilemma, but rather an attempt to bring to the table a realistic discussion of the hurdles that need to be overcome in achieving a workable energy mix. All energy systems have their drawbacks but the one thing we know for sure is that continued reliance on fossil fuels without carbon capture is not an option, if we are to preserve a livable climate. We shouldn’t assume renewables are an easy road to the future, but at the same time, it would be wrong to write them off, because it’s only through attempts to deploy at scale, and continued experimentation, that there will be any chance of forcing the technology to the point that the hurdles can be surmounted. –raypierre]

  45. 95

    quokka #77: I’m rereading Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and he makes pretty appealing claims about fast reactors including they can burn nuclear waste as fuel, essentially eliminating two of the biggest problems of the conventional uranium fuel cycle: extremely dirty mining (there’s enough waste not to need new uranium for a long time) and 10kyear+ half-lives of waste (fast reactors he claims produce waste of the order of 100 year half-lives).

    I would like to see some informed discussion (not advocacy) of whether this can really work, or whether there’s some negatives he missed.

    For example: I suspect he has glossed over some of the safety issues including claiming that molten sodium (used as a coolant) is relatively safe because unlike water it need not be pressurised at the temperatures needed and is non-corrosove. Fine, but it is one of the metals that burns readily in air (and has a strongly exothermic reaction with water, producing hydrogen, so you have potential for a radioactive-contaminated hydrogen fire too), so preventing a fire is a major design and safety concern.

    You certainly wouldn’t want one in a tsumani zone. Why would anyone put any kind of major power plant in a tsunami zone? It is this sort of stupidity that worries many with nuclear safety concerns. Done right, you may be able to produce a plant that is a lot safer than a coal power plant. But it does not take a lot of mistakes to have a very expensive outcome. The argument that the last accident was a freak and couldn’t happen again is not very well supported when we get another.

    Liquid sodium is not the only available coolant; my core point is we should not argue as advocates but be open to understanding why some technologies are very hard to bring to scale, and be open to solving those problems if there is a possibility of doing so.

    One of things that I really like about this site when we talk climate science is that we debunk each other, which differentiates a real science site from an advocacy site (WUWT e.g. happily accepts anything that reinforces their anti-science prejudice). Maybe this is not the place for it since it’s not a site run by energy experts (even if there are some present): it’s that level of debate I would like to see if not here, then at least somewhere.

  46. 96
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Why would anyone put any kind of major power plant in a tsunami zone?

    Actually Philip I have to disagree. It can be done safely, but it has to be done that way, consciously. It doesn’t even cost that much. And Fukushima was claimed to be safe — only problem, the claim was false (I got egg on my face reassuring my sister just after the event that yes, F is tsunami-proof).

    One problem with the nuclear industry today is the lack of a robust safety culture — like one finds in, e.g., international aviation. We know and acknowledge flying is dangerous; still, we do it, and remarkably safely. It’s a matter of culture, TEPCO being a caricature on how not to do it.

  47. 97
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Philip M #95

    “… pretty appealing claims about fast reactors including they can burn nuclear waste as fuel …”

    Yes I hear this a lot. The worst of these claims includes the U238 in natural or lightly enriched uranium fuel as ‘waste’ — which is as silly and dishonest as including the deuterium in the coolant water flowing through the reactor ;-)

    There are promising designs on the table for ‘fast’ reactors (‘fast’ refers to the neutrons not being slowed down to thermal speeds by a moderator) which are in many ways inherently safe. E.g., the fuel is in liquid form and is reprocessed on-site and on-line, so fission waste doesn’t build up inside the reactor core. The liquid fuel is in fluoride salt form, insoluble in water even if it were to end up in the environment / ground water. BTW these very same fluoride salts are also being studied for solar thermal, as they promise a much higher Carnot efficiency than existing designs.

    However, these are at the prototype stage at best. It will take decades of development for them to come on-line. The cruel truth is that innovation is not something you can schedule, and while it’s probably wise to further work on this option among others, let’s not bet the farm on it (or anything else on its own). And finally remember, energy != electricity…

  48. 98
    raypierre says:

    As part of our discussion of nuclear energy, I’d like to introduce the issue of how one would go about increasing the share of nuclear energy, if one were to decide that that would be desirable. In much of the world, the problem is that the expense of nuclear is so great that there’s not a lot of free-market incentive to build more nukes. In the US, the current competitor is natural gas, and in much of the world it’s coal. A command economy like China could just decide to go ahead and do it anyway, regardless of the price. To some extent, this option is available to democracies as well. France was able to implement a top-down decision to go nuclear because there was, in effect a single electricity supplier EdF, which was more or less under the control of the government. The US obviously couldn’t go the same route, and I’m not sure what could be done in the turbulent democracy of India.

    Probably the cleanest way to level the playing field for nuclear would be to impose a carbon tax sufficiently high to allow nuclear to compete with the cheapest available fossil fuel. Given the difficulty of passing a carbon tax in the US, for renewables the approach has been direct subsidies and renewable portfolio standards. But so far as I know, we don’t have anything similar for nuclear power. There’s no “carbon free” portfolio standard that would include nukes, and evidently whatever indirect subsidies nuclear currently gets are not enough to incentivize a great deal of activity in the US. Thoughts?

  49. 99
    John Lee says:

    I watched a few of the energy segments on the website and was struck by Barry Smitherman’s $25,000 solar system (which should produce 600kwh/mo) saving him only $20 per month. In order to make the math work, he’s quoting utility bulk price for electricity, not consumer price for electricity. It’s not an honest interview.

  50. 100
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by quokka — 6 Apr 2013 @ 11:01 PM

    Getting caught saying something dishonest and then griping about it is called tone trolling. You then go on to cherry pick situations in order to support your bias. I don’t believe that there is any single technology that will get us out of the CO2 trap. If you disagree, then cherry pick these:

    What would be faster and less expensive than a small solar panel and a battery to bring electricity to the poor of the world who don’t have it? A very modest system can easily power LED lights, a radio, and charge a cell phone.

    Many home owners in the western portion of the US can purchase and install solar panels in one month that will pay for themselves in two to ten years, after which the electricity they generate is free. This is a pretty good way for homeowners to protect themselves from the increasing costs of grid electricity. What other generation technology can you suggest for this market that could be employed for less expense and as quickly?

    Mind you, I am not proposing distributed photovoltaics as the big answer, but it is certainly quick to deploy, off the shelf, can be installed incrementally, and is quite effective for leveling out the daytime grid load.