Professor Naomi Oreskes, the author of an influential 2004 study titled, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, has penned a remarkable piece in The Guardian, in which she accuses top climate scientists of “climate denialism,” for publicly declaring that we need to expand nuclear energy to stop global warming, as renewable sources won’t meet our energy needs.
Oreskes defies the consensus: most serious reviewers agree with the pro-nuclear scientists whom she criticizes
A couple of weeks ago, four leading climate scientists – Dr. James Hansen (professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies), Dr. Kerry Emanuel (professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Dr. Tom Wigley (climate scientist at the University of Adelaide) and Dr. Ken Caldeira (climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, and at the Stanford University Department of Earth System Science) – issued a statement declaring that “renewables alone cannot realistically meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C, and that a major expansion of nuclear power is essential to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system this century.” The authors accused anti-nuclear campaigners of causing “unnecessary and severe harm to the environment and to the future of young people.” In a footnote, they added that their views on nuclear energy were widely shared:
Nearly every serious look at the energy technology required over the next several decades to supply the world’s growing energy appetite while effectively mitigating climate change has concluded that there is likely to be a need for large amounts of nuclear energy. In 2014 alone, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the UN Sustainable Solutions Network and the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate argued for a doubling or trebling of nuclear energy – requiring as many as 1,000 new reactors or more in view of scheduled retirements – to stabilize carbon emissions e.g. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/, Presentation, slides 32-33; International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2014, p. 396; UN Sustainable Solutions Network, “Pathways to Deep Decarbonization” (July 2014), at page 33; Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, “Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report” (September 2014), Figure 5 at page 26.
And that’s not all. In 2014, two top Google engineers who had led a seven-year investigation declared in an interview with IEEE magazine (November 28, 2014): “Renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.” In their interview, engineers Ross Koningstein & David Fork proposed a balanced R & D portfolio that would “allocate the bulk of resources to proven technologies like hydro, wind, solar photovoltaics, and nuclear; devote 20 percent of funds to related technologies like thin-film solar PV and next-generation nuclear fission reactors; and keep a pot of money for “crazy” ideas like cheap fusion” (emphases mine – VJT). In other words, the authors envisioned nuclear energy as part of the solution.
Finally, here’s what billionaire Bill Gates had to say on the self-defeating claims of some clean-energy enthusiasts in his recent interview with James Bennet, titled, We need an energy miracle (The Atlantic, November 2015):
They have this statement that the cost of solar photovoltaic is the same as hydrocarbon’s. And that’s one of those misleadingly meaningless statements. What they mean is that at noon in Arizona, the cost of that kilowatt-hour is the same as a hydrocarbon kilowatt-hour. But it doesn’t come at night, it doesn’t come after the sun hasn’t shone, so the fact that in that one moment you reach parity, so what? The reading public, when they see things like that, they underestimate how hard this thing is. So false solutions like divestment or “Oh, it’s easy to do” hurt our ability to fix the problems. Distinguishing a real solution from a false solution is actually very complicated. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
For his part, Gates is not particularly enthusiastic about nuclear energy, but he is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task facing humanity, if it is to switch away from fossil fuels:
…[W]e need innovation that gives us energy that’s cheaper than today’s hydrocarbon energy, that has zero CO2 emissions, and that’s as reliable as today’s overall energy system. And when you put all those requirements together, we need an energy miracle.…
The only reason I’m optimistic about this problem is because of innovation. And innovation is a very uncertain process. For all I know, even if we don’t up the R&D, 10 years from now some guy will invent something and it’ll take care of this thing. I don’t think that’s very likely, but nobody has a predictor function of innovation—which is weird, because the whole modern economy and our lifestyles are an accumulation of innovations. So I want to tilt the odds in our favor by driving innovation at an unnaturally high pace, or more than its current business-as-usual course. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
In his interview, Gates estimates that “we’re more than a factor of 10” away from what he calls “grid-scale economic storage” for renewable energy sources. But while the storage problem will be difficult to overcome, it’s by no means the biggest problem with renewable energy.
The real flaws with renewable energy
After carefully reviewing the literature on the subject a few months ago, I identified what I perceived as the four fatal flaws of renewable energy, in a post titled, Straight talk about global warming: an open letter to the Catholic clergy (June 12, 2015). I summarized my conclusions as follows:
Despite falling costs, new energy storage technologies and government subsidies of over $100 billion a year, renewable energy sources will be unable to replace fossil fuels within the next 50 years, for several reasons. In brief: renewable energy sources provide a very poor energy return on the energy invested in building them, they require vast amounts of land, they generate lots of pollution (especially in the case of solar energy and biomass) and they cannot be economically scaled up to meet worldwide demand. In the words of Professor James Hansen, former Vice-President Al Gore’s climate adviser: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
I discussed each of these four key problems at further length, in section 3 of my post, which readers are welcome to peruse. I didn’t spend much time on problems such as cost, intermittency or the storage problem, as I consider these problems potentially soluble, whereas the problems I highlighted in my post appear to be inherently insoluble.
Professor Oreskes’ naive optimism about renewable energy: what she overlooks
Professor Naomi Oreskes maintains that the top climate scientists whom she accuses of “denialism”, are unduly pessimistic in their assessment of whether renewable energy can supply all of our energy needs. Oreskes addresses their arguments by citing a study (see here and here) conducted by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson, which claims that the world can make achieve a carbon-free economy without relying on nuclear power, simply by “focusing on wind, water and solar, coupled with grid integration, energy efficiency and demand management.” Unfortunately, she forgot to mention the price tag: a cool $100 trillion worldwide, over 20 years, not including transmission. That’s the estimate given by Mark Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi in a 2009 article in Scientific American (301, 58 – 65) titled, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030” (hidden behind a paywall; for the gist of the article, see here). In his review of Jacobson’s proposal, Daily Kos writer N. B. Books (whose real name is Tony Wikrent) is totally unfazed about spending $100 trillion to stop global warming. He writes: “We can just create the money needed out of thin air. That is, in fact, the way money has always been created.” Yeah, right.
Professor Jacobson’s proposal would also require the implementation of a construction project, the likes of which the world has never seen. Under his plan, eliminating fossil fuels worldwide would require the construction of no less than 1.7 billion 3-kilo-Watt rooftop photvoltaic (PV) systems (that’s about three PV systems per second worldwide, over the next 20 years), 3.8 million 5-Mega-Watt wind turbines, 720,000 0.75-Mega-Watt wave devices, 490,000 1-Mega-Watt tidal turbines, 49,000 300-Mega-Watt concentrated solar plants, 40,000 300-Mega-Watt solar power plants, 5,350 100-Mega-Watt geothermal power plants, and 270 new 1,300-Mega-Watt hydroelectric power plants.
I should add that Jacobson’s 50-state plan to transform U.S. to renewable energy has been panned by critics, and a devastating review of New York state’s plan was published in an article titled, Critique of the 100% Renewable Energy for New York Plan (The Energy Collective, November 17, 2013), by energy and technology writer Edward Dodge, who wrote:
Jacobson attempts to makes the case that society can acquire all of the energy it needs for all purposes in a relatively short period of time from a combination of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Jacobson is opposed to nuclear power and also opposes all hydrocarbon fuels whether bio or fossil based because of the contention that all CO2 emissions must be eliminated in order to prevent a catastrophic melting of the arctic sea ice. The plan calls for an 80% conversion to WWS [wind, water and solar] by 2030 and 100% conversion by 2050. Unfortunately the plans are deeply flawed from a practical and technical perspective…
A common flaw in the WWS model is the use of unproven technologies along with insufficient analysis of their land use impacts. For example, wave devices, tidal turbines and geothermal are included even though they are not mature technologies. The WWS plan has virtually no discussion of the land use impacts of new power transmission or discussion of hydrogen storage and distribution. Other writers have disputed Jacobson’s assumptions about electricity storage and economics here and here. Debate over the feasibility of intermittent power sources to keep the grid running can be found here and here, a response to the critics by Jacobson can be found here….
The most glaring defect in the entire model is the use of CSP, concentrated solar power, which is a thermal technology used in the desert and not applicable to New York. I would challenge the authors to find any qualified engineers or developers who would certify these types of facilities for NY. The authors call for 387 CSP plants rated at 100 MW each to be built throughout the state. Each 100 MW CSP plant requires roughly 1 square mile of flat, unburdened land and requires the highest levels of solar insolation. New York has the opposite characteristics: long, cold, dark winters and rolling hills covered in forests, fields and farms. By the authors’ own figures, 327.3 square miles of land would have to be cleared to construct 387 of these projects across the state…
The wind model presented is troubling because it assumes to utilize as many wind turbines as conceivably possible, basically placing turbines on every single hill with decent wind in the state without regard to people already living there. Similar to the trick in the PV [photovoltaic] model, the authors choose particularly large turbines that allow them to overstate production…
The numbers presented for offshore wind are truly astounding. 12,700 turbines at 5 MW each for a total capacity of 63,550 MW. The authors do fairly note that there is not a single off shore wind farm anywhere in the United States in 2013, but that does not stop them from asserting that some of the busiest multiuse waterways will be packed to the maximum extent with a forest of very large turbines. The available waterways in NY are the coasts of Long Island and parts of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. There is no discussion of impacts on shipping lanes, boating, fisheries, recreation or general public acceptance. No discussion of bathymetric properties of the sea floor and whether the farms of the proposed scale are even technically possible.
I hate to be critical of proposals for wind and solar because I hope these industries continue to grow, but the WWS plan lacks any technical credibility whatsoever. It has been widely criticized by many writers and for good reason. I only chose to add to the pile because I see the paper being hailed for political purposes by those with an agenda opposing drilling for natural gas. Mark Jacobson has been making appearances on television claiming this is all technically feasible, well I have to disagree.
I think it is fair to conclude that while Jacobson’s treatment of the issues is comprehensive, it lacks depth. Finally, as far as I am aware, Jacobson does not address the four fundamental problems I discussed earlier, in connection with renewable sources of energy.
In her highly informative blog post on Professor Oreskes latest article in The Guarfian, climatologist Judith Curry responds with a pithy put-down: “Well, to play Oreskes’ denial game, Oreskes et al. are engineering ‘deniers.’”
There is no good solution massively reducing our emissions from fossil fuels on the time scale of a decade. If the nuclear solution is unpalatable, then reconsider whether the proposed cure is worse than the hypothesized disease.
Now that political victory on climate change has been declared, its time to look at the engineering (not to mention economical) challenges.
Naomi Oreskes and her ilk that are playing politics with science, and now engineering, need to get out of the way.
In the past couple of years, we have seen a number of articles by the political left, arguing that religious right-wingers are prone to various kinds of denialism, because they are incapable of thinking logically. Author and journalist Chris Mooney has famously argued that “the Republican brain” makes even well-educated conservatives prone to denying the findings of science on matters such as evolution and global warming, whereas liberals tend to be more receptive and open to new ideas. (I should add that Mooney, to his credit, personally supports nuclear energy, as a solution to global warming, unlike many of his liberal peers.) However, in after reading Professor Oreskes’ politically correct hit-piece in The Guardian, it has become apparent to me that people on the political left are every bit as capable of denying beliefs that conflict with their world-view as people on the right.
There is a common saying that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. How long will it be, I wonder, before the “group-think” of today’s intellectual elite gets swept away in a tidal wave of public anger at people who not only can’t handle the truth, but sometimes manipulate it to suit their political agendas?
What do readers think?