Saturday, June 25, 2011

Comment on Kumi Naidoo editorial in The Nation 'The Safe Bet: Renewables'

I mostly appreciate and agree with the points Kumi Naidoo makes in his editorial 'The Safe Bet: Renewables' [July 27].  Certainly it is important to continue to support the further development and implementation of renewable sources of energy.

However, he undermines his argument by not acknowledging several fundamental scientific barriers that must be understood and addressed.

One is in regard to his statement from a UN report that '[renewable energy] dominates nuclear power globally by a ratio of six to one'.  It is true that the report indicates that renewable energy is a larger source of energy than nuclear energy, 12.9% to 2%.  But Mr. Naidoo leaves out two important points: 1) 10.2% of the renewable energy is listed as 'biomass', which still generates greenhouse gases; and 2) 2.3% is hydropower which leaves 0.4% of energy coming from wind, solar and geothermal.  So, true sources of renewable energy that do not create greenhouse gases (unlike biofuel) and are broadly expandable (unlike hydropower) still trail nuclear energy by an order of magnitude.  There is much development still needed before they become significant factors.

Another important point that Mr. Naidoo ignores in his article is that oil, gas and coal provide something that wind and solar in particular cannot provide: a stable energy supply available day and night.  Aside from the obvious problem that the wind is not always blowing nor the sun always shining, battery technology is not currently developed to a point were the necessary amounts of energy can be stored for use during these 'down' times.  He should clearly acknowledge this as a fundamental area of technology development that is needed to make wind and solar power more broadly feasible energy sources.

Finally, he trumpets the current shift in Japan and Germany away from nuclear power.  But, despite the significant gains that Germany has made in implementing solar panels and solar water heaters (in a trip there earlier this year it was surprising how wide-spread these were in the area I visited), both Japan and Germany are expected to need to turn to increased use of coal, oil and gas to replace the energy that is being given up by nuclear power.  (Germany actually may also need to turn to nuclear energy from France.)  The reality is that there is an immediate need for an energy source that will produce 24 hours a day and that will allow us over the next couple of decades (i.e., very quickly) to reduce to near zero the generation of greenhouse gases.  Renewable energy sources today satisfy neither of these criteria.  It is hard to see at this point a source of energy other than nuclear power that will allow us the time to make the transition to clean energy while avoiding the approaching climate disaster.

To be clear, I largely agree with Mr. Naidoo's goals.  I would like to see subsidies for coal, oil and gas companies ended, a carbon tax implemented, investment in renewable energy increased and the phase-out of particularly coal as a source of energy.  But it does a disservice to these causes to ignore the reality of the scientific challenges facing us in working toward these goals. 

Better to be upfront about the challenges, and point out feasible path to a solution: end subsidies for coal, oil and gas companies and use these subsidies to invest in the further development of renewable energy technologies.  Implement a carbon tax (the income from which is directly turned over to people) to drive efficiency improvements through the market.  And, though possibly unpalatable, but critical, invest in the nuclear power plants required to allow us to end our need to burn coal before we pass a dangerous tipping point in our climate.