I bought a new book by a famous environmentalist Dr. Michael Shellenberger. He used to be a huge advocate for renewable energy (wind and solar). The book is about why he changed his mind and now prefers nuclear power. He has a long pedigree of environmental activism. I agree with him, so I wanted to get the book to learn how to argue it. For you, I have a short video instead of the book.
Here’s a 17-minute TED talk that he did:
And an article from Quillette that has the full text of the talk.
Here’s the part I thought was the most interesting, where he explains the problems with solar and wind:
The first was around land use. Electricity from solar roofs costs about twice as much as electricity from solar farms, but solar and wind farms require huge amounts of land. That, along with the fact that solar and wind farms require long new transmissions lines, and are opposed by local communities and conservationists trying to preserve wildlife, particularly birds.
Another challenge was the intermittent nature of solar and wind energies. When the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing, you have to quickly be able to ramp up another source of energy.
I was having a discussion with one of the software architects at my company, who LOVES wind power. I raised these objections with him, especially about the birds and the subsidies for wind and solar, and the higher electricity prices. His response was that he was confident that investing in the renewables would produce technological solutions to those problems.
Look what Schellenberger says, though:
What kills big, threatened, and endangered birds—birds that could go extinct—like hawks, eagles, owls, and condors, are wind turbines.
In fact, wind turbines are the most serious new threat to important bird species to emerge in decades.
[…]Solar farms have similarly large ecological impacts. Building a solar farm is a lot like building any other kind of farm. You have to clear the whole area of wildlife.
In order to build one of the biggest solar farms in California the developers hired biologists to pull threatened desert tortoises from their burrows, put them on the back of pickup trucks, transport them, and cage them in pens where many ended up dying.
[…][S]cientists recently warned that wind turbines are on the verge of making one species, the Hoary bat, a migratory bat species, go extinct.
More environmental impact:
You can make solar panels cheaper and wind turbines bigger, but you can’t make the sun shine more regularly or the wind blow more reliably. I came to understand the environmental implications of the physics of energy. In order to produce significant amounts of electricity from weak energy flows, you just have to spread them over enormous areas. In other words, the trouble with renewables isn’t fundamentally technical—it’s natural.
Dealing with energy sources that are inherently unreliable, and require large amounts of land, comes at a high economic cost.
There’s been a lot of publicity about how solar panels and wind turbines have come down in cost. But those one-time cost savings from making them in big Chinese factories have been outweighed by the high cost of dealing with their unreliability.
There was a news article from the radically leftist UK Guardian recently that found that 40% of UK solar panels were manufactured by firms linked to Chinese slave labor.
Consumer electricity prices rise, disproportionately affecting the poor:
Consider California. Between 2011–17 the cost of solar panels declined about 75 percent, and yet our electricity prices rose five times more than they did in the rest of the U.S. It’s the same story in Germany, the world leader in solar and wind energy. Its electricity prices increased 50 percent between 2006–17, as it scaled up renewables.
The same thing happened in Canada, when they switched to renewables. According to a recent study, the province of Ontario saw a “21% increase in the overall average cost of power in the province over the period 2007-2013”.
Schellenberger likes nuclear energy:
Germany’s carbon emissions have been flat since 2009, despite an investment of $580 billion by 2025 in a renewables-heavy electrical grid, a 50 percent rise in electricity cost.
Meanwhile, France produces one-tenth the carbon emissions per unit of electricity as Germany and pays little more than half for its electricity. How? Through nuclear power.
Then, under pressure from Germany, France spent $33 billion on renewables, over the last decade. What was the result? A rise in the carbon intensity of its electricity supply, and higher electricity prices, too.
What about all the headlines about expensive nuclear and cheap solar and wind? They are largely an illusion resulting from the fact that 70 to 80 percent of the costs of building nuclear plants are up-front, whereas the costs given for solar and wind don’t include the high cost of transmission lines, new dams, or other forms of battery.
He talks a lot about whether nuclear power is safe, and what to do with the waste. I found it compelling. My architect friend didn’t ask me about that, but he did mention the cost of nuclear.
Here’s what I should have said (but didn’t):
All of the waste fuel from 45 years of the Swiss nuclear program can fit, in canisters, on a basketball court-like warehouse, where like all spent nuclear fuel, it has never hurt a fly.
By contrast, solar panels require 17 times more materials in the form of cement, glass, concrete, and steel than do nuclear plants, and create over 200 times more waste.
We tend to think of solar panels as clean, but the truth is that there is no plan anywhere to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20 to 25 year lifespan.
I did send him the lecture and the article after, though.
If you think this is an interesting topic, why not share the TED talk and the article with your friends? Some people vote Democrat just for renewable energy. I don’t like Democrat policies, so I have to be equipped to know how to respond to anything that anyone might like about them. Christian conservatives like me who care about things like abortion, marriage, religious liberty, etc. have to become experts at education policy, health care policy, energy policy, foreign policy, etc. I have to be able to debate anyone about any policy.
7 thoughts on “Wind, solar or nuclear: which is best for costs, electricity prices and the environment?”
The only thing about nuclear energy is, while it’s true storing the waste isn’t problematic right now, it could become so at some point in the future. To that end, and I’m no expert in this area, I have to wonder if something climbs done to convert the waste into usable energy itself. Otherwise, something will eventually need to be done with it at some point; either a process to make it safe or get rid of it safely somehow.
If we can launch useless satellites to go out of the solar system, we can launch the spent fuel rods into the netherworlds.
Generally not recommended, as strapping a large volume of radioactivity to a rocket has the potential to become a giant dirty bomb.
My background is nuclear, and I can assure you that spent fuel is a purely political problem and has never been an engineering problem. There are a myriad of options available, including reprocessing the fuel to recover useful fuel and concentrate radioactive waste to a small volume, reactors designed to run with spent fuel to reduce the lifetime of their longest lived isotopes, burial, etc.
Since politicians are innumerate and trained to be scared of evil radioactivity, they’ve done a bang up job of hamstringing every option available and driving up the costs to astronomical levels. So all spent fuel is stored on site at nuclear plants, ironically in a much more accessible configuration than would ever be available in Yucca Mountain.
Compare with the opposite case for nuclear fusion. Endless political capital, but the engineering problems are insurmountable.
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Agree with you 100%.
I recently ordered his book about climate change, “Apocalypse Never,” for the same reason. I look forward to it as a counter to my son’s school’s brainwashing.
Great write-up. Goes to show the perils of a liberal democratic technocracy, where everyone gets a vote on issues they know nothing about. The so-called renewables are even more twisted in the severe market distortion they create. Installing an enormous amount of wind or solar is going to produce feedback into the market, and the result is moving towards increasingly unreliable setups that lack resilience.
Texas and the the recent freeze are a perfect example. Over the last 30 years, a huge number of wind turbines have been installed, not because they are actually worthwhile producers, but because the enormous subsidies make the business case a slam dunk. Utilities are paid a certain rate per turbine, even if the turbine isn’t running! This creates a perverse incentive where utilities will invest in wind because it’s scalable and results in dollars coming in even if they don’t produce (and the typical capacity factor for a wind turbine is on the order of 30%, so it only produces its full power rating one third of the time, year round). What utilities are reticent to invest in are actual energy producing plants because they have a high capital cost upfront (building the large buildings and buying and installing the machinery), even though these actually make consistent megawatts to sell on the market. This is complicated by the fact that the intermittent nature of wind results in the supply of electricity now constantly fluctuating, so it often isn’t economic to run all the baseload capacity plants all the time, since up to something like 30% of demand can be met by wind at times. So companies are REALLY reticent to build new plants and they don’t want to fire up plants that are offline if they think they won’t make money with wind energy (which is non-dispatchable) producing too much. Pretty much all that gets built are natural gas plants, since they are easy to startup or shutdown. Then throw in a massive freeze and you have a recipe for disaster. Gas lines frozen, wind turbines locked down, standby plants not online and ready. It would be unfair to say wind power alone was the reason for the disaster, but it was a major contributor, both in unavailable capacity and in mutating the energy production landscape to make the system very vulnerable.
Nuclear is resilient. One of the four units in the state tripped during the freeze, but that was due to a line being missed that should have been caught and freeze protected. Otherwise, nuclear can operate in any environment. There are no fuel lines to freeze or turbines exposed to hazardous conditions requiring them to be tripped.
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