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.
9 thoughts on “Wind, solar or nuclear: which is best for costs, electricity prices and the environment?”
On all environmental topics. I am more interested in actual science and research. It is why I never accept all the hope faith claims of environmentalists. If you toss more money at a problem we will solve it.
And we have less research into nuclear because it was demonized by environmentalists. Had they not pushed against it we would have better reactors and many things in use than today. But many good projects were shut down because nuclear was deemed as bad
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Nuclear is a fallacy. AZ has top of the line reactors, and still rejects nuclear. We are a conservative state. Nuclear is far more expensive than you realize. It has a great many hidden costs, and is subject to even small rattles of earthquakes. Every state gets earthquakes. When living in Penna, the Berwick plant was shut down because a 2.2 ‘quake that damaged it. It’s worse enemy is human error; next to that, terrorists. I favor geothermal because of costs, impact, and is readily available in most places.
Wind and solar are great–for single homes. The real cost of homemade is far less in the long run than paying crews of maintenance people. I live in ranch country, and you see a lot of windmills pumping water or for electric. I never heard of bats or birds–both vital for the health of a ranch–being killed by a small, farm-type windmill. A lot of them are made and maintained using junk parts from cars as generators.
Solar farms cause erosion, wildfires, and the cost outweighs the benefits. We rejected solar, as well as nuclear. There’s no problem if state and counties want it to use to light signs, pole lights, water pumps, and individual buildings. One panel goes on each of the lights, and buildings are roofed with panels. Electric fencing is solar, as is the parameter of yards. BTW, solar is advised by the state in case of SHTF. AZ is working to get solar on all government buildings, as well as prisons, dog pounds and so on. With solar, there’s that much more electric to sell to greenies in Kali-fornia.
Nuke is not just dirty, but filthy. They tend to be built along rivers, and rivers will follow fault lines. It costs far more than it gives, and there’s no good place to store spent fuel rods. Navajo are still dying from cancers caused by mine wastes. The government’s answer to that was to put a barb wire fence around it. The Rio Puerco gets a lot of it and that washes into a lot of major water facilities, and then into the Rio Grand. Human failure is a major cause of accidents, and as the saying goes, what man plans, man destroys.
We need to go geothermal. We have calderas, extinct volcanoes, hot springs, and so on under most states. Iceland and Hawaii have ironed out most problems. Kali-fornia is going geo, despite the outrage of wannabe hippies and other nazis. It needs no cooling towers and steam used to generate power is trapped and reused time an again or can be sent into city aqueducts as distilled drinking water.
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Some ten years ago or so this incredibly limited plate of options was not all the hype and so heavily demarcated. I remember serious interest and research into a literal dozen of other energy generating methods, because i once wrote an article about it listing them. It was easy to find resources on algae, tidal in different variations, seed-oil processes of various kinds (some have legitimately dropped off the radar by now), and a bunch of more exotic options. Now that googol has gone off the deep end making stuff much harder to find then it used to be, and apparently most of these processes have died to various causes, we have the option of strawberry (wind/ solar) or vanila (nuclear) and nothing else exists anymore?
What the hell happened?
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Kali-fornia is going geothermal. Most nukes are built along rivers and rivers have a bad habit of following fault lines. this is one occasion where protesters were told to shut up and sit down. If people refuse to obey the dnc, they get arrested.
I would actually pick natural gas if I was allowed actual choices since it burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels and can be implemented easily where I live so they would retire many coal and other means of production if they are allowed to use natural gas.
But the pm of Canada has a best friend that is complete eco environmentalist and the federal gov’t has a convicted eco terrorists in a gov’t cabinet position. And since the federal gov’t used climate emergency to strip away provincial rights to decide on carbon matters and to impose a carbon tax on provinces they didn’t like we are left with few options.
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And, natural gas is renewable, as is crude oil and coal. When they uncapped oil wells in Penna, oil poured out. they found bacteria and other things were feeding on each other, carbon in the air, and minerals, and that their remains were converted to coal and natural gas.
Coal is garbage + calcium + pressure. If we can fossilize whole carcasses in a matter of weeks, why not make out own coal?
Natural gas needs no explanation, but in 1800 AD, we had from 65-100 million cattle (bison) in the US, and no problem with methane (natural gas). Today, there’s half that number of bovines, but a lot of vegans…As a former vegan, I need not wonder why.
Saskatchewan is looking into some of the small modular nuclear options to see of they will work out they are a newer implemention than the old huge nuclear power plant and they are meant to ease burden from electrical grids.
I am curious to see how research into options like that develop
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