Carbon Caps & Demand Reductions vs. Better Technology:

Today there is another Twitter discussion featuring “We need carbon limits and demand reduction” vs. “Better technology to improve rate of decarbonization”. My thumbnail summary is the result of “Caps and Limits”, in particular Kyoto which Feels Good while fossil continues to dominate:


And this is the result of better technology (France decarbonizing electrical generation via nuclear in 20 years):

Why this is true is explored in depth by the Hartwell Paper and Kyoto Wrong Trousers.

Discounting and costs (Part 2): IPCC WGIII report on mitigation

This is a guest post by physicist Jani-Petri Martikainen @jpjmarti, proprietor of PassiiviIdentiteetti
(This post first appeared on Passiiviidentiteetti April 22, 2014)

rightwrongIn an earlier post I briefly discussed the scale of the challenge. In this one I discuss briefly how the report discusses ethical issues surrounding responsibilities towards future generations, with a special focus on discounting and how it relates to cost estimates of various energy options.

The use of a temporal discount rate has a crucial impact on the evaluation of mitigation policies and measures. The social discount rate is the minimum rate of expected social return that compensates for the increased intergenerational inequalities and the potential increased collective risk that an action generates. Even with disagreement on the level of the discount rate, a consensus favours using declining risk‐free discount rates over longer time horizons (high confidence).

An appropriate social risk‐free discount rate for consumption is between one and three times the anticipated growth rate in real per capita consumption (medium confidence). This judgement is based on an application of the Ramsey rule using typical values in the literature of normative parameters in the rule. Ultimately, however, these are normative choices.” IPCC WGIII Chapter 3

 “A simple arbitrage argument favours using the interest rate as the discount rate for climate policy decisions: if one reallocates capital from a safe but marginal project (whose return must be equal to the interest rate) to a safe project with the same maturity whose return is smaller than the interest rate, the net impact is null for the current generation, and is negative for future generations. Thus, when projects are financed by a reallocation of capital rather than an increase in aggregate saving (reducing consumption), the discount rate should be equal to the shadow cost of capital.

This descriptive approach to the discount rate has many drawbacks. First, we should not expect markets to aggregate preferences efficiently when some agents are not able to trade, as is the case for future generations (Diamond, 1977). Second, current interest rates are driven by the potentially impatient attitude of current consumers towards transferring their own consumption to the future. But climate change is about transferring consumption across different people and generations, so that determining the appropriate social discount rate is mostly a normative problem. Thirdly, we do not observe safe assets with maturities similar to those of climate impacts, so the arbitrage argument cannot be applied.”  IPCC WGIII Chapter 3

This discussion on discount rates is in my opinion very important since discount rates capture lots of the ethical underpinnings of our responsibilities to future generations. Discount rates tell about our time horizons and about how patient we are in waiting for gains. If you are offered money right now and twice as much at a later date, how long are you willing to wait? If the discount rate is 10%, you might be ready to wait for about 7 years and if it is 5% you wait for 14 years. Stern review used a rate of 1.4% for climate change damages in which case you are ready to wait for 50 years. In this case the time horizon is truly inter-generational. As explained by the WGIII, how to discount is in the end of the day a normative choice. However, it is a choice whose impact should be openly discussed and a choice that should be reasonably defended. In general I found the Chapter 3 Social, Economic and Ethical Concepts and Methods” interesting and I have to read it more carefully later. I recommend that authors of WGIII Chapter 7  “Energy Systems” also read it.

WGIII gives the levelized cost of energy for different energy sources in Figure 7.7 of Chapter 7. If you look at figure 7.7 (below) carefully you will perhaps notice something funny. In the 4th assessment report at 2007 the costs were given as shown in Figure 4.27 (see copy here). It is not the most beautiful of figures, but clear enough.

Figure 7.7 from IPCC WGIII Chapter 7 (2014)

Figure 7.7 from IPCC WGIII Chapter 7 (2014)

Fig 4.27 from WGIII 2007

Fig 4.27 from WGIII 2007

It shows the results at two different discount rates with coal, gas, and nuclear as the lowest cost options. Somebody was clearly not happy with this and wanted to change the figure into Fig. 7.7 of the new report. As I glanced at the figure first I naturally choose to compare “red” bars with red bars and blue ones with blue. After all we shouldn’t compare apples and oranges. Maybe you did the same? However, I then noticed that red color assumed “high full load hours”. What does that actually mean? In order to figure out, one has to read the annex III for detailed assumptions (how many are going to do that?). For nuclear power “high full load hours” meant a capacity factor of 84 %, for onshore wind 40%, and 27% for solar PV. For nuclear power this a typical capacity factor (although many reactors do better), but for wind and solar power those capacity factors are very atypical. So the figure is constructed in such away that uninformed reader is likely to make incorrect comparisons. In fact, WGIII concludes the caption of Fig. 7.7 (its on the next page and likely to be missed) by saying “Note: The inter-comparability of LCOE is limited. For details on general methodological issues and interpretation see Annexes as mentioned above. ” Indeed. Given that comparisons cannot really be made, why was this approach chosen in the first place? If you can come up with a charitable explanation I am all ears, but to me this seems like authors of Chapter 7 were actively working to make comparisons hard.

How did the authors of Chapter 7 approach the discounting? Let us guess that economic growth in the future is around 2%. In this case the Ramsey rule mentioned by the IPCC in Chapter 3 suggests a discount rate in the range of 2-6%. What discount rate is used in chapter 7 to compare levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for different energy sources? That would be 10%! Authors of WGIII decided not only to use very high discount rate, but also not to give their results at different discount rates so that the effects of this assumption could be observed. Considering that authors of Chapter 3 specifically emphasized how crucial this issue is in evaluating mitigation policies, the approach in Chapter 7 seems indefensible. At minimum one would expect them to show results over broad range of discount rates, but this they decided not to do. Since they refused to do it,  I will quickly do it here and see what difference it makes. (Note that some results with 5% discount rate are hidden in annex III, but these are only for the high FLH case so no honest comparison is possible.) In order to make sure that I know what I am doing I try to reproduce typical LCOE figures for WGIII high FLH case. I copy typical numbers from the annex III and this is what I get.

LCOE $(2010)/MWh comparison based on WGIII high FLH case (warning: misleading comparison!):

 Technology LCOE 10% high FLH (IPCC median) My result
Nuclear 99 97
Coal PC 78 78
Wind onshore 84 85
Solar PV (rooftop) 220 220
CCS-coal-PC 130 123

OK, the numbers are not exactly the same, but close enough for me. I am not sure how WGIII defined the median here. Also, maybe there is some index inconsistency somewhere in the summations…who knows. Basic point is that I can reproduce the WGIII values reasonably well and I am on the same map as WGIII. We are ready to go! So let me then look at the things WGIII decided not to show. I will now compute typical LCOE for few technologies at 10%, 5% and 1.4% discount rates. It turns out that as discount rate is lowered the LCOE for nuclear power drops from 97$/MWh to 62$/MWh, and finally to 42$/MWh. I will summarize the rest of the results by giving the costs relative to nuclear power. The values colored green are higher than the LCOE of nuclear while red is lower.

Difference to the cost of nuclear (go right if you prefer responsible long term thinking): 

 Technology 10% discount rate 5% discount rate 1.4% discount rate
Nuclear 0% 0% 0%
Coal PC -18% +5% +34%
Wind onshore +40% +57% +77%
Solar PV (rooftop) +190% +210% +230%
CCS-coal-PC +27% +63% +110%
(Main assumptions: Most numbers are copied from annex III of WGIII and I just list the differences here.I choose the capacity factor for wind power as 25% which is higher than European or Chinese average, but somewhat less than US average. Most of the wind power capacity in the world does worse than this. I choose the wind turbine lifetime as 20 years as opposed to WGIII value of 25 years, since 20 year lifetime is given by wind turbine manufacturers. This doesn’t change anything of relevance though. I choose PV capacity factor as 15%. In good locations capacity factor can be higher than this, but for example in Germany it is around 10%. Therefore 15% seems fair. I assumed PV capital costs as 3000 $/kW which is substantially less than the WGIII median value of 4400 $/kW. You can check the calculations and assumptions from these Matlab files LCOE_IPCC.mIPCC_Compare.m, and CompareForReal.m. In combination with annex III files should be quite self-explanatory and not too difficult to translate to other number crunching tools.)

As you can see green dominates and with the possible exception of hydro power in good locations, nuclear power is the lowest cost zero carbon source of electricity no matter what discount rate was used.  At 10% discount rate it has difficulty at competing with coal, but at 5% it becomes cheaper than coal. As discount rate is lowered the cost advantage of nuclear relative to other low carbon energy sources is rapidly increased. With 1.4% discount rate and a time horizon extending across generations nuclear power is cheaper than other options by a very large margin.  These results are based on the WGIII numbers and the only changes are those listed above to mainly account for differences in capacity factors. We could make the above table all green by adding a carbon price of only around 20 $/tCO2.

Maybe this discussion on the role of discount rates is simply too radical and WGIII is just following conventions? Well, not really. It is certainly not too radical for WGIII since in its 2011 SSREN report focusing on renewables WGIII gave precisely this type of comparison with 10%, 7%, and 3% discount rates (Fig 10.29 p. 844 in Chapter 10). Some of its authors were even authors of this report. Of course from SSREN report nuclear power was purged at the outset and results which might give readers funny ideas did not have to be shown. Absurdly the discussion on discount rates in this context is far more extensive in SSREN while in this report it has been brushed aside contrary to the emphasis by the authors of Chapter 3 of WGIII. We can only speculate as to why.

To me it seems that on this issue the authors of Chapter 7 were working hard to make sure that uninformed would remain uninformed while giving a chance to say to informed ones: “We are not lying! We are open about the methodology…see annex III etc. Yeah, maybe figure 7.7 is not as clear as it could be. Thanks for the tip! Clear communication is super important and we will keep it in mind for the next assessment report! Blaah blaah blaah…” IPCC should be an expert body giving accurate evidence based material for policy discussions. Sadly in this case WGIII decided not to give this material and compromised its supposed “policy-neutrality”. In plain english, authors of Chapter 7 decided not to do their jobs since doing it would have provided facts suggesting that some mitigation policies are likely to be more effective than others. But this is what they should do! If people decide to brush the cost differences aside, that is their choice, but it is not the role of an expert to fudge figures in such a way that implications of different policy choices are hidden.

Authors of Chapter 7 did what?

Authors of Chapter 7 did what?

While the WGIII messed up the presentation of the costs that we are in a position to know fairly well, it spends a lot of time in speculating about long term costs using integrated assessment models. Since we are not able to predict the future of mankind, I do not think that these games are much more than computer generated guesses based on the preferences of whoever is doing the modeling. I think we are better of in focusing on issues that we can actually control at least to some degree. The Economists was also not very impressed about this:

The IPCC still thinks it might be possible to hit the emissions target by tripling, to 80%, the share of low-carbon energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear power, used in electricity generation. It reckons this would require investment in such energy to go up by $147 billion a year until 2030 (and for investment in conventional carbon-producing power generation to be cut by $30 billion a year). In total, the panel says, the world could keep carbon concentrations to the requisite level by actions that would reduce annual economic growth by a mere 0.06 percentage points in 2100.

These numbers look preposterous. Germany and Spain have gone further than most in using public subsidies to boost the share of renewable energy (though to nothing like 80%) and their bills have been enormous: 0.6% of GDP a year in Germany and 0.8% in Spain. The costs of emission-reduction measures have routinely proved much higher than expected.

Moreover, the assumptions used to calculate long-term costs in the models are, as Robert Pindyck of the National Bureau of Economic Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, put it, “completely made up”. In such circumstances, estimates of the costs and benefits of climate change in 2100 are next to useless. Of the IPCC’s three recent reports, the first two (on the natural science and on adapting to global warming) were valuable. This one isn’t.The Economist. While I think the report has some interesting things as well, when it comes to cost estimates I tend to agree with The Economists.

Finally, in my opinion the fact that companies use the short time horizons implied by 10% (or higher) discount rates is a clear indication of a market failure. Climate change requires longer term decisions and if such decisions cannot be delivered by current markets, those markets need to change. Either the state with a longer time horizon must become more active or appropriate sticks and carrots should be developed to discourage short term profit taking and promote longer term visions.

Enviros and climate scientists continue their fight over nuclear power

It didn’t take long for the Bootleggers to organize a roomful of Baptists to respond to the open letter from four climate scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. The response was signed by 300 of the usual crowd including Greenpeace USA and the Environmental Working Group. John Upton at Grist asked the climate scientists for a response. Ken Caldeira replied with this very civil email:

It is time for people to rethink their positions on nuclear power, and make arguments based on facts rather than prejudices.

Any good scientist and any good citizen should be constantly re-examining their positions, so the basic call for us to rethink our position on nuclear power is most welcome. I hope that the signers of this Civil Society Institute letter can bring themselves to re-examine the nuclear power issue with the same objectivity and lack-of-bias that they seek from us.

The letter confusedly suggests that I “embrace nuclear power”, and implies that I somehow discount the importance and potential of solar, wind, and efficiency. I cannot speak on behalf of my colleagues, but at least in my case, these claims are far from the truth.

We embrace things that we love. I don’t love nuclear power. Nuclear power has brought us Chernobyl and Fukushima. If the current industry were scaled up enough to solve the climate problem, there would be one such accident each year — and that is clearly unacceptable. Were I king of the world, I would decree that solar, wind, and efficiency would be the primary means we deploy to solve the climate problem.

But there is no energy storage system that works at the scale of the modern megalopolis. We need a way to power civilization when the sun is not shining and when the wind is not blowing. In a modern real economy, not ruled by benevolent kings, reliable power is required at competitive prices. There are very few technologies that can provide this reliable baseload power. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are the two leading candidates. I think an objective assessment of the facts shows that fossil fuels are far more dangerous than even today’s nuclear power.

But I do not defend today’s nuclear power industry. Even though most nuclear power plants have an excellent safety record, there are an important few that do not. There is no justification for the claim that this important type of electricity generation can never be made sufficiently safe and inexpensive.

To say that an entire category of technology can never be sufficiently improved is, I think, to adopt a position of technological myopia, where one lacks to the capacity to imagine that future technologies can differ substantially from today’s technologies.

I do not embrace nuclear power. There is no power source that one wants to embrace. They all have negative consequences. I do not want a solar PV factory, a massive wind turbine, or a nuclear power plant in my back yard. But I want the juice. The question is not about what power source I embrace, but about what power source I might think myself capable of not rejecting. Many people want to reject power sources, but want the juice that comes from those power sources.

In summary, I applaud the signers of the Civil Society Institute letter for their concern regarding climate change and for their support of solar, wind, and efficiency. Their call for us to rethink our positions on nuclear power is most welcome, and I ask only that they rethink their position with respect to nuclear power with the same degree of receptivity and objectivity that they ask of us.

I would like to add one point: There is no perfect energy source. What motivated Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley to propose that the environmental community reevaluate their position is because opposition to nuclear is support for coal. Nuclear power is the only scalable, dispatchable, low-carbon energy source that is economically acceptable to China, India and the rest of the fast-developing world. And per terrawatt-hour of delivered energy, nuclear electricity has proven to be one of the safest sources: slightly better or slightly worse than onshore wind, depending on which study you read. There is no perfect energy source.

James Hansen et al “the accepted 2 degrees target is dangerously too warm”

“Although there is merit in simply chronicling what is happening, there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.

I have finally found the time to read the entire Hansen et al paper Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”. The complete paper was released December 3rd on the open access journal PlosOne as Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.

I think this is one of the most important climate papers of 2013. James Hansen and 17 coauthors succeed to boil down the current state of climate research to 26 pages (including the five pages of references). The authors make a strong case that the two-degree-consensus is dangerous.  Unlike other high profile climate scientists, actions are proposed that will actually work, included the “N word” advanced 4th generation nuclear power.

To announce the paper Hansen and coauthor Pushker Kharecha published a letter outlining the case that two degrees is dangerous, then go straight into solutions: cooperative technology development and deployment, and especially, rapid deployment of gen 3+ and gen 4 nuclear power. 

(…snip…) Governments should also support technology research, development and demonstration of carbon-free energy including advanced generation nuclear power as well as renewable energy, especially in view of the urgency with which emissions from coal and unconventional fossil fuels must be eliminated. (Unconventional fossil fuels include tar sands, shale-derived oil and gas, and methane hydrates.)


A preferable approach, for the sake of both global climate and local pollution reduction, would be a combination of renewable energy and advanced (3rd and 4th) generation nuclear power plants2. Abundant affordable clean energy is essential to provide the energy needed to raise billions of people out of poverty, which empirical evidence indicates is a requirement for reducing fertility rates, thus lowering human population, and giving hope that we can provide the opportunity of a good life to all humanity while allowing other life on the planet to flourish.

When the world’s leading nations recognize the urgency of phasing out fossil fuel emissions, and realize that we are all in the same boat, it should be possible to agree on cooperative technology development and deployment. History, including World War II and the Apollo program, reveal how rapidly technology can be developed and deployed. Phase-out of most coal emissions and a substantial reduction of oil and gas use could be achieved rapidly. This would require agreement among leading nations not only to have common internal rising carbon fees, but also an agreement to cooperate in rapid technology development.

Surely rapid phase-down of coal emissions requires a major role for advanced-generation safer nuclear power. Nuclear technology has advanced significantly over the past few decades such that there is now the potential to produce modular 3rd generation light-water reactors that are passively safe, i.e., reactors that would shut down automatically in case of an anomaly such as an earthquake and have the ability to keep the nuclear fuel cool without an external power source. The same concept, modular3 simplified reactor design with factory production and shipping to the utility site, is appropriate for 4th generation reactors, and these should also be pursued to deal with nuclear waste, utilizing the waste as fuel.

Fortunately, the place where deployment of advanced nuclear technology is most urgently needed, China, is also the place that has the potential to rapidly build and grow the manufacturing capability. What is needed is cooperation with nations that have developed relevant technical abilities, especially the United States. Such cooperation has potential for enormous mutual and global benefits via development of scalable affordable carbon-free energy. Contrary to assertions of dedicated anti-nuke activists, such technology can be made more resistant than existing technology to exploitation by terrorists who may seek weapons material. Dangers from rogue states or terrorists will always exist, and the best way to minimize such danger is to cooperate in developing the safest technology, not to pretend that anti-nuclear activism will cause nuclear technology to disappear from the planet.

The principal policy allowing renewable energies to grow to almost 2% of global energy use has been laws imposing specified “renewable energy portfolio standards” (RPS) on utilities or other mandates for renewable energy use. These policies have aided growth of renewables, and by spreading costs among all utility customers of feed-in tariffs, added transmission lines, and the backup power needed for intermittent renewables (usually fossil fuel based), the electricity cost has been bearable as long as the portion of renewables is small. Now for the sake of moving rapidly to carbon-free power while minimizing electricity costs, the need is for “clean energy portfolio standards” (CPS), thus allowing nuclear energy to compete with renewable energies.

The previously discussed 3 November open letter ‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’ has provoked much needed debate. Let us hope that this new paper and the PlOS ONE call for solutions papers builds on that interest to get something done.

there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.

and free will means “be effective” not more failed “Kyoto commitments”.

‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’

James Hansen, arguably America’s most famous climate scientist, has been a forceful advocate for nuclear power, including fast reactors such as the IFR that convert nuclear “waste” into zero carbon electricity: James Hansen on Kool-Aid, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

(…) people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.

The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy

The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.” The tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

On 3 November Dr. Hansen and three other top climate scientists joined together in an open letter directed at the Baptists in the “Bootleggers and Baptists” coalition that have made it impossible to make any real progress decarbonizing the global economy. Some examples of the Baptists are Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE), and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). We expect Bootleggers such as Peabody Energy to promote coal powered electricity. The tricky part is that the Bootleggers support the Baptists – who claim to be concerned about the environment. At the same time they contradict themselves by blocking every effort to deploy the one energy option that can scale affordably to achieve a zero carbon economy. If it isn’t affordable, reliable clean energy, then China, India et al are not going to stop building coal plants.

Based upon what I have read in recent weeks, the November 3rd open letter has had more impact than the individual scientist’s efforts. The letter has launched a long-avoided conversation about the critical importance of nuclear in the zero carbon energy mix. Regular Seekerblog readers will be familiar with signatory scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. Here’s the full text of their letter:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.

Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

While there will be no single technological silver bullet, the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.


Dr. Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution

Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. James Hansen, Climate Scientist, Columbia University Earth Institute

Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of East Anglia and the National Center for Atmospheric Research

What does this mean for citizens? China, India, Brazil et al are focused on economic growth, and hence on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. “Cheaper than Coal” is the only energy policy path that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases.

Nuclear is the only option that can deliver Cheaper than Coal at scale. And nuclear can compete sooner and more successfully if the technology leaders such as UK, America, France and Sweden help China et al to deploy mass manufactured nuclear power. But sadly, the anti-nuclear campaigns of the Baptists have been so successful that there is no hope of holding the line at 2°C. Almost all of the nuclear plants that could have been built have been replaced with coal [*]. 

Some of the more informed discussion of the scientists’ open letter has been at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth.

[*] Today in a few specific markets, such as America, many methane (gas) plants are being deployed. Burning methane initially produces 50% of the CO2 per MW that coal generates, but any methane that leaks is 20 times as bad for warming. And those plants won’t be destroyed until they have lived out their lives – which means 40+ years that could have been zero-carbon power.

A Common Fallacy in the Energy and Climate Debate

Schalk Cloete is a South African research scientist, currently working in Norway on fluidized bed reactor research. Schalk has recently published a string of excellent energy policy essays, including the captioned piece explaining why it is the developing world that matters. If one only follows the usual media you would have been taught that saving the planet from climate change depends on America passing “cap and trade”, or German citizens paying extraordinarily high energy prices to subsidize wind and solar.

The reality is the developed world must help the developing world to rapidly decarbonize at levelized costs comparable to building more coal plants. The following charts summarize where future CO2 emissions are going to come from – both are courtesy of ExxonMobil’s recent “Outlook for Energy“: 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In the real world China, India, Brazil and the other developing regions are going to be focused on growth, on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. As the Google Foundation phrased it “Cheaper than Coal” is the only way forward that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases. In brief the Greenpeacers trying to shut down American nuclear plants should be helping the Chinese climb the nuclear deployment learning curve safely and rapidly.

I highly recommend Schalk’s essay, which I believe is accurate in all the quoted facts. My only disagreement is that I think he is much more optimistic than I that CCS will play an important role in decarbonization. The essay concludes with this summary (emphasis mine):

What does this mean?

People participating in the energy and climate debate should be very careful of always approaching these issues from a developed world point of view. This view is simply not applicable to the part of the world where the most energy is consumed and the most CO2 is emitted. In fact, two short decades from now, the developing world may very well emit triple the amount of CO2 of the developed world.

It is vital that we accept the objective reality that developing world citizens will not prioritize pollution reduction (CO2 and other) over economic growth unless it is very cheap and highly practical. Clean solutions need to come pretty close to a steady, dispatchable coal-fired electricity supply at $0.04/kWh, practical and reliable new cars at $10000 apiece, and direct industrial heat at $0.01/kWh (coal at $70/ton).

Realistically, this implies CO2 capture and storage (CCS), nuclear and large hydro for electricity, a great focus on more efficient internal combustion engines and hybrids for transportation and CCS for direct industrial applications. The green dream of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and EVs quite simply is nowhere close to being able to facilitate rapid developing world growth (see this previous article for example).

In addition, the green dream is still just a dream even in the developed world (non-hydro renewables provide only 3.1% of OECD energy), implying that decades of typically slow trial and error are still required before this largely theoretical world of distributed and intermittent electricity generation, intercontinental super-grids, smart demand management and large scale energy storage can become a reality. The developing world doesn’t want slow trial and error, it wants proven systems that can drive rapid growth on a very large scale right now.

Unfortunately, the developed world has neglected CCS and is abandoning nuclear, thereby leaving renewables as the only clean energy alternative that can be copied by developing nations. Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that traditional energy sources accounted for fully 96.1% of the non-OECD energy consumption increase from 2011 to 2012 – a value very similar to the 96.5% average over the past 5 years.

Realistically speaking, if the developed world wants to make a real contribution, it should develop and mature clean energy technology that can be seemlessly integrated into the traditional energy systems currently being copied and expanded rapidly by developing nations. CCS is arguably the most important of these with fourth generation nuclear as an important longer-term prospect. It is also important that the developed world curbs its current anti-nuclearism so that this resistance does not prevent the buildout of third generation nuclear in developing nations.

Yes, the green dream is ideologically extremely attractive, but, as this article has hopefully demonstrated, it is simply not compatible with billions of developing world citizens flocking to megacities in search of higher living standards. The premature pursuit of this dream will do little other than sustain the rapid increase of CO2 emissions in the developing world while further worsening the already highly fragile economic situation in the developed world. There really is no need to make things so hard for ourselves.

It really doesn’t matter what a Manhattan party hostess thinks or wants. What matters are the decisions taken by the Beijing bureaucrats.

Ben Heard on “The most inconvenient of truths”

Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it. George Monbiot

Australian sustainability consultant Ben Heard recently published a well-written account of how he discovered “that basically everything I thought I knew about nuclear power was wrong.” Ben’s history parallels that of the high profile environmentalists featured in Robert Stone’s Sundance-acclaimed documentary Pandora’s Promise (trailer). Here’s an excerpt to motivate you to read the whole of Ben’s essay:

(…snip…) I was badly stuck. Career number two was coming unglued under the weight of cognitive dissonance. The problem did not just beat my solutions. It squashed them and barely noticed.

That’s when the words of one of my student colleagues (not coincidentally a Frenchman) paid me a return visit. He had said “I don’t know why you make it so hard here. We just used nuclear power. If everyone had (then) we would be clean, and all driving electric cars!”

I had ignored him at the time. Obviously, my brain had filed it under “Existential Sustainability Crisis”. With a quiet curiosity I set about to decide whether an answer might lie in the energy source I had not just ignored, but actively demonised.

A few years later I had my answers and they shamed me. Applying the same brand of scrutiny to this issue as I had to learning about climate change, I discovered that basically everything I thought I knew about nuclear power was wrong. It was undoubtedly the greatest single tool available to us in the fight against climate change, and my country had outlawed it. I was compelled to share what I had learned for a simple reason. Australia needs significant deployment of nuclear energy to respond adequately to climate change. Little else will do more than nibble the edges of our gross dependence on fossil fuels.

This pathway has been a fascinating journey. I have, at times, discovered what Monbiot meant about being hated for telling people something new. One of the many upsides is I have met some amazing people, including Academy-nominated film director Robert Stone. Robert and I clicked on an important point: planning climate change action on the presumption that people will not support nuclear energy is a mistake. We can bring people with us on this issue. I have learned this to my delight as I have been all over the country speaking to thousands of Australians. What I craved though was a way to scale up this effort, reach more people, and start a bigger conversation.

That’s why Robert’s new film, Pandora’s Promise, is so important. It brings the requisite scale to the most inconvenient of truths. It is those of us who have been championing the cause of our climate who must change our views on nuclear if we are to achieve the outcomes we seek.

Thanks Ben – an excellent post!

Fukushima Syndrome

Martin Freer is Professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Birmingham Center for Nuclear Education and Research. He is a member of the University of Birmingham’s policy commission on nuclear energy, which later this year will publish Nuclear Power: What Does the Future Hold?

The dramatic events that unfolded at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant after last year’s tsunami are commonly referred to as “the Fukushima disaster.” We need look no further than this description to begin to understand the significant misconceptions that surround nuclear energy.


It was the tsunami, caused by the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan, that killed more than 16,000 people, destroyed or damaged roughly 125,000 buildings, and left the country facing what its prime minister described as its biggest crisis since World War II. Yet it is Fukushima that is habitually accorded the “disaster” label.

In fact, although what happened was shocking, the events in the hours and days after a giant wave slammed over the nuclear plant’s protective seawall might be interpreted as a remarkable testament to nuclear power’s sound credentials. To be sure, the environmental impact on those living close to Fukushima may take many years to remediate. But the response in many quarters – not least in Germany, Switzerland, and other countries that immediately condemned and retreated from nuclear energy – once again typified an enduring lack of knowledge concerning two fundamental issues.

The first is safety; the second is radiation. We need to promote a much more inclusive and informed dialogue about both if nuclear power is to be assessed on its genuine merits, rather than dismissed on the grounds of little more than ignorance and intransigence.

Would the many people who would ban nuclear power also prohibit air travel? After all, the parallels between the two industries are central to the question of safety.

We are often told that air travel, statistically speaking, has a better safety record than any other form of transport. The numerous interrelated reasons for this might usefully be summarized by comparing an airplane to a bicycle.


Read more. The Freer article is one of several in Project Syndicate’s Fukushima special issue.

The chart at left, of fatality rates for our main energy options, is courtesy of Cambridge physicist David MacKay, from his not to be missed “Sustainable energy without the hot air“. Dr. MacKay is now Chief Scientific Advisor for DECC (UK Government Department for Energy and Climate Change).

James Conca on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP)

James was interviewed for Nuclear Energy Insight:

January 2011—James Conca is senior scientist for the Institute for Energy and the Environment at New Mexico State University. He is a former director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), an independent project of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, N.M.

James ConcaHe is also the co-author, with Judith Wright, of “The Geopolitics of Energy: Achieving a Just and Sustainable Energy Distribution by 2040.” The book advocates a national energy policy that allows the United States to get one-third of its electricity from fossil fuels, one-third from nuclear energy and one-third from renewable energy by 2040.

Nuclear Energy Insight asked Conca to share his perspective on energy policy and radioactive waste disposal.

(…) Q: Tell me about the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

Conca: WIPP stores defense-related radioactive waste, called transuranic waste. It has to be remotely handled, shielded, the whole bit. We’ve been doing this for 11 years now.

There are no unknowns. We know exactly how much [a deep geologic repository] costs. We know exactly how to do it. It’s incredibly safe. The United States has a deep geologic nuclear repository that’s half-full and nobody even knows about it.

Q: What have been the findings of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center?

Conca: We have a 15-year record of the environment from before WIPP opened to the present. CEMRC has been operating since 1996 and WIPP since 1999. There’s been no change [in radioactivity at the site].

Read the whole thing. James will be speaking at the National Nuclear Fuel Cycle Summit (NNFCS), taking place April 2-5, 2012 in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Fukushima’s Refugees Are Victims Of Irrational Fear, Not Radiation

Amid the Fukushima hysteria Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear reactors and import more natural gas from Putin and more nuclear energy from France and the Czechs. This does not make sense, either economically, politically or with respect to safety. If Germans or Japanese are that worried about radiation then a more sensible course of action would be to stop eating potato chips, beets, brazil nuts and bananas, all of which are relatively high but ultimately harmless sources of radiation.

The first anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami has brought on a silly season of sensational, uninformed fear-mongering (Rod Adams has a representative rogues gallery at the end of his critique). So today I was pleased to see a science-based analysis by Dr. James Conca, an international expert on the environmental effects of radioactive contamination.

Every time I eat a bag of potato chips I think of Fukushima. This 12-ounce bag of chips has 3500 picoCuries of gamma radiation in it, and the number of bags I eat a year gives me a dose as high as what I would receive living in much of the evacuated zones around Fukushima. But unlike the Fukushima refugees, I get to stay in my home. We live in a nuanced world of degree. Eating a scoop of ice cream is fine, eating a gallon at one time is bad. Jumping off a chair is no big deal; jumping off a cliff is really stupid. The numbers matter. It’s the dose that makes the poison. There is a threshold to everything.

The radiation in those potato chips isn’t going to kill me. Likewise, no one is going to die from Fukushima radiation. Cancer rates are not going to increase in Japan. The disaster wasn’t hidden like the Soviets did, so that people unknowingly ate iodine-131 for two months before it decayed away to nothing. No one threw workers into the fire like lemmings because they didn’t know what to do.

(…) This idea, known as the Linear No-Threshold Dose hypothesis (LNT), was adopted in 1959 as the global regulating philosophy and remains entrenched against all scientific evidence. It is an ethical nightmare. And it will destroy Japan’s economy.

It‘s keeping 100,000 Japanese citizens as refugees, as it did almost a million Ukrainians. It will waste $100 billion that’s needed to rebuild the devastation from the tsunami, not protect against a large intake of potato chips. It will cause more injury to Japan’s already beleaguered population and damaged economy, for no benefit.

We set thresholds to protect people against harm, and we’ve done a good job. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, seat belts, coal flue scrubbers, all have saved millions of lives and made the quality of life better for everyone. But thresholds need to be set with reason. We don’t stop driving just because 50,000 people still die on the roadways each year, or stop heating our homes because 1,000 people die every month from coal particle inhalation. We try to make it safer and we deal with things as they occur.

For radiation this philosophy has failed. The LNT theory has been long since disproven. We are bathed in radiation every day and we know that low levels of radiation or even ten times background levels have never hurt anyone. It doesn’t cause cancer. Yet the global fear of nuclear energy and radiation has diverted billions of dollars from more serious health issues. The amount of funding the U.S. spent since 1990 protecting against what, in many parts of the world, are background levels of radiation, could have immunized the entire continent of Africa against its three worst scourges. Instead we saved not one life. This is an ethical issue. The science is easy, the politics are not.

Highly recommended. Read the whole thing »

James L. Conca is Director of NMSU Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), his CV including publications.