India’s citizens want a modern life too

Those of us lucky enough to live in the rich world have grown up with abundant, cheap energy. It is very hard for us to see clearly how much our civilization depends on cheap energy. Our parents might have grown some of our food – but it’s unlikely that our mothers spent five hours a day carrying water and chopping firewood or gathering dung. Our energy surplus allows some of us spend time opining about how India should not build coal power stations but should “leap-frog” to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The cheap energy that we don’t notice privileges us to worry about preventing Indian fossil fuel development.

The preceding guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker is remarkable for telling a complex story in so few words: why India’s climb to an urban, energy-rich life is going to happen rather like we did it. And that we can make a big difference for India’s poor by sharing our know-how to accelerate India’s deployment of shale gas and nuclear fission technologies. Solar and wind are self-promoting technologies – let’s put our focus on the less popular but more effective solutions.

Why energy transitions are the key to environmental progress

This is a guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker (This post first appeared on Observer Research Foundation 23 Feb 2016)

At the United Nations climate talks in Paris last fall, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need to find climate solutions that advance, rather than undermine, India’s development prospects.

But the reality of what both nations are doing on climate change does not live up to the rhetoric. The overwhelming focus of US-Indian government climate efforts is on expanding renewables and increasing energy efficiency. Both have merit, but should be third order, not top, priorities.

The main climate and development focus of all governments should be on accelerating the pace of energy transitions, from wood and dung to fossil fuels and from fossil fuels to nuclear power. To understand why this is, it is important to put energy and environmental progress in their developmental context.

Almost all nations develop following the same pattern. Small farmers become more productive and move from the country to the city to work in factories and offices. Women become newly empowered. Children gain formal education. And couples choose to have fewer children.

As fewer farmers must produce more food for more people, they invest in tractors, fertilizer and other ways to increase productivity.

Over time, all of this urbanisation and industrialisation delivers large environmental benefits. Using liquid petroleum gas, instead of wood for cooking, almost completely eliminates toxic smoke and can save hours a day.

As we move from wood fuel to fossil fuel, our forests can return and become habitat for wildlife. Recently, India was able to protect her Himalayan forests by subsidising the substitution of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for wood fuel.

Factories and cities create more air pollution at first, but over time become cleaner and greener. Rising societal wealth allows for pollution controls such as catalytic converters and smokestack scrubbers. And dust is reduced by paving roads, improving mining and land use practices and tree-planting.

In the US and Europe, conventional pollutants have been in decline since the early 1970s, and carbon emissions for the last 10 years. Rich nations can afford to move from coal to much cleaner natural gas, which generates a tiny fraction of the pollutants of coal, and half the carbon emissions.

In the US and Europe, major oil and gas discoveries were key to shifting from coal to natural gas and reducing pollution. North Sea natural gas in deep waters reduced Europe’s reliance on coal starting in the 1980s. In the U.S., it was natural gas from shale, a rock formation one mile underground, starting around 2007.

China and India both have significant reserves of natural gas and oil in shale, but lack the workforce, drilling rigs and pipeline infrastructure. Those things will develop over time, the question is at what pace.

Because solar and wind cannot generate power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, their value to developing nations that need cheap reliable power for their factories and cities is highly limited.

Solar and wind are limited for similar reasons in rich nations as well. As solar and wind become a larger amount of the electrical grid, their value declines, as Germany is discovering. That’s because solar and wind create power when it’s not needed and don’t create power when it is most needed from 5 pm to 9 pm.

The great emphasis put on an energy source that cannot support industrialisation and urbanisation is not a coincidence. Environmentalists in India and the West have since the 1960s promoted the Romantic idea that low-energy consumption, rural subsistence living, and renewable energy are best for people and the environment. The last 50 years shows how wrong this idea is.

Economic growth remains tightly coupled with energy consumption. A recent analysis of 76 countries found that Indians and Chinese earning $50,000 per year consumes the same amount of energy as Americans and Europeans did when earning that same amount.

Where European, US and Indian governments put great emphasis on off-grid solar in rural villages, historically most people gain access to LPG and electricity by moving to cities.

Solar and wind are promoted as energy sources with little negative environmental impact but both have large impacts measured on per unit energy basis. Both require 100 times more land as fossil and nuclear plants. And wind and solar require five times more concrete and steel, respectively, than coal, nuclear and natural gas plants, according to the US Department of Energy.

Given the limits to solar and wind in both rich and poor countries, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require a faster transition to nuclear energy, first fission and then fusion. Where the transition from wood to coal began 500 years ago, the transition from fossil to nuclear energy began just 50 years ago.

India is a special case in that while most countries complete, or almost complete, the transition from biomass (wood and dung) to fossil fuels, India aims to make both energy transitions happen at the same time.

Rich countries have the strongest scientific and technical workforces capable of building and operating nuclear power plants, but ideological opponents of the technology have successfully spread fear of nuclear energy since the 1960s.

Polls show Indians support nuclear energy but the Indian nuclear energy programme is only now recovering after having been isolated from the global community over recusal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As such, the most important work by Modi and Obama on climate was removing hurdles to greater US-India collaboration on nuclear energy. India could soon start constructing power plants with US and European companies and hopefully one day soon the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.

The same should be done on natural gas. The US can help India to better access its natural gas reserves, and the Indian government can take advantage of low cost natural gas due to the global oversupply, and potentially start importing large quantities of natural gas from Iran.

Nations around the world, including the US and Europe, show that the transition from wood to fossil fuels takes decades. To the extent there is energy leap-frogging it will mostly be from wood to natural gas and nuclear, not to solar and wind. Renewables should play a role but should not distract nations from the main event of accelerating energy transitions for environmental progresss.

Michael Shellenberger is President of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy NGO based in California.

Rachel Pritzker is President of Pritizker Innovation Fund, a philanthropic foundation supporting technological innovation for human development and environmental progress.

Why is nuclear power the core climate change solution?

[For accessibility, I’ve bumped the time-stamp on this post from Jan 2010 to May 2011. Ed.]

Here’s an email from critical-thinker friend and paleo oceanographer Will Howard:

January 2010: Trying to get my head around nuclear power issues. I would describe myself as a nuclear “agnostic.” But the more I read the more I can see the merits of Barry Brooks’ (and your) point of view, and realizing we’ve lost a lot of time bringing nuclear power online.

I replied:

I too was “agnostic”, but leaning against more nuclear generation. I was concerned about all that long-lived “waste”. Why do we need nuclear power — my optimistic-self wanted to believe Ray Kurzweil that “nanotechnology” would somehow enable solar to become the answer for clean, affordable energy. Or geothermal, wind, tidal, or bio-something.

As I studied energy policy it became clear that a necessary condition that must be satisfied by carbon-free energy is that it must be “cheaper than coal“. Otherwise, the dominant future polluters, the developing world, will continue building coal power stations. After 25 years of government subsidies, the results for “renewables” just don’t add up — not even close. Certainly, there are geographic niches where the free market will adopt wind or solar, but on a global basis, pushing for such “renewables” just prolongs the dominance of coal (and gas). The Big Green NGOs and Green parties have lost the plot — they have forgotten that the goal is to achieve zero emissions, not to promote particular popular technologies.

As you say “we’ve lost a lot of time bringing nuclear power online”. Instead of being coal-dependent, both America and Australia could easily have adopted the French model, which with almost entirely nuclear-based electricity generation, makes France the standard for other developed countries to achieve (the challenge for the rest of the planet is to catch up to where France is today!). Sigh… The good news is that China does not seem to be that stupid.

So — what solid information can we offer that is useful to our friends? For foundation reading I recommend David MacKay’s famous energy policy book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” . Dr. Mackay is now Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. You can follow some of David’s efforts here, and you can find Seekerblog posts on MacKay’s work with this search.

Next, I recommend Australian environmental scientist Prof. Barry Brook (Adelaide University). Barry and colleagues have created a remarkable resource — the BraveNewClimate.com blog, where Barry has been applying his considerable critical-thinking skills to the energy policy issue. His September 2009 post “A necessary interlude” is a concise summary of why Barry eventually shifted his focus to concentrate on the nuclear solution. I recommend a careful read of the short essay. In brief, Barry wants the conversation focused on energy policy that will work in the real world. Near the end of the post Barry succinctly summarizes his view of the energy options — this is so good I have reproduced that segment here [the emphasis below is mine]:

(…) It is my conclusion, from all of this, that nuclear power IS the only viable FF [fossil fuels] alternative.

I am vitally interested in supporting real solutions that permit a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, especially coal (oil will, at least in part, take care of itself). If the conclusion is that wind/solar cannot meaningfully facilitate this transition, why bother to promote them? Now, I should make one thing quite clear. I am not AGAINST renewable energy. If folks want to build them, go for it! If they can find investors, great! Indeed, I’m no NIMBY, and would be happy to have a conga line of huge turbines gracing the hills behind my home, just as I’d be happy to have a brand spanking new nuclear power station in my suburb. But why should I promote something I have come to consider — on a scientific and economic basis — to be a non-solution to the energy and climate crisis? That doesn’t make sense to me.

To your questions:

1. Coal with CCS — doomed to failure. Why? Because the only thing that is going to be embraced with sufficient vigour, on a global scale, is an energy technology that has the favourable characteristics of coal, but is cheaper than coal. CCS, by virtue of the fact that it is coal + extra costs (capture, compressions, sequestration) axiomatically fails this litmus test. It is therefore of no interest and those who promote it can only do so on the basis of simultaneously promoting such a large carbon price that (a) the developing world is highly unlikely to ever impose it, and (b) if they do, CCS won’t be competitive with nuclear. CCS is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

2. Natural gas has no role in baseload generation. It is a high-carbon fossil fuel that releases 500 to 700 kg of CO2 per MWh. If it is used in peaking power only (say at 10% capacity factor), then it is only a tiny piece in the puzzle, because we must displace the coal. It it is used to displace the coal baseload, then it is a counterproductive ’solution’ because it is still high carbon (despite what the Romms of this world will have you believe) and is in shorter supply than coal anyway. Gas is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

3. The developing world lives in Trainer’s power-down society already, and they are going to do everything possible to get the hell out of it. The developed world will fight tooth and nail, and will burn the planet to a soot-laden crisp, rather than embrace Trainer’s simpler way. Power down is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

4. It is nice to imagine that renewables will have a niche role in the future. But actually, will they? They don’t have any meaningful role now, when pitted in competition with fossil fuels, so why will that be different when pitted fairly against a nuclear-powered world? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t frankly care, because even if renewable energy can manage to maintain various niche energy supply roles in the future, it won’t meet most of the current or future power demand. So niche applications or not, renewables are peripheral to the big picture because they are a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

5. Smart grids will provide better energy supply and demand management. Fine, great, that will help irrespective of what source the energy comes from (nuclear, gas, coal, renewables, whatever). Smarter grids are inevitable and welcome. But they are not some white knight that will miraculously allow renewable energy to achieve any significant penetration into meeting world energy demand in the future. Smart grids are sensible, but they are not a solution to the climate and energy crises.

To some, the above may sound rather dogmatic. To me, it’s the emergent property of trying my damnedest to be ruthlessly pragmatic about the energy problem. I have no barrow to push, I don’t get anything out of it — other than I want this problem fixed. I don’t earn a red cent if nuclear turns out be the primary solution. I don’t win by renewables failing. The bottom line is this — if this website is looking more and more like a nuclear advocacy site, then you ought to consider why. It might just be because I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only realistic solution to this problem, and that’s why I’m ever more stridently advocating it. This is a ‘game’ we cannot afford to lose, and the longer we dither about with ultimately worthless solutions, the closer we come to endgame, with no pawn left to move to the back row and Queen.

So what can you expect from BNC in the future? Much more on nuclear power (both Gen III and Gen IV), obviously, since I now consider this technology to be the core climate change solution — whilst openly acknowledging the yawning gulf between the scientific understanding of nuclear power and the public’s perception. This must change, and I hope, in my modest way, I can be an agent for that attitudinal shift. I also plan to launch an extended series on renewable energy, with an aim to break down the often complex and multifaceted critiques being made, into simpler, single-issue chunks, which can be more readily pinned down and understood. I will also profile some of the less well-developed low-carbon technologies, such as tidal, wave, microalgae, and geothermal, and speculate on their possible future roles. I hope in this way that I’ll be able to reinforce people’s understanding of why I no longer hold renewable energy to be a primary solution — and yet, by the same yardstick of maintaining intellectual honesty, I’ll also try my very best to keep an open mind to unconsidered possibilities and caveats that are raised by commenters (be these against nuclear energy, and/or for renewables). As I said, healthy thought should never cease to evolve.

When you see anti-nuclear propoganda, always ask yourself “Who Benefits?” And yes, the following is exactly our objective — to kill all coal fired generation (except for CCS plants, if they can make it work).

Nuclear power will kill coal

Summary of developing world nuclear planned and under construction:

China already has 9 GWe operating, with 61 GWe new reactors planned, including some of the world’s most advanced. Their goal is least 60 GWe (total) by 2020, and 120-160 GWe by 2030. China demands aggressive technology transfer in their contracts — e.g., in return for the large commitment to Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, China will be building and supplying most of the components after the first two plants are completed.

India expects to have 20 GWe nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 63 GWe by 2032. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050 [I think this goal is much less than India is likely to achieve]. India is a leader in Thorium Fast Breeder (FBR) technology and could turn out to be a major global supplier of new nuclear plants.

(…) India has uniquely been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to exploit its reserves of thorium.

Now, foreign technology and fuel are expected to boost India’s nuclear power plans considerably. All plants will have high indigenous engineering content.

India has a vision of becoming a world leader in nuclear technology due to its expertise in fast reactors and thorium fuel cycle.

Russia is producing some 22 GWe in 31 plants, including the BN-600, one of the longest operating fast breeder reactors in the world. Russia has another 37 GWe of new capacity under construction, planned, or proposed.

Brazil has about 2GWe power by two Siemens plants at Angra, and 8GWe more planned for 2030 and 60GWe total by 2060. The bad news is that there will be many megatons of coal burned before this turns around.