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Richard Alley on the Expense of Clean Energy

Professor Richard Alley explains why switching to clean energy — that which does not output CO2 — is pretty much an infrastructure problem, one which we’ve already solved once.

The technology we have to produce energy that does not rely on the burning of fossil fuels already exist, though they’re expensive. The main problems are those of cost-effectiveness and how much time we actually have before the issues become too great to overcome, and whether we’ll spend the necessary money to change our infrastructure before the damage we’re bringing on ourselves will cost way, way more than the cost for making the jump.

So the real question is not whether to do it, it’s a question of when. When will we stop putting short term profits over long term viability? When will we buckle down and solve the infrastructure problem that’s destroying our planet’s climate, in a way that will cost many more lives than did the emptying of chamber pots onto the streets?

Comments

  1. unbound says

    “When will we stop putting short term profits over long term viability?”

    That is exactly what corporate thinking will give you ten times out of ten. Government, without the interference of corporations, is perfectly capable of thinking long-term. Government, as it stand today filled to the brim with corporate loving officials (many times former corporate senior management), is incapable of dealing with long-term since the short-term profit goal of corporations overrides all other considerations.

  2. says

    You can see the difference the attitude of society makes towards those issues when you go from Germany to France.
    France has one of the highest numbers of nuclear power plants in this world, and one of the lowest number of using renewable energy in the western word. Still after Fukushima, still with climate change, people don’t care much. You only start to see the first efforts now: some solar panels, a few isolated windmills.

    Germany has traditionally a much higher usage of fossil fuels and after Chernobyl, no new nuclear reactors were built, the old ones are phasing out.
    You see solar panels pretty much everywhere and lots of windmills and not at least insulation programs for old houses*. This has been fuelled by a society that actually thinks that we should work on this issue and lots of public funding (it’s not as if the other forms of energy weren’t publicly funded…) and it has resulted in the fact that by now 9.4% of all energy in Germany is already renewable. That doesn’t sound much and still a long way to go, but it is already much higher than in the rest of the western world.
    It brings new challenges: New landlines have to be built to balance the energy-production between the windy north and the sunny south, we need new ways to store energy.
    But you can’t move house if your old flat has to be clean by the very same day you can first enter the new one.

    *I live in one of them. Not only have heating costs gone down in spite of the price having gone up dramatically it’s also a very high quality of living.

  3. dianne says

    When will we stop putting short term profits over long term viability?

    If history is any guide, the answer may be never. Societies have died out before now because they refused to deal with their ecologic crises. The Mayans didn’t need that 2012 calendar that everyone keeps talking about because they didn’t deal with the effects of overfarming. We should know better now, with all these examples and all this lead time to do something about it, but will we? Probably not.

  4. says

    @Giliell(2) – Fukushima and Chernobyl are not typical examples of nuclear power, and the coal-fired plants that Germany is dialing up to replace the reactors it’s shutting down in a knee-jerk reaction to the Fukushima disaster are among the dirtiest in the world. (http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/20/world/la-fg-germany-nuclear-20120421) Germany has rich coal seams, but they’re brown coal, the worst kind of coal for carbon and sulphur emissions.

    On top of that, Germany now imports electricity, rather than exporting it as it did before it began shutting down its emissions-free nuclear reactors. Where is that electricity coming from? Oh, right. France. The place you were just criticizing.

    Germany _does_ have excellent renewable subsidies and incentivization, but don’t pretend that the sheep-like termination of its nuclear program was a win for the environment.

  5. says

    Fukushima and Chernobyl are not typical examples of nuclear power,

    Well, they look like typical examples of nuclear disaster to me.
    Apart from being far from cheap, CO2 neutral and sustainable. Only that the devastation happens elsewhere.

    and the coal-fired plants that Germany is dialing up to replace the reactors it’s shutting down in a knee-jerk reaction to the Fukushima disaster are among the dirtiest in the world.

    *sigh*
    Please, get some education before you look any more stupid.
    1) The decision to abandon nuclear energy was made long before Fukushima, which was also when the legal framework for expanding renewable energy was created. It was then cancelled by the conservative government (with the aid of fake studies, of course) who then needed to cancel their cancellation because the German society that didn’t support them before went wild after Fukushima.
    2) Now, who’s building those dirty coal plants?
    Oh, yeah, the same energy companies that run the nuclear plants. It’s not like “Germany is replacing them”. Greedy companies have been forbidden to pollute the environment in one way are now doing it in a different way. this is neither a logical nor a necessary conclusion from the abandonment of nuclear power.

    On top of that, Germany now imports electricity, rather than exporting it as it did before it began shutting down its emissions-free nuclear reactors.

    First of all, emissions free? I didn’t even know they existed.
    “Emission free” is bullshit. Apart from the fact that building, mining etc. produces CO2 emissions as well, nuclear plants produce lots of waste, waste we still don’t know how to handle.
    Second, yes, they were importing electricity after the energy companies shut down some more plants than ordered in order to blackmail the government.
    You know, what is planned is a coordinated abandonment.
    Oh, and of course, it’s not like it were universally true. In the cold wave at the beginning of the year France needed to import German electricity.
    Don’t pick your cherries.
    linky in German

    Germany _does_ have excellent renewable subsidies and incentivization, but don’t pretend that the sheep-like termination of its nuclear program was a win for the environment.

    Again, if you call a plan that was made years before Fukushima “sheep like”, you have no clue what you’re talking about.
    Yeah, and Chernobyl and Fukushima look like a big win for the environment to me.
    Oh, of course you say, those are the exception and it won’t happen in the USA/France/Germany, but you know what, I’m old enough to have witnessed Chernobyl and after that they said the exact same thing.
    And the fact that I’m living close to one of the biggest and most unsafe nuclear power plants in Europe (the number of emergency close-downs is a three digit number each year) really doesn’t win my trust in nuclear power.

  6. dianne says

    Oh, of course you say, those are the exception and it won’t happen in the USA/France/Germany, but you know what, I’m old enough to have witnessed Chernobyl and after that they said the exact same thing.

    I’ve heard it claimed that one reason that Merkel changed her policy after Fukushima is that she hadn’t thought, before Fukushima, that a Chernobyl type disaster could occur in a first world country with proper regulation of nuclear power. Fukushima provided a clear counterexample to this argument and hence the sudden change of policy. I don’t know that that’s strictly true, but I rather hope so since it implies that the CDU leadership is responsive to events and will change its policy when reality contradicts it. This is more hopeful than your average politician in the US who will attempt to change reality to fit policy rather than the other way around.

  7. says

    dianne
    Not really, it was just their only escape from political suicide. Even their own voters didn’t support their decision to cancel the “Atomausstieg” but regarded it as a “necessary evil” if they wanted the conservative package.
    After Fukushima the pressure just got too big.

    One of their “support studies” for the prolonged usage of nuclear energy was a study that compared apples to pears:
    For the scenario with nuclear power they also assumed massive savings by energy-efficient machines and better insulation. Then they compared it against a scenario without nuclear power and an increase in energy demand and then came to the conclusion that nuclear power were more efficient…

  8. Jim Baerg says

    Giliell:
    I found population & CO2 emmision by country tables in Wikipedia. Dividing to get metric tonnes per person for the two countries I get:
    Germany 9.6
    France 5.8

    If you want to reduce CO2 emmisions & still have a reasonably prosperous country, it looks like France has the better idea.

  9. says

    I found population & CO2 emmision by country tables in Wikipedia. Dividing to get metric tonnes per person for the two countries I get:
    Germany 9.6
    France 5.8

    If you want to reduce CO2 emmisions & still have a reasonably prosperous country, it looks like France has the better idea.

    *sigh*
    How are you supposed to discuss those things with people who think in “gotcha” arguments?

    First, to declare that the French energy policy had anything to do with CO2 emissions is ridiculous. Those power plants were built when CO2 was mainly discussed as the thing that makes water sparkle.

    Second, it’s easy just to compare those number and not to compare the rest of the countries. Germany has a lot more of heavy industry that produces not only CO2 but also goods that are consumed in countries like France.
    Where do you think the fertilizer comes from French farmers use on their fields? Maybe the world’s biggest chemical plant has something to do with that? Or the harvesting machines they use? Which country produces more cars, a very energy-intensive industry? Not to mention steel…

    Third, maybe you should look at some more data, like the amount of Co2 reduction over the last 20 years.
    France: -1.2t / person
    Germany: -2.7t / person
    So, which country do you think is taking this task more serious?

    Fourth, I get it, you buy into the “nuclear power is safe and clean” bullshit. I suggest you educate yourself a bit about the pollution, devastation and social consequences of Uranium mining. Sure, that’s not happening in France, so it’s probably not happening at all.
    BTW, coal mined in the third world isn’t much better, but t least there’s less poisoning via radioctive material.

    Fifth, did you read/see/listen to the latest news about the security and safety of French nuclear plants? Most of them are not secured against plane crashes and terrorist attacks or natural disasters that are more probable than the 9.0 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. Because some of them are built in tectonically active areas, areas that can be heavily flooded and their back up systems are even worse than the Japanese ones (one backup generator for 4 blocks).
    So, do you think that Fukushima couldn’t happen there or do you think that it’s worth the price?

    Sixth, any good ideas about what to do with the nuclear waste?

    See, that’s what happens if you become dogmatic: you want to reduce CO2 (which France demonstrably isn’t doing much) and therefore you ignore everything else. Grow up, life neither easy nor black and white. Yes, things are complicated. Get used to it.

  10. Jim Baerg says

    “How are you supposed to discuss those things with people who think in “gotcha” arguments?”

    Pot Kettle Black.

    You brought up Chernobyl which killed definitely a few dozen & *might* cause a few thousand cancers out of the many millions which will occur anyway. Meanwhile non-nuclear forms of energy kill millions. Googling “deaths per twh” gets this among others:
    http://www.good.is/post/interactive-chart-deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source/

    Every anti-nuclear argument is at most a half truth in which a great fuss is made about a minor difficulty with nuclear which problems with other energy sources are ignored.

  11. says

    Me in #11:

    BTW, coal mined in the third world isn’t much better, but t least there’s less poisoning via radioctive material.

    You in #12:

    Every anti-nuclear argument is at most a half truth in which a great fuss is made about a minor difficulty with nuclear which problems with other energy sources are ignored.

    Seems like you have some major issues with reading long comments witch actual arguments
    But if you want to call Chernobyl*, Fukushima, and tons and tons of highly toxic and radioactive waste for which you have no solution at all “minor difficulties” I guess there’s no argument because we’re obviously not sharing the same definitions of minor or difficulties.

    *To this day, the Ukraine has to spend about 20% of their budget on managing the site, this doesn’t include the international support

  12. says

    @Giliell 11 – Your points, while accurate, are not exactly counter-arguments to Jim’s (or other) posts. In order:

    1. Why does the motivation behind the French transition to nuclear power matter, insofar as Jim(10)’s point? Whether it was motivated by emissions or by a desire to be free of fossil fuel imports, their emissions _are_ lower.

    2. Looking at a breakdown provided by the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/energy/publications/doc/statistics/ext_co2_emissions_by_sector.pdf), power generation produces nearly half of all Germany’s emissions, dwarfing industry and industrial processes (385.5Mtons vs. 172.8Mtons, respectively). If industry is left out of the equation for both countries, the ratio for emissions per capita is even more in France’s favour.

    3. Here, one considers the difference between a fat man losing weight and a slimmer man losing weight. The fat man might lose 20kg while the slimmer man only loses 10kg, but the slimmer man is still healthier, and is probably working just as hard – it’s just more difficult to trim fat when you’ve less to trim.

    4. Speaking as a citizen of the world’s second-largest producer of uranium ore, what do you mean “third world countries”? While Areva does source 30% of its uranium from Niger, the mines there employ a total of 1600 people. More than six _thousand_ people die in China every year from coal mining. The tailings from uranium mining, while as toxic as any mine’s, are substantially less than those from, for example, copper mining – world production of uranium ranges about fifty thousand tons, while copper produces fifteen _million_. Unlike coal mining, uranium mining doesn’t entail mountaintop removal, permanent underground fires, or massive deforestation. Neither is appealing, but uranium mining is so much less environmentally destructive as to appear as a footnote.

    5. Fukushima was a good reminder that safety precautions need to be readdressed, and the ASN has been the harshest in the world to address it. (http://www.nature.com/news/france-imagines-the-unimaginable-1.9780) But I’m curious as to what “tectonically active” regions you’re referring to in France – Golfetch is the only plant anywhere near any region of even minor earthquake risk in the country (http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world/france/gshap.php). Earthquake risk notwithstanding, I’d far rather have a CANDU plant, or even a PWR, in my backyard than a coal or oil-fired fossil fuel plant. (In fact, I used to play baseball next to a LWR at McMaster University.)

    6. Reprocessing, with vitrification of the unusable fraction and entombment in a geologically stable formation. We’re only talking about values in the “weight of a freight train” range, rather than, for example, coal fly ash (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingston_Fossil_Plant_coal_fly_ash_slurry_spill).

    I’d also note that your initial post indicated that the transition from France to Germany demonstrated how much more responsible the latter was being, and then turned around and blamed the environmental irresponsibility of sub-anthracite-fired coal plants on “greedy corporations”. You can’t have it both ways.

    It’s also worth noting that the worst polluters in terms of radiation released into the environment are coal plants, not nuclear. Even allowing for Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, coal plants have released a hundred times as much radiation into the atmosphere as their nuclear equivalent would have.

    In summary, I’d much rather have concentrated solar thermal, tidal, hydroelectric, geothermal, photovoltaic, and both high-and-low-altitude wind to power my electric grid, and I’m quite willing to pay higher taxes to see that come to fruition. But until that point, I’d far rather have nuclear making up the remaining generative capacity than any other method.

  13. says

    The Artful Nudger

    1. Why does the motivation behind the French transition to nuclear power matter, insofar as Jim(10)’s point?

    Because he presented it as “environmentally motivated”.

    3. Here, one considers the difference between a fat man losing weight and a slimmer man losing weight.

    Bullshit. Your analogy is seriously borked since that reduction in emissions was done by investing in renewable energy. Something France hasn’t done much to this day. Which was my fucking main point. That Germany has worked on the issue of building clean energy sources (and no, I’m not counting nuclear industry among that) for 20 years while others haven’t.

    More than six _thousand_ people die in China every year from coal mining.

    Reading comprehension, see above. I mentioned those risks above already.

    But I’m curious as to what “tectonically active” regions you’re referring to in France – Golfetch is the only plant anywhere near any region of even minor earthquake risk in the country

    Your map seems to be woefully inaccurate:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fessenheim_Nuclear_Power_Plant

    Earthquake risk notwithstanding, I’d far rather have a CANDU plant, or even a PWR, in my backyard than a coal or oil-fired fossil fuel plant.

    Suit yourself

    6. Reprocessing, with vitrification of the unusable fraction and entombment in a geologically stable formation.

    So, when are they going to do it and where?
    Answers, please, or admit that apart from your imagination, that problem remains unsolved.

    I’d also note that your initial post indicated that the transition from France to Germany demonstrated how much more responsible the latter was being, and then turned around and blamed the environmental irresponsibility of sub-anthracite-fired coal plants on “greedy corporations”. You can’t have it both ways.

    Bullshit. I was talking about the difference it makes if a society decides to tackle the problem of renewable energy as opposed to a society that doesn’t. I didn’t bring up coal plants or nuclear plants so don’t try to paint me as if I had. There still is a difference between what a society does and what a company does. German society and therefore politics have decided to invest heavily into renewable energy while French society hasn’t. This was something completely seperate from French nuclear power vs. German fossil fuel power. It was you who tried to turn it around into “shaming stupid Germans for not wanting nuclear power”, so stop pretending it was the other way round.

    It’s also worth noting that the worst polluters in terms of radiation released into the environment are coal plants, not nuclear. Even allowing for Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, coal plants have released a hundred times as much radiation into the atmosphere as their nuclear equivalent would have.

    *headdesk*
    Yes, and had you ingested a tiny amount of arsenic for 50 years you would have eaten much more arsenic than with this spoonfull, won’t you try it?
    That’s seriously stupid and I hope you realize it if you read it again. No, before you try to play more stupid, it doesn’t mean that I’m in favour of burning more coal. Or suggesting that coal was somewhat clean. In contrast to you I have no need nor desire to “greenwash” any energy production, since my actual point was the promotion of real renewable energy.

    In summary, I’d much rather have concentrated solar thermal, tidal, hydroelectric, geothermal, photovoltaic, and both high-and-low-altitude wind to power my electric grid, and I’m quite willing to pay higher taxes to see that come to fruition. But until that point, I’d far rather have nuclear making up the remaining generative capacity than any other method.

    So, look at your data again: In tackling the issue of shifting energy production towards real renewable sources, which country has put in more effort and money, which country has achieved the larger effect? No, you’re not allowed to mention coal or nuclear in your answer. Because that’s shifting the fucking goalpost again.
    The topic is “Investing into renewable energy”, not “you should have made different decission 30 years ago”

  14. says

    Oh, I see my numbers are a bit out of date and I mixed up the countries.
    Here’s Wiki for you:

    While it is difficult to establish the total economic cost of the disaster, in Belarus the total cost over 30 years is estimated at US$235 billion (in 2005 dollars).[110] The on-going costs are, however, better defined; in their 2003–2005 report, The Chernobyl Forum stated that between 5% and 7% of government spending in Ukraine still related to Chernobyl, while in Belarus over $13 billion is thought to have been spent between 1991 and 2003, with 22% of national budget having been Chernobyl-related in 1991, falling to 6% by 2002.[110] Much of the current cost related to the payment of Chernobyl-related social benefits to some 7 million people across the 3 countries.[110]

    A significant economic impact at the time was the removal of 784,320 ha (1,938,100 acres) of agricultural land and 694,200 ha (1,715,000 acres) of forest from production. While much of this has been returned to use, agricultural production costs have risen due to the need for special cultivation techniques, fertilizers and additives.[110]

  15. says

    I concede your point, Giliell – in re-reading your initial post, your point was not that France was doing poorly in terms of emissions or pollution, but that Germany had a positive attitude in terms of reducing consumption and increasing their renewable portfolio.

    You even made the point that Germany has traditionally (and continues to be) a heavy fossil fuel user, but is trying to change.

    I misinterpreted this as suggesting that fossil fuel was superior to nuclear as a temporary measure until renewables can be made the dominant (or only) source of electrical generation.

    The Chernobyl Forum is also an interesting read, suggesting that there have been 4000 “victims” over the course of the time between the accident and the present day, but that the culture of victimization had had a substantially deleterious effect on the entire population of the region, psychologically.

    My statement regarding coal emissions is not bullshit. This is not a “compared to the release of Fukushima, coal is greater over a very long period of time”. This is “in day-to-day operations of nuclear plants vs. coal plants, coal plants release a hundred times the radiation into the atmosphere”. This is true even when averaging in the releases at Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. Obviously, the effect is greater if you suffer a greater dosage all at once; the same could be said for being someone in the vicinity of an oil spill. We’re talking day-to-day operations, not disasters.

    Did you read the whole wiki link you provided regarding the french reactor in the “tectonically sensitive” region? The plant is rated for a magnitude 6.7 quake, and is itself in a moderate zone. The _region_ includes a medium-risk zone, but the most recent earthquake in that area was a 4.7 (a hundred times as weak), thirty-two years ago. This is not even remotely the same as the region where Fukushima lay.

    I’ll also point out in #11 that you said that coal mining in the third world “isn’t much better” – the death count and descriptions of illnesses from coal mining in the third world indicate that it is much worse than uranium mining.

    However.

    You are absolutely correct that Germany is the world leader in a cultural adoption of renewable energy (though China’s labouring hard to catch up), and we could all stand to learn from its example.

  16. says

    Addendum addendum:

    You are also entirely correct that I was the one who suggested that German society was to blame for opening the coal plants in the place of the nuclear plants that were being shuttered. My use of the appellation “sheep-like” and the term “knee-jerk” were both out of line, and I apologize.

    I would also appreciate any resources you have that detail what the proposed switch _from_ nuclear was _to_. Clearly, Ms. Merkel reversed the switch from nuclear, and then reversed that decision again in the wake of Fukushima, but there must have been an initial plan to transition to a different source of generation. Was the plan to replace the nuclear capacity with renewables that just didn’t get built, or was the plan to go to fossil fuels all along?

    (If the latter case, however, I really will stick with “stupid Germans … not wanting nuclear power”, even if it was initially baseless.)

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