March 21, 2011
The nuclear crisis in Japan has created a surprising response. Columnists and commentators from a range of perspectives normally considered skeptical or even hostile to nuclear power are showing a surprising amount of support for increased reliance on nuclear despite the risks brought into tragic relief by the Fukushima disaster. This position has been articulated by Canada’s leading foreign affairs columnist and the UK’s uber-climate hawk George Monbiot. The essential argument is that given the gravity of the climate crisis, the increasing energy needs of the world’s population, and the absence of realistic alternatives for baseload power, nuclear will need to play an important role in the future of the global energy system despite its risks.
Before rallying around the nuclear flag, however, it is important to examine the third part of that argument. Are there really no non-carbon alternatives to providing the backbone of the energy system? Before jumping to that conclusion, please read the vitally important work by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and Mark Delucchi of the University of California at Davis. In a two-part series published in the journal Energy Policy, they argue that all of the world’s energy needs can be provided by a nuclear-free wind, water, and solar energy system by 2050. These are not environmental group publications but peer reviewed journal articles in the world’s leading outlet for academic energy research. Their sole acknowledgement is “This paper was not funded by any interest group, company, or government agency.”
The articles are available on the web without a subscription here. Jacobson also has a TED debate against Stewart Brand where he makes many of these arguments in a form readily accessible to a general audience. He and Delucchi have a highly accessible article in Scientific American that comes along with swank interactive graphics. But even their journal articles on the issue are relatively accessible, and I highly recommend reading them carefully (Part I and Part II).
The short version of their argument is the following:
“We suggest producing all new energy with [water, wind, and solar] by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.”
I’ve extracted and condensed the concluding sections of their two part article in Energy Policy below (all text verbatim).
Because of the gravity of the climate crisis and growing global energy demand, it certainly makes sense to consider all options even in the wake of Fukushima. But given health, safety, economic, and geopolitical risks of nuclear power, a low or no nuclear future would be preferable if it is feasible. To be convincing, those rallying around the nuclear flag will have to refute the formidable findings of Jacobson and Delucchi.
A large-scale wind, water, and solar energy system can reliably supply all of the world’s energy needs, with significant benefit to climate, air quality, water quality, ecological systems, and energy security, at reasonable cost. To accomplish this, we need about 4 million 5-MW wind turbines, 90,000 300-MW solar PV plus CSP power plants, 1.9 billion 3 kW solar PV rooftop systems, and lesser amounts of geothermal, tidal, wave, and hydroelectric plants and devices.
The equivalent footprint area on the ground for the sum of WWS devices needed to power the world is … and spacing of devices on land required are only 0.41% and !0.59% of the world land area, respectively.
The development of WWS power systems is not likely to be constrained by the availability of bulk materials, such as steel and concrete.
A 100% WWS world can employ several methods of dealing with short-term variability in WWS generation potential, to ensure that supply reliably matches demand. Complementary and gap-filling WWS resources (such as hydropower), smart demand-response management, and better forecasting have little or no additional cost and hence will be employed as much as is technically and socially feasible. A WWS system also will need to interconnect resources over wide regions, and might need to have decentralized [vehicle to grid] or perhaps centralized energy storage. Finally, it will be advantageous for WWS generation capacity to significantly exceed peak inflexible power demand in order to minimize the times when available WWS power is less than demand and, when generation capacity does exceed inflexible supply, to provide power to produce hydrogen for flexible transportation and heating/cooling uses.
The private cost of generating electricity from onshore wind power is less than the private cost of conventional, fossil-fuel generation, and is likely to be even lower in the future. By 2030, the social cost of generating electricity from any WWS power source, including solar photovoltaics, is likely to be less than the social cost of conventional fossil-fuel generation, even when the additional cost of a supergrid and [vehicle to grid] storage (probably on the order of $0.02/kWh, for both) is included. The social cost of electric transportation, based either on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, is likely to be comparable to or less than the social cost of transportation based on liquid fossil fuels.
We recognize that historically, changes to the energy system, driven at least partly by market forces, have occurred more slowly than we are envisioning here (e.g., Kramer and Haigh, 2009). However, our plan is for governments to implement policies to mobilize infrastructure changes more rapidly than would occur if development were left mainly to the private market. We believe that manpower, materials, and energy resources do not constrain the development of WWS power to historical rates of growth for the energy sector, and that government subsidies and support can be redirected to accelerate the growth of WWS industries. A concerted international effort can lead to scale-up and conversion of manufacturing capabilities such that by around 2030, the world no longer will be building new fossil-fuel or nuclear electricity generation power plants or new transportation equipment using internal-combustion engines, but rather will be manufacturing new wind turbines and solar power plants and new electric and fuel-cell vehicles (excepting aviation, which will use liquid hydrogen in jet engines). Once this WWS power-plant and electric vehicle manufacturing and distribution infrastructure is in place, the remaining stock of fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants and internal-combustion-engine vehicles can be retired and replaced with WWS-power-based systems gradually, so that by 2050, the world is powered by WWS.
The obstacles to realizing this transformation of the energy sector are primarily social and political, not technological. As discussed herein, a combination of feed-in tariffs, other incentives, and an intelligently expanded and re-organized transmission system may be necessary but not sufficient to enough ensure rapid deployment of WWS technologies. With sensible broad-based policies and social changes, it may be possible to convert 25% of the current energy system to WWS in 10–15 years and 85% in 20–30 years, and 100% by 2050. Absent that clear direction, the conversion will take longer.
Jacobson, M.Z., Delucchi, M.A., Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040
Delucchi, M.A., Jacobson, M.Z., Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies. Energy Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.045