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Renewable energy can conquer global warming March 29, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power, renewable energy, Sustainable Living.

Engage the pro-atomic energy community in a keyboard battle (as I have done in recent times) and in no time at all they will tell you that nuclear power provides 70% of France’s electricity, that renewable energy sources are immature, unreliable and expensive and that their supporters are unscientific smelly hippies who don’t know what they’re talking about and whose sources are dubious at best.

They will not tell you that Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is in the process of phasing out atomic power entirely and they will not tell you that there have been numerous scientific studies showing that currently available renewable energy technologies in conjunction with improved energy efficiency are capable of reducing global CO2 emissions enough to keep global warming and climate change under control while allowing for continued economic and population growth. And all of it without the help (sic) of nuclear power.

Atomic energy generation has some very major unresolved environmental and socio-economic problems (including long-lived radioactive waste, the danger of environmental contamination and atomic weapons proliferation), so surely if the job can be done without it, plain common sense should dictate that we do.

Below, I’ve summarised a number of extremely thorough international scientific reports from reputable institutions and individuals that support the claims above (I’ve provided links to the reports themselves, but be aware that some of the pdf files are rather bulky).

A 2004 study by the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (“Steps towards a sustainable development”) showed that simply by improving energy conservation and energy efficiency in a technologically feasible manner, the per capita energy demand of Switzerland could be reduced by two thirds while simultaneously increasing energy services by two thirds by 2050. In the US, it is estimated that energy demand could be reduced to one sixth of current use simply through more efficient technologies.

A 164-page study entitled “A Clean Energy Future for Australia” published in 2004 by WWF Australia and other members of the Clean Energy Future Group explores how Australia can cut its CO2 emissions by 50% by 2040 through a combination of existing renewable energy technologies and improved energy efficiency while taking into account economic and population growth.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University found that

The wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast could supply the energy needs of nine states from Massachusetts to North Carolina, plus the District of Columbia–with enough left over to support a 50 percent increase in future energy demand […]

and Gar Lipow showed that the USA could replace all of its non-hydro power plants with wind generators and electricity storage and still lower its overall electricity bill.

In January of this year, the American Solar Energy Society, with the backing of amongst others NASA’s chief climate change scientist, Dr. James Hansen, released a report entitled “Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.”. This detailed study reveals that most, if not all, US CO2 emission reductions needed to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 1oC can come from energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal) without requiring any new nuclear power plants.

A 2003 study into the employment potential of renewable energy in South Africa (which is summarised here) found that electricity generation from renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, landfills) would create many more jobs than conventional technologies (coal, gas, nuclear including PBMR).

The joint European Renewable Energy Council – Greenpeace report “Energy [R]evolution – a sustainable world energy outlook” concludes that

Renewable energy, combined with efficiencies from the ‘smart use’ of energy, can deliver half of the world’s energy needs by 2050 […] The report […] provides a practical blueprint for how to cut global CO2 emissions by almost 50% within the next 43 years, whilst providing a secure and affordable energy supply and, critically, maintaining steady worldwide economic development. Notably, the plan takes into account rapid economic growth areas such as China, India and Africa […]

This is accomplished using only mature, proven and sustainable technologies, while simultaneously phasing out nuclear energy and continuously reducing fossil fuel consumption.

South Africa with its long coastline, strong winds and long hours of sunshine has massive renewable energy resources. If countries like Switzerland, Australia and Germany can overcome the energy and global warming crisis, then why can’t we?


1. Ben Pretorius - March 29, 2007

How many windmills do one need to generate the same amount of energy as a large nuclear plant?

2. Andreas - March 29, 2007

Lots and lots, Ben.

3. RobC - March 29, 2007

An easy calculation. Nukes have a power factor of 90-95%, wind turbines 25-35% (17http://www.ecn.nl/docs/library/report/2003/c03006.pdf).
So, the average power factor for nukes is at least 3 times that for wind turbines. Figure a typical wind turbine as used in a large wind farm would be rated at 700 KW. Do the arithmetic, and you find that one thousand-megawatt nuke equals 4286 wind turbines. Of course, this still doesn’t address the storage problem. If storage were available, there’d be inefficiencies involved, so the number would be somewhat higher.

I’m still downloading the “Tackling Climate Change” paper. 8.5 MB!

4. RobC - March 29, 2007

Well, that was a big disappointment. The Tackling Climate Change article was all based on hopeful guesses about improved technology and lower costs in the future. And their best estimate was that 688 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon per year could be saved by efficiency improvements, and 523 MMT/yr could be saved through renewable energy sources, by the year 2030.

Currently, the US emits 1640 MMT/yr of carbon in the form of CO2. Does anyone really think the demand for energy won’t increase in the next 23 years? The plan described in the Tackling Climate Change article, optimistic as it is, shows a reduction of 32% of present emissions due to renewables. But energy demand has risen 36% since 23 years ago (EIA web page), despite efficiency improvements of the kind the article envisions . If energy demand increases the way it has, and efficiency improvements continue the way they have, then renewables won’t even keep up with the increasing demand.

I also was disappointed to note that the paper has no suggestions on how to store large amounts of energy. I suppose the assumption is that homes and businesses will just stop when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Well, that could reduce energy demand by a lot.

I wish you would please consider that to realistically solve this vexing problem, we will have to focus on things that work, nuclear energy in particular. Consider what nuclear gets us:

(1) An electricity source that doesn’t depend on wind or sunlight or the limited amount of energy storage available, and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. It could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen, which could be used directly in automobiles and trucks or, more likely, could be added to biofuels to make their production higher by a factor of three. Presently, transportation accounts for about 33% of greenhouse gases; all of that could be eliminated through conservation, electrification, and alternate fuels.

(3) A huge reduction in air pollution, lowered trade deficits, and freedom from the demands of foreign kings.

My opinion is that if nuclear isn’t given maximum opportunity to grow, we won’t solve this problem.

5. Andreas - March 30, 2007

You forgot some, RobC:

(4) Long-lived radioactive waste that we don’t really know what to do with.

(5) The threat nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism.


Not good enough for me, I’m afraid.

6. Robert Palgrave - March 30, 2007


you forgot number 7 – the steeply rising price of uranium, and its limited availability in medium term future. (see paper from MIT)

and number 8 – the lack of skilled engineers and operational staff to build and run the hundreds of new nuclear facilities in the dozens of countries that are now (apparently) clamouring to jump on the bandwagon. Vietnam, Senegal, Surinam, Libya – are these safe places to deploy this technology? Even Indonesia with its record on terrorism and earthquakes is looking at nuclear.

There are renewable technologies which incorporate storage. One is Concentrating Solar Power – making use of melted salt to allow some generation of steam/electricity after the sun has gone down. And a wind farm in Tasmania uses a ‘flow battery’ (see New Scientist 13 January). This technology also being deployed in Vancouver.

Geothermal of course works night and day, windy or not. In January 2007, a group from MIT concluded that there is more than enough extractable hydrothermal energy available to generate the entire 27 trillion kWh energy consumption of US in 2005. And there are estimates that this would last for more than 2000 years. Slightly longer than uranium supplies!

And yes, energy usage, certainly for transport, will have to reduce, certainly in the near future. I don’t believe hydrogen or any other technology will be developed in time to replace oil for fuelling road transport and aviation before oil runs out or becomes too expensive to extract. Bio fuels are simply not the answer. Turning over agricultural land to fuel production to the extent required will seriously affect the planet’s capacity to produce food. Tearing down rain forest to grown palm oil for bio-diesel is not carbon neutral, in fact it is carbon negative.

Bush and some of the European leaders are fixated with biofuels. What they have to understand is that the only solution is to stop using as much energy. Travel less, use less stuff, live with lower levels of comfort. It may seem a backward step, but realistically, it’s the only way.

7. Andreas - March 30, 2007

Spot on Robert. Good to hear a fellow pro-renewables / anti-nuke voice. Sometimes it feels as though the only people who comment on my posts are neo-liberal industry lobbyists and conservative think-tank spin doctors 😉

8. Ramaswami Ashok Kumar - March 30, 2007

Please read my blogs below to get the message that nuclear will finish us all off. My energy audit of the nuke power programme a la France or a la Japan shows that it is a net consumer of fossils for eons to come for India or any other community. My study of health effects of nukes shows that it is a perfect mass murderer a la Sakharov! Employ living energy via forests and muscle power instead of stationary bicycling in gyms and running or jogging or walking! Do work!
Bring back forests! Its enjoyable ; its natural nuclear power! It preserves energy in cycles of use!

9. RobC - March 30, 2007

Andreas, it could well be true that solar energy could be exactly right for your country. In my earlier comment, I mainly was reacting to the Tackling Climate Change article, which was based on US energy options.

If you wish to have a dialogue on this, I’m glad to cooperate. By the way, I don’t work for any lobby; I’m a retired mechanical engineer with a long interest in the environment. I think energy supplies in general and global warming in particular are problems we need to work out in realistic ways. It’s no good to cheer for one side or the other as though it’s some sporting game.

Here in the US, the waste problem is one of budget politics, not technology. Using existing technology, wastes could be transmuted into materials that are either harmless or whose radioactive half-lives are as short as the customer chooses. The transmutation process gives off useful energy. The wastes already awaiting reprocessing will keep reactors fuelled for many decades, even centuries, for even an agressive nuclear program.

Really, proliferation is a red herring. To turn wastes into bomb material is a huge industrial undertaking. Every time it has been done it required vast resources and the best scientific minds available. If a country determines to make a bomb and is willing to make the investment, it can use natural uranium. Stealing spent fuel is not a requirement.

Robert, you’re from the UK, and I think your country’s situation is more like that of the US. It would be helpful if you’d provide links to the sources you mention.

As for uranium prices, uranium producers talk more about the low prices they are getting now. It seems there is a surplus, and reprocessing will put them out of business. Centuries from now, if we assume that better energy sources won’t become available, in the worst case uranium and thorium can be obtained from seawater. Of course, that will cost more than natural uranium and thorium do now, but pretty much everything else will, too.

I think the shortage of trained personnel to build and run nukes is a real limitation to their full deployment. So nuclear won’t deliver its full potential, at least for a long time. That’s hardly an argument for not pursuing it at all.

You understand, I’m sure, that molten-salt heat storage introduces its own inefficiencies. Given the high economic and environmental investment concentrated solar requires, lowering the efficiency makes it an even poorer choice. From what I can tell, the Tasmanian wind farm just uses a conventional battery. It could well be that it works in Tasmania, given the low energy demands there. For a modern, developed, populous country, better solutions are needed.

I downloaded the MIT paper on geothermal. It doesn’t say geothermal could provide all the energy the US uses. What it says is, more research should be done to make dry geothermal a practical energy source. Here is their bottom-line conclusion: “Geothermal energy provides a robust, long lasting option with attributes that would complement other important contributions from clean coal, nuclear, solar, wind, hydropower, and biomass. ”

Here’s their conclusion on renewables in general:
On the renewable side, there is considerable opportunity for capacity expansion of U.S. hydropower
potential using existing dams and impoundments. But outside of a few pumped storage projects,
hydropower growth has been hampered by reductions in capacity imposed by the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC), as a result of environmental concerns. Concentrating solar power
(CSP) provides an option for increased base-load capacity in the Southwest where demand is growing.
Although renewable solar and wind energy also have significant potential for the United States and are
likely to be deployed in increasing amounts, it is unlikely that they alone can meet the entire demand.
Furthermore, solar and wind energy are inherently intermittent and cannot provide 24-hour-a-day base
load without mega-sized energy storage systems, which traditionally have not been easy to site and are
costly to deploy. Biomass also can be used as a renewable fuel to provide electricity using existing heat-
to-power technology, but its value to the United States as a feedstock for biofuels for transportation may
be much higher, given the current goals of reducing U.S. demand for imported oil.

They understate the problem of “mega-sized energy storage systems.” They are so not-easy to site and costly to deploy they’ve never been sited or deployed, at least not in the US, or anywhere else I’m aware of. Also, the paper seems to be overly optimistic on biofuels.

Robert, I think you’re right about alternate fuels. Where you and I agree 100% is, “Travel less, use less stuff, live with lower levels of comfort. It may seem a backward step, but realistically, it’s the only way.” I believe in simpler living; I think people are better off with less-extravagant lifestyles, resource limitations aside. For most people in advanced countries, lower levels of amenities is actually a step forward.

Nonetheless, we humans have to work out an energy program that works. Sticking to an unworkable plan on the basis of idealogical loyalty will fail. 30 years ago, the world turned away from nuclear on the assumption that greenpeace-approved energy sources would make all the others unnecessary and it was okay to keep burning fossil fuels while we waited for them. We’re still waiting for them, using up the oil and gas reserves and even changing the climate. Hypothetical and imaginary concerns aside, nuclear works.

10. Steve Last - Anaerobic Digestion Fan - April 7, 2007

I am not a fan of nuclear, although as I live in the UK many of the agruments about whether the risk of nuclear accidents are worth incurring are somewhat irrelevant, in my view, as should there be a nuclear radiation release in France and the wind direction is not in our favour the whole UK will cop-it anyway! So if we do want Nuclear, lets not worry about the additional danger from our own plants!

I know that raditaion for Europe would hit us. I know this to be a fact from personal experience of the most direct kind.

This is because I was walking on one of the hills in Wales with my parents, wife, and young family when that weekend the Chernobil dust cloud of radioactive showers were falling. We took our raincoats, but we were all wetted, only to hear on the news some time later that all lamb from the area had been banned from sale due to high radiactivity, and the same for all local milk production. The government ban is STILL in place and they STILL just buy the sheep and destroy the meat – and will do so for many more years to come. (My mother died from breast cancer less than 5 years later – and maybe this caused it?)

Anyway, all that is an unecessary distraction from what I meant to say!

In your deliberations please remember the forgotten energy source which is organic waste, and that the amounts are large enough to be significant both in energy terms and in terms of the need for biofuels such as bio-diesel.

In particular I would like to promote the idea of anaerobic digestion of waste organic materials, as discussed on our web site. A double advantage occurs with anaerobic digestion in that if those waste materials are diverted from otherwise ending up in a landfill, where they would be otherwise be emitted as landfill gas (60% methane by volume). I hardly need to say to this audience that it is better that the gas be burnt in a flare than emitted as methane, given that methane is 21 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than the equivalent as carbon dioxide. However, as anaerobic digestion is carbon negative (reverses carbon dioxide effects) it is even better if that organic waste goes to an AD Plant.

The AD plant can produce both energy and the methane produced can be processed further to provide biofuels (e.g. bio-diesel).

OK, nuclear works, but if goverments had put anywhere near the investment which has gone into nuclear into Anaerobic Digestion that process would be just as reliable if not more so! The Chinese and the Indians have been doing it in a low tech way as long as anyone can remember. Also, the Germans closely followed by the Swiss, Swedes and Dutch, can and are doing great Anaerobic Digestion and the Germans now have hundreds of plants up and running – so why not the rest of the world?

Thanks for reading this!

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