Category Archives: Greenhouse Gas

Renewable Energy Is Not the Answer; Nuclear Is

“It’s always a good idea to start by asking about the facts.” So advises Noam Chomsky. “Whenever you hear anything said very confidently, the first thing that should come to mind is, ‘Wait a minute, is that true?’” De omnibus dubitandum—doubt everything—was Karl Marx’s motto and should be the motto of every thinking person. Question even or especially what the tribe most takes for granted.

In the era of climate change, when fossil fuels are known to be driving civilization straight into the ocean, the idea that liberal and left-wing tribes take most for granted is “Renewable energy!” It is shouted confidently from every public perch. Renewable energy, scaled up to replace fossil fuels and even nuclear, is declared the only possible salvation for humanity. It has such obvious advantages over every other energy source that the world has to go 100% renewables ASAP.

Obviously!

But wait a minute—is that true?

Let’s try to shed the religious thinking, look objectively at the facts, and come to a conclusion about this most important of subjects: how to power the future and hopefully save the world.

Renewable energy emits greenhouse gases

First, consider the claim that renewable energy has no carbon emissions. This is true, in a sense, for wind and solar farms (as it is for nuclear energy), which in themselves emit virtually no greenhouse gases. It isn’t true for hydropower, however, which in 2016 produced 71% of all electricity generated by renewable sources. According to one study, hydroelectric dams worldwide emit as much methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as Canada, from decaying vegetation and nutrient runoff. Another study concluded they produce even more carbon dioxide than methane.

“These are massive emissions,” one expert comments. “There are a massive number of dams that are currently proposed to be built. It would be a grave mistake to continue to finance those with the impression that they were part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

And yet in every scenario projected by renewables advocates, hydropower is absolutely essential. For instance, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s famous—and deeply flawed—proposal to run the U.S. on 100% renewables by 2050 assumes the country’s dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity, over 16 times their current capacity of 80 gigawatts. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the maximum capacity that could be added is only 12 gigawatts, 1,288 gigawatts short of Jacobson’s assumption.)

The International Energy Agency projects that by 2023, wind and solar together will satisfy a mere 10% of global electricity demand, while hydroelectric power will satisfy 16%. Nearly all the rest will be produced by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Burning biomass, too, which is a renewable energy source, releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. “It does exactly the opposite of what we need to do: reduce emissions,” says an expert in forest science and management.

Even leaving aside hydropower and biomass, the use of wind and solar dramatically increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to nuclear energy. This is because, given the intermittency and the diluted nature of solar and wind energy, a backup source of power is needed, and that source is natural gas. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a guru of the renewables movement, himself acknowledges this fact:

We need about 3,000 feet of altitude, we need flat land, we need 300 days of sunlight, and we need to be near a gas pipe. Because for all of these big utility-scale solar plants—whether it’s wind or solar—everybody is looking at gas as the supplementary fuel. The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants.

The burning of natural gas; i.e., methane, emits about half as much carbon dioxide as the burning of coal. So natural gas is better than coal, but not nearly good enough if we want to solve climate change. Even worse, many millions of tons of unburned methane are leaked every year from the American oil and gas industry—and methane is more than 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. So these leaks cancel out much of the environmental good that wind and solar farms are supposedly doing.

In other words, the fact that wind and solar farms typically operate far below their capacity (because of seasonal changes and the unreliability of weather) necessitates that a more reliable power source “supplement” them. In fact, as researchers Mike Conley and Tim Maloney point out, strictly speaking it is the renewable source that acts as a supplement for the oil or natural gas plants linked to the renewables. A solar farm with a capacity of one gigawatt, for instance, will on average operate at only about 20% of its capacity, which means that if a gigawatt of energy is really to be produced, the majority will have to be provided by the “backup” fossil fuel plant(s).

The upshot is that an anti-nuclear and pro-renewables policy means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

California is a good example. Like other states in the U.S and countries in the Western world, it has been closing its nuclear power plants—despite their safety, reliability, effectiveness, and environmental friendliness. The carbon-free nuclear plants have been replaced with renewables + natural gas, which is to say, they’ve been replaced mostly with natural gas (prone to methane leaks). After it closed the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013, California missed its CO2 emissions targets as a result.

In New England, after the premature closing of the nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee in 2014, CO2 emission rates rose across New England, reversing a decade of declines. When Massachusetts’ last remaining nuclear plant, Pilgrim, closed last month, much more electricity generation was lost than the state generates with all its solar, wind, and hydropower combined. Several new fossil fuel plants and a couple of small solar and wind farms will take the place of Pilgrim, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

In their new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist give other examples. Between 1970 and 1990, due to its construction of nuclear power plants, Sweden was able to cut its carbon emissions by half even as its electricity consumption more than doubled. Germany, by contrast, emits about twice as much carbon pollution per person as Sweden despite using one-third less energy per person, because it has chosen to phase out its nuclear power while introducing renewables.

This means that Germany has simply substituted one (relatively) clean energy source for another, while doing virtually nothing to decarbonize. Its energy production remains dominated by coal, and greenhouse gas emissions are around a billion tons a year.

A more sensible policy would have been to build more nuclear plants and phase out coal. Or at least to let the existing nuclear plants continue to operate while adding renewables, which then would have displaced coal.

ExxonMobil likes renewable energy

The fact that renewable energy directly and indirectly causes far more greenhouse gas emissions than nuclear should already tell us it isn’t a solution to climate change.

Indeed, the willingness of the oil and gas industry in recent years to promote and invest in renewables is itself significant. Over the last three years, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies have invested over a billion dollars in advertising and lobbying for renewables. “Natural gas is the perfect partner for renewables,” ads say. “See why #natgas is a natural partner for renewable power sources,” Shell tweets.

By pretending to care about the environment, these companies not only burnish their reputations but also are able to associate natural gas with clean energy, which it very much is not. The formula “renewables + natural gas” thus serves a dual purpose. In fact, it serves a triple purpose: it also distracts from nuclear power, which, unlike renewables, is an immediately viable alternative to oil and gas.

Nuclear power, not renewable energy, is what the fossil fuel industry really fears. The reason is simple: the energy in nuclear fuel is orders of magnitude more concentrated than the energy in oil, gas, coal, and every other source. (Which is why nuclear reactors produce vastly less waste than everything from coal to solar.) If governments invested in a global Nuclear New Deal, so to speak, they could make fossil fuels largely obsolete within a couple of decades. Not even Mark Jacobson’s wildly unrealistic $15-20 trillion 100% renewables plan envisions such a fast transition.

Because of the diffuse and intermittent nature of wind and solar energy, all the world’s investment in renewables didn’t prevent the share of low-carbon power in generating electricity from declining between 1995 and 2017. Western countries’ shuttering of nuclear power plants in these decades was a disaster for the environment.

Another way to appreciate the disaster is to consider that global carbon emissions are actually rising, even as the world spent roughly $2 trillion on wind and solar between 2007 and 2016. (This is similar to the amount spent on nuclear in the past 55 years.) So much for the gospel of renewable energy!

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has been smiling on the sidelines, giving millions of dollars to groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and many others that work to kill nuclear power and thus exacerbate climate change. (Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are particularly active in the war on nuclear—and they refuse to disclose their donors. Could it be because they receive an unseemly amount from oil and gas companies?)

We have eleven years

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, we have eleven years left to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has called on global leaders to “demonstrate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and achieve net zero global emissions by 2050.” They’re supposed to meet in New York in September 2019 to answer this call.

The only conceivable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the scale called for is to aggressively embrace nuclear power. It is cost-competitive with all other forms of electricity generation except natural gas—although if you take into account the long-term environmental costs of using natural gas (or oil or even renewables), nuclear is probably the cheapest of all.

A worldwide rollout of nuclear power plants on the scale necessary to save civilization would certainly take longer than eleven years, but we can at least make substantial progress by then. If, that is, we pressure our governments to stop subsidizing oil, natural gas, and the renewables they go hand-in-hand with and instead massively invest in nuclear.

It’s time to stop doing the bidding of fossil fuel interests and get serious about saving the world.

Custer’s Last Stand Meets Global Warming

A recent article in Arctic News on the outlook for global warming foresees a frightening scenario lurking right around the corner. Hopefully, the article’s premise of impending runaway global warming (“RGW”) is off the mark, by a lot. More to the point, off by really a lot in order to temper the sting expected when abrupt temperature increases hit hard, as projected in the article, which is entitled: “Greenhouse Gas Levels Keep Accelerating.” Oh, BTW… the worst-case scenario happens within one decade!

Here’s a snippet:

… such a rise in greenhouse gas levels has historically corresponded with more than 10°C or 18°F of warming, when looking at greenhouse gas levels and temperatures over the past 800,000 years….1

Obviously, it goes without saying no sane person wants to believe, and likely won’t believe or accept, studies about killer temperatures locked, loaded, and ready to fire, right around the corner. That fact alone serves to christen the title “Custer’s Last Stand Meets Global Warming.”

Furthermore, and for journalistic balance, it is important to mention that mainstream science is not warning of imminent Runaway Global Warming (“RGW”), as outlined in the Arctic News article.

Still, the article does have credibility because it is the product of academic scientists. Therefore, metaphorically speaking, one can only hope that their Ouija boards were out-of-whack, misinterpreting the data.

Alas, the Arctic News article would not be out there if only the U.S. Senate had taken seriously Dr. James Hansen’s early warnings about global warming way back in 1988. The New York Times headline d/d June 24, 1988 read: “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.”

Curiously enough, ten years later, in 1998, the process of assembling the International Space Station (“ISS”) commenced as approved by Congress, which included 100% solar power. But, ignoring the obvious, no solar initiatives were suggested for the country, not even mentioned. In fact, ever since Dr. Hansen’s warning of 40 years ago, Congress is MIA, a big fat nada, not even one peep or word about efforts to contain global warming.

As such, it’s really no surprise (but somewhat shocking) that a Children’s Climate Crusade, originating in Sweden, is brewing and stewing about the global warming crisis, and they’re addressing a very long list of failures by “the establishment.” Honestly, does it take children to figure this one out?

The Arctic News article is a haunting commentary on the current and future status of global warming, as follows: The article describes a powerful combination of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrogen oxide (NO2), and nitrous oxide (N2O) in combination with oceans and ice taking up ever-less planetary heat, threaten life on Earth within a decade.

According to the article:

So, how fast and by how much could temperatures rise? As oceans and ice are taking up ever less heat, rapid warming of the lower troposphere could occur very soon. When including the joint impact of all warming elements … abrupt climate change could result in a rise of as much as 18°C or 32.4°F by 2026. This could cause most life on Earth (including humans) to go extinct within years.2

That can’t possibly be true, or can it? The good news is nobody knows 100% for sure. But, here’s the rub: Some really smart well-educated scientists think it could happen, in fact, they are almost sure it will happen. According to the article, the setup for the worst-case scenario is falling into place much faster, and sooner, than ever thought possible. It’s highly recommended that interested parties read the entire article3

Based upon the article, civilization has been living on borrowed time, meaning, the oceans as well as glacial and ocean-bearing ice have been absorbing up to 95% of the planet’s heat, thus, minimizing atmospheric global warming and saving civilization from a bad heat stroke.

However, those two huge natural buffers are losing their mojo, kinda fast. Increasingly, extreme ocean stratification and heavy loss of ice minimize the effectiveness of those two crucial buffers to rapid global warming. Consequently, forcing the atmosphere to take up more and more, and way too much more, planetary heat, leading to bursts of global temperatures when least expected, the Custer’s Last Stand moment.

One of the primary causes of upcoming acceleration of global warming includes a very recent study about nitrous oxide, N2O, which is 300xs more potent than CO2 and has a lifetime of 120 years, found in huge quantities (67B tons) in Arctic permafrost, to wit:

The study by Jordan Wilkerson et al shows that nitrous oxide emissions from thawing Alaskan permafrost are about twelve times higher than previously assumed. A 2018 analysis (Guibiao Yang et al, “Magnitude and Pathways of Increased Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Uplands Following Permafrost Thaw“, Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society”) points at the danger of large nitrous oxide releases from thawing permafrost in Tibet. Even more nitrous oxide could be released from Antarctica.2

N2O, the third most important GHG, is an intensely effective molecule that impacts global warming 300xs more than CO2. That is an enormous, big time, impact. In that regard, the rate of current N2O emissions is extremely concerning. According to recent research, nitrous oxide is being released from melting permafrost “12xs higher than previously assumed.” That could be a sure-fire formula for helping to turbocharge global warming, and it lends supporting evidence to the underlying thesis of the Arctic News article.

So long as bad news is the order of the day, in addition to N2O as a powerful GHG (greenhouse gas), it is also an ozone depleting substance, uh-oh, which brings to mind shades of The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer of 1987, an international treaty designed to save civilization’s big fat ass.

For those who missed class back in the day (1987), the ozone (O3) layer of Earth’s stratosphere (10-30 miles above ground level) absorbs most of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, without which Homo sapiens would be toast!

Ozone is widely dispersed in the atmosphere, to an extreme; however, if it were all compressed into one thin layer, it would be the thickness of one penny. From a narrow viewpoint, as just explained, one penny of thickness of ozone molecules separates humanity from burning alive, and thus explains the Great Panic of the late 1980s when a Big Hole was discovered in the ozone layer as a result of too much human-generated chlorofluorocarbons (“CFCs”) Halons and Freons.

According to James Anderson (Harvard professor of atmospheric chemistry), co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on ozone depletion, speaking at the University of Chicago about global warming in 2018:

People have the misapprehension that we can recover from this state just by reducing carbon emissions, Anderson said in an appearance at the University of Chicago. Recovery is all but impossible, he argued, without a World War II-style transformation of industry—an acceleration of the effort to halt carbon pollution and remove it from the atmosphere, and a new effort to reflect sunlight away from the earth’s poles… This has do be done, Anderson added, within the next five years.4

Based upon that gauntlet as laid down by professor Anderson, only 4 years remains to get something done to “save us.”  But, sadly, there is no “WW-II style transformation of industry” under consideration, not even a preliminary fact-finding mission.

But, there is a very active ongoing Children’s Crusade prodding adults to do something… for a change, but as the children are quick to point out, they do not expect much help from the adults in the room based upon years of “doing nothing.”

Still, children skip classes to publicly protest the misbehavior of adults and occasionally, they give speeches, for example: At Katowice, Poland, COP-24 (Conference of the Parties) in December 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year old from Sweden at the time, addressed the UN secretary general António Guterres. Here’s her speech:

For 25 years countless people have stood in front of the UN climate conferences, asking our nation’s leaders to stop the emissions. But, clearly, this has not worked since the emissions just continue to rise.

So I will not ask them anything.

Instead, I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis.

Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us.

Because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness… So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.

We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.

  1. “Greenhouse Gas Levels Keep Accelerating”, Arctic News, May 1, 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Google: “Greenhouse Gas Levels Keep Accelerating”, Arctic News, May 1, 2019.
  4. Jeff McMahon, “We Have Five Years To Save Ourselves From Climate Change, Harvard Scientist Says”, Forbes, January 15, 2018.