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The Climate Crisis Requires Us to Use All the Tools We Have

The Solutions Project and Stanford professor Mark Jacobson caused a huge stir recently with their claim that the United States and the world could be both cheaply and reliably powered by 100 percent renewables by mid-century. A subsequent article in the same journal by a distinguished group of experts, including other Stanford professors, rebuts these claims. In the US case, the 100 percent renewable scenario depended heavily on huge increases in hydropower that do not appear to be feasible. Because hydropower can balance out the variability of wind and solar power, such as by opening up more water flow at night when solar cells are offline, this assumption of vastly increased hydropower propped up the whole scenario. It doesn’t add up. Jacobson’s response to his critics was to sue them and the National Academy of Sciences in court for $10 million—an extremely irregular way to address an academic dispute in a scientific journal. (He later dropped the lawsuit, leaving legal costs for the defendants to pay and a chilling effect on the research community.)

What does add up is an important and growing role for hydro, wind, and solar power in the coming decades. The faster these energy sources are deployed, the easier will be the job of rapidly decarbonizing. Partnered with nuclear power in a “nuables” solution, they are a key part of fixing climate change.

The mistake is thinking that those steps in the right direction will add up and solve climate change alone. They won’t. Bolstering renewables to reach 50 percent of the world’s growing electricity production would be a great step in the coming decades. But “100 percent renewables” is a slogan that distracts from the work at hand, which is the decarbonization of the world.

An example of this distraction factor is the Climate Simulator published on The New York Times website in 2017. It brilliantly steps the reader through the math to show the need for immediate, massive decreases in CO2 emissions if the world is to stay within limits. However, the graphic then claims (without any evidence) that, good news, such cuts “may be possible” with wind, solar power, and energy efficiency. These solutions, however, cannot achieve precisely what the model itself shows to be necessary—a rapid decrease in emissions. A more useful simulator would go on to let the reader try out various technologies, to see that without a major expansion of nuclear power, the targets simply cannot be met.

Beyond just distracting from solutions that add up, the 100 percent renewables idea has been used repeatedly as a rationale to shut down existing zero-carbon nuclear power plants with the idea that they can be “replaced” with renewables. But as we build out renewables, we absolutely must use them to replace fossil fuels, not carbon-free nuclear power. After the last fossil power plant closes, and we have only nuclear power and renewables, then we could talk about whether to replace the nuclear power capacity with renewables if it proved practical and beneficial. This is what some Swedes hope to do in a few decades, although the published science shows that it would actually be better environmentally and economically to keep Sweden’s nuclear power plants running.

One version of the all-​renewables argument holds that communities can use renewables to break free of the electrical grid altogether. This approach has been tried recently for a small village in southern Sweden. A German utility powered the village with a local microgrid supplied with locally produced solar and wind electricity, without reliance on the national electricity grid. But in practice, the system needed to draw more than 80 percent of its electricity supply from the national grid. The utility bluntly noted, “If you look at this when it’s very cold outside, the wind is rarely blowing and it’s also dark, so the solar cells are not producing. That’s the way it is, and everyone knows that.” For each unit of electricity the village installation does manage to produce from its own sources—which include solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, and a biodiesel backup generator—the carbon emissions are higher than for electricity imported from the national grid.

After the last fossil power plant closes, and we have only nuclear power and renewables, then we could talk about whether to replace the nuclear power capacity with renewables if it proved practical and beneficial.

The 2017 book and website Drawdown lists 80 “solutions” that move in the right direction, casting them as “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.” The solutions range from obvious ones such as rooftop solar panels to indirect ones such as expanding girls’ education, as well as future technologies that do not yet exist, such as artificial leaves and hydrogen-boron fusion. Adding up the solutions in a “plausible scenario,” which they describe as “reasonable yet optimistic,” the authors find the solutions actually would not achieve the needed drawdown.

One of the Drawdown solutions is nuclear power (number 20 on the list of 80), which the authors assume will grow by 2030 and still provide 12 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050. Given the need to “do everything we can,” as the authors put it, one might expect strong support for expanding nuclear power’s role. Instead, the editor has added a special “Editor’s Note” unique to the nuclear power solution, stating that while almost all the other solutions are “no‑regrets” actions with many beneficial effects, nuclear power is a “regrets solution” because of the negative effects. He lists 14 names of places where nuclear power problems have occurred, such as “Browns Ferry”—evidently a reference to a 1975 fire that did not cause a meltdown, human casualties, or release of radiation. What he does not claim is that we can solve climate change without this “regrets solution.”

The Drawdown approach is far more comprehensive and sophisticated than a simple “all we need is 100 percent renewables” line. At the same time, it suffers from a similar problem, which is to focus on steps that move in the right direction without examining what feasible measures can actually solve the problem of climate change.

The promotion of 100 percent renewables also contributes to the skewing of public opinion away from nuclear power. After a well-​funded, decades-​long global fear campaign against nuclear power, people are anxious about it, and renewables seem to offer a comfortable alternative to combat climate change without confronting those anxieties. In China and India, a 2015 public opinion poll shows that about half the public supports the development of more renewables, about a quarter supports the expansion of fossil fuels, and less than 10 percent supports the expansion of nuclear power. In the West, too, publics support clean, cool options but do not evaluate whether they actually solve the problem.

When a company, university, or town declares that it has achieved “100 percent renewable” electricity, that statement is not true. It should say net power of 100 percent, with a lot of extra clean energy sold to the grid part of the time (often when it’s least needed) and a lot of dirty energy of equivalent amount bought from the grid at other times. As we have seen, this is a far cry from not needing dirty energy. True reliance on 100 percent renewables would mean disconnecting from the grid without relying on backup fossil-​fueled generators. Almost nobody has done this because it is not practical or affordable. And currently it is no more practical for a country than for a company.

Renewables are an important part of the solution to climate change. Costs for wind power and, especially, solar power are dropping dramatically in recent years. In places where they can be feasibly and economically added to the grid, they can help displace fossil fuels. (This is far more practical when they are a small part of the total on the grid. For example, it makes more sense to focus on adding renewables in China, where three-​quarters of the electricity comes from coal and only about 5 percent from wind and solar, than in Germany and California, where renewables already provide about a third of electricity.) So, by all means, let’s build renewables, but let’s keep our attention focused on what needs to be done in the next ten to twenty years to rapidly decarbonize the world and not fall into the delusion that 100 percent renewables is the solution.


Excerpt adapted from A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs, a division of the Hachette Book Group.

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