Fortnight Editorial: Like Wind and Solar


Heated nuclear debate among climate activists critical to us all

Today in Fortnightly

We've all heard it said so many times, a variation of:

"By 2050 (or some other year in the future), a hundred percent (or some other high percent) of our electricity will come from renewables like wind and solar."

A key phrase is at the very end.  The words "like wind and solar" imply there's a list of renewables that'll dramatically ramp up their share of the electric generation mix, a list in which wind and solar are merely examples.  

Though the rest of the list is elusive.  What other types of renewables will join with wind and solar to become cornerstones of our supply?

Some analysts cite demand-side measures to fill out the list.  They point to encouraging developments in efficiency, conservation, demand response, and demand shifting.  Only the most optimistic observers, however, believe these will slash our society's use of electricity to below current levels.  If only because our population is growing as is our dependence on machines, appliances and devices.

Some analysts cite batteries or storage generally to fill out the list.  Storage can shift the generation by wind and solar to times when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.  But it doesn't produce megawatts.  Indeed, some stored megawatts are lost when applied to load due to imperfect efficiency.

This leaves wind and solar to produce the megawatts needed to displace the megawatts currently produced through combustion of coal.  Coal accounts for over three-quarters of the climate change gas emissions of the electricity sector.  Emissions aren't driven down unless wind, solar or something else takes some market share from coal.   

Together, wind and solar are but five percent of the generation mix at present.  Add in the contribution by the nineteenth century's renewable technology, hydro-electric, and the renewables list gets up to eleven percent of the generation mix.  The remaining eighty-nine percent is coming from fossil fuel technologies, and, well, nuclear.

No one expects that hydro will significantly increase its share of the mix.  The hydro share keeps falling.  

This presents a challenge for those wishing to accelerate the transformation from our fossil fuel based system to a renewable based system.  They must craft credible scenarios in which wind and solar shoot up in their production of electric energy, by an order of magnitude or nearly twice that, notwithstanding some constraining characteristics of these technologies, particularly land use.  

Wind and solar generation capacity have low rates of capacity utilization, a third to a fifth as great as fossil fuel technologies.  We must therefore install three to five times as many megawatts of renewables capacity (when compared with the megawatts of fossil fuel capacity being replaced), to produce an equivalent magnitude of megawatt-hours of electrical energy.   

A number of respected analysts including recognized leaders in the environmental community have pushed back.  Dr. Jim Hansen and others argue that a hundred percent or some other high percent of our electricity can't come from renewables in the foreseeable future, unless that list of renewables is expanded to include nuclear.  

These respected analysts and environmentalists believe that the threat of climate change is so large that time is of the essence.  They consequently urge increased nuclear development along with increased wind and solar development.  

If nuclear is admitted to the list, the market share of zero-emission renewables soars to thirty-one percent now and has a much greater shot at reaching fifty percent or more in coming decades.  This is especially the case if nuclear development becomes easier to license and afford, which is why many are working so vigorously on smaller scale nuclear and on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceeding to revisit the 1950's assumption about radiation risks.

The Commission's proceeding is almost as obscure as it is crucial to our efforts against climate change.  Radiation exposure standards governing the regulation of nuclear are based on the linear no-threshold model theorized sixty years ago with far less scientific knowledge.  Many of today's top scientists in the field believe in an alternative model, hormesis, which takes into account the adaption by cells.  

The bottom line, if hormesis is accepted by the Commission, radiation exposure standards are perhaps a thousand times too strict.  Nuclear development would become easier to license and afford. 

Dr. Hansen and Dr. Mark Jacobson have been battling over the necessity of including nuclear on the renewables list.  Among Dr. Jacobson's key arguments against nuclear is that it's too difficult to license and afford.  Nuclear therefore can't really help substitute for fossil fuel generation technologies, with zero-emission technologies like wind and solar. 

So on one side we have the argument that we can't light the world, let alone congested cities such as Tokyo and New York City, with just wind and solar.  That nuclear must be allowed to join the list.  

On the other side we have the opposing argument that nuclear is too undesirable and anyway can't develop fast enough given its license complications and unaffordability.  This leaves wind and solar, and what?  

One hopes Dr. Hansen is right.


Starting with the February issue, Public Utilities Fortnightly will greatly expand its forum for heated debates (no pun intended) between the leading thinkers on utility regulation and policy, continuing the tradition begun in 1929.

Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly
E-mail me:

Subscribe to Today from Public Utilities Fortnightly & This Fortnight from Public Utilities Fortnightly.