100 Percent Renewable: The Fight about Nuclear and Renewables

June 22, 2017

One thing that history shows is a 100 percent renewable and limitless heat source – the fight between those who think we can go to an all-sun-wind-water powered world, and those who think you can’t go carbon-free without nuclear energy.

Hostilities have broken out again.

Washington Post:

Scientists are engaged in an increasingly bitter and personal feud over how much power the United States can get from renewable sources, with a large group of researchers taking aim at a popular recent paper that claimed the country could move beyond fossil fuels entirely by 2055.

In 2015, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and his colleagues argued that between 2050 and 2055, the United States could be entirely powered by “clean” energy sources and “no natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed.”

That would be a massive shift from the current power makeup, as in 2016, the United States got only 6.5 percent of its electricity from hydropower, 5.6 percent from wind and 0.9 percent from solar. Nonetheless, the paper excited proponents of renewable energy, and has been embraced by Sen. Bernie Sanderscelebrity backers such actor Mark Ruffalo and many environmental groups.

But Jacobson’s idea was always contentious. And now, no fewer than 21 researchers have published a study in the influential Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (which also published Jacobson’s original study in 2015) arguing that the work “used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.”

In a simultaneous letter in the journal, meanwhile, Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues fire back that Clack’s critique is itself “riddled with errors” and “demonstrably false.”

Jacobson also argued that his critics are biased in favor of carbon-based fuels such as oil, gas and coal, as well as nuclear energy.

The fight between researchers comes as the Trump administration has signaled it does not believe the nation’s electric grid can support a quick and thorough shift toward renewable energy, as Jacobson suggests that it can. As soon as this week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to release a study of the grid that renewable energy advocates fear will be used to criticize wind and solar and how they affect the grid.

Example: In Cedar Rapids speech/rally, President advocates solar panels on his border wall (the one that Mexico is going to pay for, right?) saying, “That’s the only place where solar actually works.”

Mark Jacobson in Eco-Watch:

3. To Clack’s claim that we made modeling errors, this is absolutely false, as indicated in each specific published response. Most notably, Clack claims that we erred because our peak instantaneous hydropower load discharge rate exceeded our maximum possible annual-average discharge rate. But Clack is wrong because averages mathematically include values higher and lower than the average. Clack made other similar mathematical errors.

More importantly, it was made clear to Clack by email on Feb. 29, 2016, that turbines were assumed added to existing hydropower reservoirs to increase their peak instantaneous discharge rate without increasing their annual energy consumption or the number of dams, a solution not previously considered. It was also made clear that it was alternatively possible to increase the discharge rate of CSP, or concentrating solar power, rather than hydropower. Increasing hydropower’s peak instantaneous discharge rate was not a “modeling mistake” but an assumption.

Despite having full knowledge in writing, not only in 2016 but also weeks prior to the publication of their article, that this was an assumption, Clack and coauthors made the intentionally false claim in their paper that it was an error. The fact that Clack (twice) and all his coauthors (once) were informed in writing about a factual assumption, but intentionally mischaracterized it as a mistake, then further falsely pretended the numbers resulted in mathematical errors when they knew there were none, speaks to the integrity and motivation of the Clack et al. authors.

IEEE Spectrum:

Consider Clack’s coauthor Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Caldeira’s press release broadcasting their critique argues that removing carbon dioxide from the U.S. power supply is a massive job demanding the biggest tool box possible: “When you call a plumber to fix a leak, you want her to arrive with a full toolbox and not leave most of her tools at home,” says Caldeira.

The same document then abandons this technology-agnostic tone to call out nuclear energy and carbon capture as technologies that “solving the climate problem will depend on.” And Caldeira has appealed for deploying a new generation of nuclear reactors which he and other nuclear boosters such as former NASA scientist Jim Hansen say are needed because renewables “cannot scale up fast enough.”

They could be right. Then again, expert sources they cite, such as the International Energy Agency, have consistently underestimated renewable energy growth. And identical scale-up critiques have also been well argued against nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Jacobson makes some powerful arguments for walking away from those technologies in his PNAS papers. Nuclear liabilities cited by Jacobson include the threat of future Fukushima-like disasters, nuclear weapons proliferation facilitated by large-scale uranium enrichment, and the financial risks such as those that recently bankrupted Westinghouse. And, as he notes in his rebuttal, the International Panel on Climate Change has determined there is “robust evidence” and “high agreement” among experts validating these nuclear risks.

Jacobson’s rejection of CCS technology, meanwhile, may provide deeper insight on what makes him a magnet for academic attacks.

The main thing that soured Jacobson on CCS was his own pioneering work on the climate change impacts of black carbon, or soot. Fossil fuel plants that capture most of their CO2 still release soot that’s both a public health menace and an agent of climate change. In a 2001 paper in Nature on simulations of soot particles in the atmosphere, he controversially argued that soot in the air and on blackened snow and ice fields absorbs enough heat to make its climate impact second only to CO2. Sixteen years on, that view now enjoys strong support from the science community.

Rocky Mountain Institute:

In April, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced a 60-day study on electricity market design and grid reliability, meant to assess to what extent current market designs fail to adequately compensate “baseload” (i.e., coal- and nuclear-fired) power plants.

The memo commissioning the study presents as “fact” a curious claim: “baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid.” This notion has been thoroughly disproven by a diverse community of utilities, system operators, economists, and other experts that moved on from this topic years ago. To these practitioners, this premise seems as backward as if President Eisenhower, instead of launching the interstate highway system, had called for restudy of the virtues of horse-drawn carriages.

Today, the grid needs flexibility from diverse resources, not baseload power plants. Leveraging market forces to help us decide between options offers the best chance of avoiding the multitrillion-dollar mistake—and gigatons of carbon emissions—of blindly reinvesting in the past century’s technologies.

Modern Grids Don’t Need Baseload

Utilities in the U.S. have had at least a decade of comfortable experience operating grids with a declining share of baseload power relative to low-cost renewable energy. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, both reliability and renewable energy adoption levels are higher than in the U.S.; notably, the lights failed to go out in England when the UK grid recently ran for a full day without any coal power for the first time since 1882, foreshadowing its planned phaseout by 2025.

Some contextual info needed on Nuclear.  Proponents of nuclear always assure us they’re not talking about that bad, old nuclear power, but rather shiny, new, “next generation” nuclear. Which doesn’t exist yet, but…

Tyrants looking to build nuclear programs not picky about “next generation” nuclear plants.

ABC News:

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn made an unreported trip to the Middle East in 2015 to work on a U.S.-Russian venture in Saudi Arabia before he joined the Trump campaign, possibly having multiple contacts with Saudi officials that he failed to disclose when seeking renewal of his security clearances, according to Democrats who are seeking detailed records of Flynn’s travels.

“Most troubling of all, we have no record of Gen. Flynn identifying on his security clearance renewal application – or during his interview with security clearance investigators – even a single foreign government he had contact with,” wrote Reps. Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel, the ranking members of the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees, in a letter published on Monday.

The Democrats have demanded documents related to all of Flynn’s work on the Saudi nuclear venture, which involved not only a Russian-U.S. effort to construct the nuclear reactors but also a plan to have Arab countries repay the Russians with the purchase of “Russian military hardware,” the letter says, citing internal documents from companies involved in trying to solidify the deal.


Utility Dive:

    • The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) estimates the cost of Georgia Power’s Vogtle nuclear project will rise by $9 billion to $29 billion by the time it is completed, according to Reuters.
    • SACE, a clean energy group opposed to the nuclear project, says its estimate is based on a report made by utility consultants to the Georgia Public Service Commission.
    • The report uses a scenario in which the Vogtle project is further delayed by the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the project’s contractor, and comes online in 2022, three years behind schedule.

Westinghouse’s bankruptcy has complicated and imperiled Georgia Power’s Vogtle project. The nuclear plant expansion was already behind schedule and over budget when Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy court protection in March, setting off months of protracted negotiations over how to finish the plant.

Southern Co., Georgia Power’s corporate parent, earlier this month reached an agreement with Westinghouse to complete the project that includes payment of a $3.68 billion guarantee by Toshiba, Westinghouse’s parent company, to Southern.

But the project still faces major hurdles. A report filed by two ratepayer advocate consultants to the Georgia Public Service Commission found that completing the project is not economic and recommended that it abandoned.



31 Responses to “100 Percent Renewable: The Fight about Nuclear and Renewables”

  1. vierotchka Says:

    James Lovelock is on the nuclear power side – he has a considerable influence. I disagree, though, I am confident that a combination of wind, tide, solar, geothermal energy sources could suffice.


    • vierotchka Says:

      I discovered his stance on nuclear energy back in 2006 when I bought and read his book “The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back”.

      I have long been an admirer of James Lovelock, but his position on nuclear energy disturbs me a lot.

  2. vierotchka Says:

    Published on 4 Jan 2013
    James Lovelock, author, inventor and originator of Gaia Theory, has inspired generations of environmentalists to take care of the earth so it will take care of us. In this video prepared for the American Nuclear Society, he explains his support of nuclear energy in a simple question and answer format.

    • stephengn1 Says:

      How many years ago was this interview. Solar has changed greatly in just the last few years. Even as they both become cheaper, solar and storage continue to improve and a phenomenal rate that nuclear energy technological advancement simply cannot match.

      • vierotchka Says:

        Apparently it is from 2013.

        • stephengn1 Says:

          It may have been published in 2013, but I Kind of doubt The interview was given that year. In 2013 Lovelock would have been 92. My job is helping out people who are very old. The vast majority of 92-year-old men are not in great shape. He looks like might be in his early to mid-80s here, which would put the original interview at right around 2004 – 2005

  3. Jim Torson Says:

    As is often the case, Joe Romm provides some good perspective:

    Dear scientists: Stop bickering about a 100% renewable power grid and start making it happen

    • J4Zonian Says:

      It certainly is ridiculous for people in the US to be arguing 80% vs 100% RE grids now, while we’re at 17% (along with Russia and Australia), most of which is hydro. Anything that slows us down at the beginning is especially bad; as Romm has also pointed out, it’s the area under the curve that matters. IOW, reducing emissions now will lead to much more cumulative savings in CO2e than the same reductions later. If we need to continue this ridiculous debate let’s continue as we invest in a rapid and massive global climate mobilization, devoting at least 10% of the world’s resources to building the energy system of the 21st century over the next 8 year–a system more and more dominated by clean safe renewables, efficiency and wiser lives.

    • mboli Says:

      Thanks for posting the link to Romm’s essay. The main take-away is that both sets of experts published papers finding it could be feasible to (mostly) decarbonize the power grid in reasonable time scale. Neither the NYT and WaPo articles does much justice to the bigger context. They emphasize that expert team A is attacking expert team B’s paper, but don’t mention that team A came up with similar-enough conclusions themselves.

      If Joseph Romm is correct, this kerfuffle turns out to be a tempest in a teapot.

  4. Kaj Luukko Says:

    “I had largely ignored the papers arguing that doing all with renewables was possible at negative costs because they struck me as obviously incorrect,” said David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, a co-author of the new critique of Professor Jacobson’s work. “But when policy makers started using this paper for scientific support, I thought, ‘this paper is dangerous.’”

  5. Bill Lorch Says:

    I put my solar instillation in operation on Sept 20 ’10 ! by 12/30 /13 the system was paid for,Now its June of 17 an i have been making $$’every month since. On top of that i get 500$’s a quarter for the panels just sitting there and making energy from carbon solutions group.Now that is my experience with solar . So believe what you wish to i Know and have the receipts to prove it

  6. https://theconversation.com/are-solar-and-wind-really-killing-coal-nuclear-and-grid-reliability-76741

    Are solar and wind really killing coal, nuclear and grid reliability?
    May 12, 2017 11.20am AEST

    U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in April requested a study to assess the effect of renewable energy policies on nuclear and coal-fired power plants.

    Some energy analysts responded with confusion, as the subject has been extensively studied by grid operators and the Department of Energy’s own national labs. Others were more critical, saying the intent of the review is to favor the use of nuclear and coal over renewable sources.

    So, are wind and solar killing coal and nuclear? Yes, but not by themselves and not for the reasons most people think. Are wind and solar killing grid reliability? No, not where the grid’s technology and regulations have been modernized. In those places, overall grid operation has improved, not worsened.

    In the end, Secretary Perry has posed good questions. Thankfully, because of lessons learned while he was governor of Texas, we already have answers: despite concerns to the contrary, incorporating wind and solar into the grid along with fast-ramping natural gas, smart market designs and integrated load control systems will lead to a cleaner, cheaper, more reliable grid.

  7. Canman Says:

    One issue with renewables that doesn’t get a lot of attention, is their dependence on rare earth elements. Extracting them can be a very dirty business and is done in places like Mongolia. It’s not clear whether this can be cleanly scaled up.

    Blair King has a couple of blog posts on this:



  8. indy222 Says:

    There’s one big advantage to nuclear that’s not been mentioned – AREA! The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant puts out the equivalent of about 33 square miles of solar panels, after including the load factor. That’s a lot of otherwise useful or beautiful natureal land, now covered with panels. I hope next-generation nuclear can replace solar some day, but we need rapid transformation now, and next-gen nuclear doesn’t appear to be able to do that, especially at costs comparable to solar PV and wind.

    • stephengn1 Says:

      How much is the lack of land needed by nuclear for Energy production negated by land that has been and will continue to be contaminated by nuclear waste?

      Yes, solar uses a lot of space, but designed correctly that can be brought to a minimum. Solar also serves double and even triple duty.

      –Solar driveways, walkways and canopies provide shade.
      –Solar windows filter sunlight
      –Rooftop solar keeps homes cooler reducing energy costs further by reducing the need for AC

      It should also be noted that there is nothing but underutilized space on the surface of our worlds oceans. If we were to robotically install solar on the surface of the world’s ocean “deserts” and tend to these enormous patches of energy production with solar powered robotics, there would be little to no disruption of human activity and we’d get all the power we need it

    • Jim Torson Says:

      Ha, ha, ha! This is an article from a group founded by notorious nuclear promoter/propagandist Michael Shellenberger. Using volume or mass to compare hazards from nuclear waste and solar waste is ridiculous. This just shows how desperate the nuclear promoters are getting.

    • Jim Torson Says:

      After I stopped laughing about this ridiculous article from Shellenberger’s nuclear front group, I realized some more explanation might be useful.

      The problem with nuclear waste (aka “spent” fuel) is not the volume or the mass. The problem is that it is so extremely radioactive that it defies ordinary comprehension.

      Awhile ago there was a Nova program about the new Chernobyl arch. I had suggested that a climate scientist friend watch this. He was out of town, so his son recorded it for him and he recently watched it. As a followup, I sent him links to some Nuclear Hotseat podcast episodes on Chernobyl along with these comments:


      Here is more on Chernobyl.  In particular, I would suggest starting with Nuclear Hotseat #284.  The interview (which starts about 16 minutes into the podcast) discusses how the new arch is not the end of dealing with Chernobyl – it’s just the beginning of the next phase.

      A big problem with these nuclear things is that the hazard really is largely beyond comprehension.  When you pull out the so-called “spent” fuel rods from a reactor, they are intensely radioactive.  ***INTENSELY*** radioactive.  In the 1970s I was working to oppose the building in Virginia of the North Anna nuclear plant directly on top of a geologic fault, which goes right through the excavation for the reactors.  While it was under construction, I went on a tour of the partially completed plant.  The tour was conducted by a representative of the company building the plant.  This was not some wild-eyed Greenpeace fanatic or something.  He explained that if a bundle of spent fuel rods was sitting in a field and you started walking to it, you would not get to the bundle.  You would be dead from the radiation exposure before you could get to it.  This hazard is so extreme that it really is largely beyond ordinary comprehension.  It leaves you thinking, “This can’t possibly be correct.”  However, it is correct.  Down through the years, I have have seen it described in similar ways by people I consider to be highly credible.  E.g., one description said that if you rode a motorcycle past the “spent” fuel bundle, you would receive a lethal dose of radiation.

      I hope you read this blog post about an article in Science magazine (Union of Concerned Scientists and Princeton Univ.) that I sent awhile ago:

      UCS in Science: The NRC Must Act to Reduce the Dangers of Spent Fuel Pool Fires at Nuclear Plants

      This explains that a spent fuel fire could heavily contaminate 30,000 square miles and require relocation of nearly 20 million people.  The financial impact could be $2 trillion.  As I said, it really is beyond ordinary comprehension.

    • Jim Torson Says:

      That ridiculous article from Shellenberger’s front group mentioned stacking up the nuclear waste on a football field. What a hoot! Here’s what Robert Alvarez has said about that:

      The nuclear industry often claims that all the spent nuclear fuel in the U.S. would cover a football field ten feet deep.

      There’s a bit of problem with this assertion. If it were possible to squeeze the single largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet (12 to 14 billion curies) onto a football field, this would unleash nuclear chain reactions involving enough plutonium to fuel about 150,000 nuclear weapons and also ignite a radiological fire that would create severe contamination — making Chernobyl and Fukushima look like pimples on a pumpkin. Thousands, if not millions, of people hundreds of miles away would receive lethal doses.

      Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in U.S. spent fuel is cesium-137. With a half-life of 30 years, Cs-137 gives off potentially hazardous external penetrating radiation. Once in the environment it can remain there for hundreds of years where it accumulates in the human food chain and other biota.

      For the complete article this was in, see:

      America’s Nuclear Spent-Fuel Time Bombs

    • Jim Torson Says:

      Information about Robert Alvarez’s experience and links to some of his articles is here on the Institute for Policy Studies website:


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