Green Energy Bust: Boisvert Replies

Art by Roger Peet

This article is part of a debate on the German plan to eliminate nuclear energy. To read Will Boisvert’s initial article, >click here. To read Osha Gray Davidson’s response, click here.

Thanks to Osha Gray Davidson for commenting.

I’ll address Davidson’s specific objections below, but first I’ll consider the general thrust of his response. Like many greens, he gets swept up in the romance of the wind and solar boom without asking hard questions about whether it can accomplish its goal, which is not simply to build more renewables but to eliminate greenhouse emissions. Doubts about wind and solar’s weak and unreliable output, high costs, and continuing reliance on fossil fuels get waved off with vague references to smart grids and decentralization, without regard to feasibility and lingering climate impacts.

My article did ask a hard question about the green prescription of building wind and solar while abolishing nuclear: can it rapidly and comprehensively replace fossil-fueled power? The answer is no, and Germany’s example is proof of that. What the Energiewende will do—plans to do—is waste the next decade using low-carbon renewables to replace low-carbon nuclear instead of displacing fossil fuels.

In making that case I spotlighted the Energiewende’s lackluster performance in 2012, but I also discussed German energy policy and plans from 1999 to 2050. This context shows that the decades-long policy of displacing nuclear power with renewables has made no headway in decarbonizing the grid. Renewable energy has swelled—much of it from hydro, trash-burning, and biomass, which won’t scale much—but it is barely keeping up with nuclear shutdowns. As I noted, Germany’s low-carbon electricity—renewable and nuclear—was 36 percent of generation in 1999, 38.8 percent in 2010, and will be 38 percent in 2022: essentially no progress over 23 years. (And the political backlash against renewable costs puts the 2022 target in jeopardy.)

By contrast, France took just two decades to decarbonize 90 percent of its electricity by building nuclear. Sweden almost completely decarbonized its grid by 1990 with nuclear and hydro. And Germany? It’s aiming at a sluggish 80 percent decarbonization by 2050 with renewables. Germany’s success in erecting windmills and solar panels may be unmatched, as Davidson says, but its success in actually cleaning up its power supply is far outstripped by nations that prioritize nuclear power.

Davidson is right that Germany’s carbon emissions have declined since 1990 (though not since 2009). That’s mainly due to the collapse of carbon-heavy East German industry and to energy-efficiency gains, not to the wind and solar build-out. And yes, as Davidson says, Germany scores better than the United States on carbon emissions—but that’s a low bar. The more telling comparison of per-capita CO2 emissions (from 2011 data gathered by the European Commission) is between renewable Germany’s 9.9 tons and nuclear France’s 5.5 tons, 42 percent lower.

As for Davidson’s assertion that the “intermittency” of wind and solar does not compromise reliability, I don’t understand the reasoning behind it. He calls wind and solar “fairly predictable,” but they oscillate wildly with the unpredictable weather. And “predictability” is different from “reliability”: while we can predict with absolute certainty how much electricity Germany’s solar panels will generate tonight, we still can’t rely on them for any power then.

He further suggests that the weak anti-correlation of wind and solar makes them complement each other, yielding a steady combined output. That widely held green belief is a myth. Solar doesn’t exist at night and barely exists under cloud or in winter. Most of the time, “wind plus solar” output is just the chaotic wind output by itself. Wind does tend to blow more at night and in winter—except when it doesn’t. Solar power is a mediocre fit to a summer load curve in sunshine, but a terrible fit in overcast. And it’s no fit at all during winter evening peaks when photovoltaics have already gone to bed with the sun.

The broad seasonal complementarities of wind and solar that Davidson invokes are meaningless for reliability. The data I presented show that the two can slump in lockstep to less than 5 percent of their combined nameplate capacity for an entire winter week. Germany will therefore need enough dispatchable capacity to run the whole grid; that’s why it’s building coal plants as it retires nuclear plants.

Claudia Kemfert apparently disputes that conclusion, but with what evidence? Projections I cited forecast an increase in fossil-fueled capacity, and new coal plants are duly being commissioned. Kemfert’s imagined remedies—combined heat and power (CHP), smart grids—don’t address the problem of carbon dependency. CHP installations are just a somewhat more efficient way to burn fossil fuels and biomass—a blind alley if our goal is, as it should be, to stop burning stuff altogether. The much-hyped smart grid merely rations electricity; it doesn’t avert power shortfalls, it just spreads the pain. The facts demonstrate that wind and solar are too feeble and fickle to power a modern society without massive back-up from fossil fuels.

And Davidson is wrong to suggest that nuclear power is not flexible enough to be dispatchable. It’s true that most existing reactors ramp their output rather slowly—over hours, not days—but that’s because they were designed to run steadily at full power supplying baseload, an essential dispatchability service that wind and solar cannot provide. (Nuclear runs fine at lower power, too.) But load-following designs ramp quickly. The French EPR reactor changes output at a rate of 50-80 megawatts per minute—almost as nimble as a gas plant.

Davidson also rehashes the conceit that decentralized renewable generators “democratiz[e] energy.” This is nonsense. The Energiewende’s feed-in tariffs enable a small class of property owners to rake in guaranteed profits for building turbines and panels. Also fattening on the subsidies are the giant corporations—Siemens, General Electric, Chinese megaliths—that manufacture and install the equipment. Everybody wins except the vast majority of Germans who pay the regressive surcharges that fund the subsidies. The more panels and turbines, the higher the surcharges. Thus the collective provision of cheap electricity by “centralized” plants run by publicly regulated utilities gives way to a system of individualized micro-generation that’s two to four times more expensive. (Not that the utilities will go away: they will extract more subsidies to keep their indispensable centralized plants running as back-up.) This is all just another neoliberal swindle dressed up in populist drag; that the left falls for it shows how addled green ideology has become.

Finally, Davidson invokes the specter of Chernobyl to justify the Energiewende’s rejection of nuclear power. Fair enough—provided we distinguish Chernobyl’s real harms from its imagined ones, and put them in perspective. There were serious health effects from the Chernobyl spew, according to the authoritative study by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation: a few dozen deaths from radiation poisoning at the plant; 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer stemming from the authorities’ failure to warn peasants not to drink milk from cows who ate iodine-tainted grass (thyroid cancer is readily treatable, so only fifteen deaths resulted); a possible uptick in leukemia among “liquidators” receiving the highest doses. Otherwise, UNSCEAR found no clear evidence of additional risks from the spew, noting that “the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences.”

The thousands of deaths from Chernobyl that Davidson cites are not observed but conjectured by multiplying low radiation doses among millions of people by cancer risk factors extrapolated from high doses. UNSCEAR and other scientific bodies frown on that methodology. One reason is that the doses most civilians got are indeed trivial compared to normal background radiation. UNSCEAR pegs the average lifetime Chernobyl dose in contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia at 9 millisieverts. That’s as much extra radiation over a lifetime as you would get from spending just two years in Denver, with its high elevation and abundant radon. Chernobyl doses in Germany were tinier still—much too small to cause observable health problems. The effects of air pollution from coal-fired power plants are worse by orders of magnitude. In 2010 the Clean Air Task Force and the American Lung Association put the yearly toll from coal, just in the United States, at 13,000 deaths.

So maybe it’s not irrational for Germans to fear another Chernobyl, but it’s certainly irrational to use that pretext to replace nukes with coal plants, whose threat to public health dwarfs any posed by nuclear accidents. That policy, now being implemented, will kill many people—a tragic result of demonizing nuclear power while ignoring the limitations of renewables.

Click here to read Will Boisvert’s initial article. Click here to read Osha Gray Davidson’s response.


Will Boisvert is a writer who lives in New York.

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