Commentary: A Global Renewable Energy Power Play (November, 2017)

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Here’s an interesting insight into the arcane world of global renewable energy politics, based on the October 30 column in Forbes by widely-read energy blogger Rod Adams.

Last week the annual “Conference of Parties” (COP23), the consultative body for the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, convened in Bonn, Germany.  For the past eight years a business-oriented Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF) has been held alongside the COP, cosponsored by the U.S.-led advocacy group Climate Action and the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

This year Forum accepted the World Nuclear Association as a Gold Sponsor. But then UNEP demanded that the Forum reject any participation by the nuclear trade association. Its spokesman said “we prioritise the renewables revolution, such as wind and solar energy…Our work on the nuclear sector is limited.”

It’s limited all right – to zero.

Adams reports that among the gold-level sponsors that SIF accepted were BMW and Toyota, whose profits come from fossil fuel burning engines, and Orstead, a utility that operates coal-fired power stations. Why did UNEP not veto those?

The answer seems to be that the auto manufacturers and utility acknowledge that their use of petroleum and coal is destroying the planet – UNEP’s mantra – and they’re seeking absolution for their guilt. And nuclear? The nuclear industry is proud that it emits virtually no carbon dioxide – no guilt, and no absolution needed.

Beneath this theological level, UNEP (along with the American climate change organizations) is passionately anti-nuclear. Why? Because the prospect of clean, safe, cheap 21st century nuclear electricity not only threatens to displace coal and petroleum, which is fine with the activists, but it also threatens to put an end to the subsidy-driven wind and solar carnival, which is not.

Adams quotes Kirsty Gogan, global director of Energy for Humanity, as saying “by blocking nuclear from the conversation, and insisting on a conditional, renewables-only, response to climate change, UNEP have displayed a dangerous ideological agenda that undermines its own credibility.”

But there are some climate change warriors who urge greater reliance on nuclear power. The most prominent is renowned climatologist Dr. James Hansen, the now-retired head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He is the man who made “global warming”, later rechristened “climate change”, a global issue, in his 1988 testimony before a Senate Committee including his soon-to-be most ardent disciple, Al Gore.

Hansen is so passionate a believer in fossil-fuel-caused climate change that he has been arrested in protests against mountaintop coal mining and the Keystone pipeline. But he understands that attempting to maintain an acceptable level of civilization by relying on activist-approved renewables is, to use his term, “crazy”.

In 2013 Hansen co-authored an open letter to policy makers, which stated that “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.” In a Scientific American report (12/4/15) Hansen said “Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change .The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won’t use all the tools [such as nuclear energy] to solve the problem is crazy.”

Seven years prior to that, on a website titled “Tell the Truth to Obama”, Hansen said “The [$25 billion Federal nuclear waste disposal] fund should be used to develop fast reactors that eat nuclear waste and thorium reactors to prevent the creation of new long-lived nuclear waste… Accelerated development of fast and thorium reactors will allow the US to fulfill its obligations to dispose of the nuclear waste, and open up a source of carbon-free energy that can last centuries, even millennia.”

Here are three takeaways:

First, intermittent, diffuse, and non-dispatchable wind and solar electricity can be valuable in certain remote locations, and even for homesteads, but it simply can’t be relied upon to power a modern electric grid – and in fact, it’s already causing cause serious grid stability problems. Nuclear stations deliver steady, safe, reliable dispatchable baseload power to the grid, accompanied by almost no greenhouse gas emissions (mainly from trucks and equipment used in mining uranium ore.)

Second, we are long overdue to knock down the daunting regulatory barriers to licensing and building the Generation 4 nuclear plants that James Hansen urgently recommends.

Third, climate change activists who irrationally oppose even the discussion of anything nuclear deserve to be disregarded.

In addition, the Trump administration should reduce the U.S. contribution to the UN Environment Program, and let the renewable-industrial complex pick up the slack.

-  John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen institute (www.ethanallen.org).

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