Sustainability and Global Warming Give Birth to Renewable Energy
The 1987 Brundtland Report from the United Nations defined sustainability:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Brundtland report implicitly imagined that all the world’s countries under the leadership of a pan-national elite would implement policies to support sustainability.
The idea that the world was running out of resources became very popular in the 20th century. Some books popularizing this idea were: Road to Survival (1948), Our Plundered Planet (1948), The Population Bomb (1963), Limits to Growth (1972). The Brundtland Report fits in with these previous books. The running out of resources meme was conclusively refuted by Julian Simon in the books The Ultimate Resource and The Ultimate Resource 2 (1981, 1996).
Protecting future generations is a faulty concept if carried too far. Predicting anything beyond 100 years in the future is hopelessly speculative but a handy tool for those who want to reform the present because they are dissatisfied with existing social and political arrangements. Academics are deeply dissatisfied with existing arrangements because they usually feel, correctly, that the larger society is ignoring them. Making doomsday predictions about the post 100-year future is a handy way for academics to exploit the sustainability idea. A religion of sustainability has swept through academia. The National Association of Scholars documented this in a report Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.
Predicting a future catastrophe is an excellent way to get attention. In the case of academics it can also bring money and status. Thus we have global warming or climate change allegedly supported by a scientific consensus. The reality is that the scientific consensus is not even a consensus of computers -- the different computer models of the atmosphere predict completely different futures. But they all, except for a model in Russia, predict catastrophe, because that is the point.
Renewable energy marries two fashionable ideas: sustainability and global warming. To be renewable, energy must be sustainable and not emit CO2. If we are realistic concerning our knowledge of the future, all popular sources of energy are sustainable, including fossil fuels. We are not going to run out of oil, natural gas, and coal in the next 100 years. The following sources of electricity pass both the 100-year sustainability test and the global warming CO2 test and thus should be considered renewable energy: wind, solar, nuclear, hydro as well as minor sources such as geothermal, ocean waves, biomass, and landfill methane. Although biomass and landfill methane emit CO2 when burned, it is presumed that the CO2 is recycled when new plants grow.
The organized promoters of renewable energy are the solar and wind industries with their environmental and academic allies. By threatening us with global warming and misrepresenting the value of solar and wind, they have managed to get munificent subsidies amounting to 80% or more. Neither solar nor wind replace traditional sources of energy because they are unpredictable, erratic sources of electricity. The production depends on the weather and in the case of solar, it doesn’t work at night. Due to their erratic nature wind and solar are supplements to traditional plants -- the plants that can be counted on. Replacing a coal or natural gas plant with wind or solar is an impossibility. There would be a blackout whenever the weather turned bad. The economic role of wind or solar is to reduce fuel consumption in the fossil fuel plants when the wind or solar happens to be producing electricity. The cost of the fuel for a gas or coal plant is about $20 per megawatt hour. Without subsidies and mandates, either solar or wind electricity would cost about $100 per megawatt hour. But the value of the electricity produced is only $20 per megawatt hour -- the value of the fuel saved. There is an 80% subsidy.
Environmental nonprofits need a constant parade of future dangers in order to keep the interest of members and donors. It is in their financial interest to warn of the danger of global warming and the danger of running out of resources. Further, they have a history of denouncing nuclear energy and the dams need for hydroelectric energy. Since they can’t support nuclear or hydro without contradicting their past campaigns, they support wind and solar.
The solar and wind advocates have engineered mandates forcing increasing purchases of their product in about 30 states. The state mandates, called renewable portfolio laws, include legal definitions of renewable energy. The beauty of these laws from the standpoint of the wind and solar people is that their competitors, nuclear and hydro, are outlawed for the purpose of meeting the renewable energy quotas. They can thank the influence of the environmental movement for that.
It is ironic that the most prominent advocates of global warming doomsday support nuclear energy. For example: James Hansen, Michael Shellenberger, and Stewart Brand. They know that wind and solar cannot effectively reduce global CO2 emissions because they are always backed up by fossil fuel plants and because they are impracticably expensive sources of CO2 reduction. Yet the power of money has overruled the ideological true believers and implemented a public policy that makes no sense.
The alleged danger of nuclear energy has been exaggerated by a scare campaign in the 1970s. The result is that the industry has been destroyed in the U.S. while it prospers in France and Asia. The 1986 very worst-case accident at the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union killed 40 people and created 2000 cases of easily preventable thyroid cancer due to the incompetence of the authorities in not distributing iodine pills quickly enough. That reactor was a collection of bad design decisions and careless operation. There was no containment vessel and the core was filed with graphite that burns like coal, being pure carbon. Other nuclear accidents since the invention of nuclear energy have not had serious consequences beyond the loss of valuable reactors, but have produced plenty of fake news hysteria. Like other industries, nuclear has dangers and benefits.
Nuclear has a bright future with many safety and cost improvements in the works. Unlike wind or solar it is a form of energy that produces electricity as needed. Nuclear fuel is much cheaper than fossil fuels. A single truckload of nuclear fuel has as much energy as three million tons of coal. A nuclear reactor does not have a smokestack emitting pollution.
Norman Rogers writes often on energy and the environment. He has websites here, here and here.