Can wind and solar save the planet?

We’re told that, to save the planet from global warming we need to transition from coal and gas to wind and solar.

The rhetoric tends to be dogmatic and renewables advocates never seem to concede a point, lest it be seen to undermine their broader demands.

Which is why it came as a surprise recently to see an environmental activist admit he was wrong about renewables.

Now, this isn’t just any environmental activist. It’s Michael Shellenberger, cofounder of Breakthrough Institute and founder of Environmental Progress.

Shellenberger delivered a TEDx talk recently titled “Why renewables can’t save the planet”.

And given it was largely thanks to Shellenberger’s lobbying efforts that Obama committed $150 billion to renewables back in 2007, it was fascinating to hear about his transition from a staunch ‘belief’ in renewables to a pragmatic understanding of the physics of energy.

He believed, like many, that renewables were the answer to eliminating CO2 from electricity production. Unfortunately, while wind and sunlight are both free ‘fuels’, they are diffuse and unreliable. As a result the infrastructure to ‘catch’, convert, store and transmit is expensive.

It took $150 billion and several years for him to realise the physical limitations of wind and solar, but he eventually got there.

Why renewables can’t save the planet | Michael Shellenberger | TEDx Danubia

To his credit, he’s followed the data and conceded not just that renewables can’t solve the problem, but that they wreak havoc on the environment in other ways:

  • Mining of raw materials, especially rare earths, is required to make solar panels and components for wind turbines
  • Disposal of solar panels is looming as a toxic waste management and health issue
  • Encroachment of large solar farms on natural habitat
  • Killing of endangered birds and bats by wind turbines

If eliminating CO2 from electricity production without killing endangered species or encroaching on vast swathes of nature is preferred, then we’re limited to hydro, geothermal and wave power. Hydro power and geothermal aren’t universal solutions as both are geography-dependant. Hydro also requires the flooding of natural habitats. Wave power is very expensive and can similarly encroach on marine habitats.

His solution is nuclear.

He makes great use of a visual aid, holding up a Rubik Cube and explaining how a chunk of uranium of the same size can provide enough energy to power someones entire life.

No argument there. Nuclear is energy-dense. Even its waste is manageable, taking up little space.

The problem is, not every country has access to nuclear power due to cost, technical ability and tight control by those nations that fear ‘rogue’ states may develop nuclear weapons.

As a consequence, nuclear is not an option for most countries and coal remains the most affordable, scalable and reliable method of power generation.

Ideally, nuclear fusion will replace the current nuclear fission process, delivering nuclear power with no waste or CO2. But that’s still a way off.

In the meantime, as the realisation that wind and solar can’t power a modern economy grows, coal will remain part of the mix. And where brown coal plays a part of the energy mix, we’ll be on hand to reduce CO2 emissions, bridging the gap between todays use of resources and tomorrows zero emission future.