Rachel Pritzker – TRANSCRIPT
So, quick question: is energy use good or bad? This is what’s considered modern energy access in the developing world: enough to power a fan, two light bulbs and a radio, for just a few hours a day. What would your life be like with that little energy? We’re all here today because we have access to a lot more energy than that.
From a human perspective, energy use is good It allows us to live healthy, secure, modern lives. But from an environmental perspective, I think we could all agree that the way we generate energy today is pretty bad. There are a lot of negative consequences: air pollution, damage to ecosystems, and, most daunting of all, climate change. One of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century is how to move billions of people in the developing world out of poverty, without catastrophically warming the planet.
It sounds impossible, right? I don’t think so. Not only is there reason to hope, but I believe it is possible, just not in the ways most of us might think. JFK once said: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” So, ten years ago, I started a foundation to support new ideas for addressing some of the world’s key challenges, namely climate change and global poverty.
Working with some of the world’s foremost experts, I learned how inextricably linked these issues are. Once I understood this, I realized that most of the comfortable truths I had believed about what it would take to power a planet were actually myths, myths. I needed to question. What you might not guess about me is that I was raised on a goat farm in Wisconsin, by hippie parents who met on a commune. So, we built our cabin and grew all our own vegetables, and to this day, my parents speak proudly of how we cooked and heated with a wood stove. We believed that modern high-energy living was ruining the planet and that we’d all be better off living more like our ancestors did.
While my family lived this way voluntarily, for as many as 2 billion people on the planet today without access to electricity, this lifestyle is not a choice and it can be really, really difficult I saw this first-hand when I studied and traveled in rural Latin America after college. While there, I met women like Silvia and her family in the Peruvian Amazon. Like everyone in the area, they relied on wood for energy, which she and her daughters had to gather and haul. They cooked over open fires, breathing smoke for many hours a day.
Time they might have spent on their education or on starting a business was instead devoted to manual labor. We all want to end poverty but we don’t seem to understand the ways in which energy is necessary for doing so. Reliable 24/7 power is essential for hospitals, schools, businesses and entire cities to thrive. So, most estimates show that energy use will double or even triple in the coming century, as people in the developing world strive for the same energy-rich lives that you and I enjoy. And we could help make that a reality for them without overheating the planet.
But it’s only going to work if we’re able to generate clean, cheap and reliable energy across the world I was raised to believe that we could power the planet with renewables and energy efficiency alone. But the deeper I looked, the less convinced I became. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, have experienced exponential growth due to massive public support and trillions of dollars invested, but, despite this rate of growth, wind and solar still make up less than 3% of the global energy mix. So where does the majority of our energy still come from? A four-letter word you can’t say on television: coal.
So, even though it’s incredibly bad for the planet and for our health, it’s cheap, it’s scalable, and unfortunately, it’s on the rise. More than 2,000 coal plants are currently being planned worldwide. Now, you might be thinking that, with continued innovation, solar and wind will soon replacing coal and other fossil fuels in large quantities, but here’s the fundamental challenge: there’s no solar energy when the sun isn’t shining, and there’s no wind power when the wind isn’t blowing, and sometimes, due to the seasonal fluctuations, they provide very little power at all for weeks. We don’t yet have the ability to store energy during off hours on any meaningful scale. In other words, wind and solar are inherently unreliable.
And reliability is really important when it comes to energy. We rightfully expect the lights to come on when we flip the switch, or the electricity to work when we end up in a hospital. So, you may have heard that Germany is powered mostly by renewable energy, but the reality is Germany still gets more than half its energy from fossil fuels, and, as Germany has tried to scale up wind and solar, their electricity rates have tripled Germany may be able to afford really expensive energy, but do you know who can’t? Countries like India, Kenya and Ghana, that are trying to rapidly move large populations out of poverty. So, while wind and solar have a place in the global energy mix, it’s highly unlikely these technologies will ever fully power the modern world, and almost definitely not in a time frame that matters for addressing climate change.
If we’re going to address climate change and give people like Silvia a shot at a better life, it’s imperative that we dramatically scale up the technologies uniquely suited for this purpose. The good news is there are technologies that bring us much closer to a realistic solution. The bad news is you might not like the sound of them I know I didn’t. Ironically, one of the most controversial of these technologies has been around for decades.
Nuclear power. Before you all have a meltdown, let me tell you where I’m coming from. For most of my life, I was vehemently anti-nuclear. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of holding on to my mom’s bell-bottoms at an anti-nuclear rally. But the deeper I looked at what it’ll actually take to power the world the more I was forced to take a second look.
And what I found surprised me. Nuclear provides a tenth of all global energy and it also provides about a third of all carbon-free power. Nuclear also provides a lot of reliable energy. A piece of uranium about the size of my fist could provide all the energy I would need for the rest of my life. Rain or shine, day or night, nuclear is always on, and for all our fears about nuclear energy, it’s in fact dramatically safer than fossil fuels.
In the entire history of commercial nuclear power, less than 5,000 people have died or are even expected to die prematurely from radiation exposure. In contrast, nearly 20,000 people die every day from air pollution, much of that from burning fossil fuels and wood for energy. While unreliable energy sources, such as wind and solar, probably can’t power our modern society, we know that nuclear can, perfectly, up to today. French currently gets 75% of its power from nuclear, and has some of lowest energy prices and emissions in the modern world. France’s success is even more dramatic considering they’ve done it using really outdated nuclear technologies.
What will happen when we really begin to innovate? Dozens of promising advanced nuclear designs are beginning to answer this question. These designs cannot melt down, and most of them can actually run on existing nuclear waste. And there’s enough nuclear waste in the world today to power the planet for the next 70 years. Prototypes of these designs are up and running already in Russia, China and India. Here in the US, innovative new start-ups backed by investors like Bill Gates and Peter Thiel are working on major nuclear energy breakthroughs to help this reliable power be even cleaner and cheaper.
You can imagine the interesting dinner conversation with my family when I first shared my new views on nuclear. But once I started re-examining my assumptions, I began to wonder what else I was missing which is how I came to this shocking fact: nothing has closed coal plants or reduced emissions faster in the US than natural gas. Compared to burning wood, diesel or coal, it’s a much better option, especially in developing countries, in parts of the world like Africa, that have huge gas reserves. And although it’s fossil fuel, it emits half the carbon of coal and is far less polluting in general. Plus, it’s cheap and it can be deployed rapidly.
For those who worry about the extracting and burning of the natural gas, here’s a dirty little secret: wind and solar rely on natural gas In much of the world, it’s what provides power during the long periods of time when wind and solar are offline. So it’s in our best interest to make sure these technologies are well regulated and running as cleanly as possible, but even with nuclear and natural gas, and wind and solar, coal isn’t going away anytime soon. Each time a new coal plant goes online, it’s likely to remain online for the next 40 or 50 years. Once we accept this reality, we’ll realize how crucial it is that we continue to explore ways to make carbon-capture technologies more cost-effective, so we can reduce the emissions of burning fossil fuels.
But ultimately, it isn’t about any individual technology. These are all just a means to an end If we want to address the dual challenges of climate change and global poverty, it’s imperative that we step back form the myths we’re steeped in so we can see these challenges anew, which, I can tell you from personal experience, is not easy. Leaving my old beliefs behind has meant losing friends and colleagues, and even created rifts in my family. So, for me, the price has been high.
In fact, I’m pretty sure my mom thinks I’ve gone to the dark side. But I believe we have a moral obligation, to people across the world, to wrestle with our own discomfort so we can see these issues with clear eyes because we don’t have to leave anyone behind. We really can create a world in which everyone can enjoy healthy, prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. So let me ask you again: is energy use good or bad? If you have more questions now than you did 15 minutes ago, welcome to the club, but don’t just take my word for any of this. Go find out for yourself.
Letting go of our myths may be difficult, but only by doing so will we find a real reason to hope. Thank you.