Why Renewables Can’t Save The Planet: Michael Shellenberger (Full Transcript)

Michael Shellenberger at TEDxDanubia

In this talk at TEDxDanubia, energy expert, Michael Shellenberger explains why solar and wind farms require so much land for mining and energy production, and an alternative path to saving both the climate and the natural environment.

Michael Shellenberger is an American author, environmental policy writer, cofounder of Breakthrough Institute and founder of Environmental Progress.

Michael Shellenberger – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Thank you very much.

When I was a boy, my parents would sometimes take me camping in California. We would camp in the beaches, in the forests, in the deserts.

Some people think the deserts are empty of life, but my parents taught me to see the wildlife all around us, the hawks, the eagles, the tortoises.

One time when we were setting up camp, we found a baby scorpion with its stinger out, and I remember thinking how cool it was that something could be both so cute and also so dangerous.

After college, I moved to California, and I started working on a number of environmental campaigns. I got involved in helping to save the state’s last ancient redwood forest and blocking a proposed radioactive waste repository set for the desert.

Shortly after I turned 30, I decided I wanted to dedicate a significant amount of my life to solving climate change. I was worried that global warming would end up destroying many of the natural environments that people had worked so hard to protect.

I thought the technical solutions were pretty straightforward – solar panels on every roof, electric car in the driveway – that the main obstacles were political. And so I helped to organize a coalition of the country’s biggest labor unions and biggest environmental groups.

Our proposal was for a $300 billion investment in renewables. And the idea was not only would we prevent climate change, but we would also create millions of new jobs in a very fast-growing high-tech sector.

Our efforts really paid off in 2007, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama embraced our vision. And between 2009 and 2015, the US invested $150 billion in renewables and other kinds of clean tech. But right away, we started to encounter some problems.

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So first of all, the electricity from solar rooftops ends up costing about twice as much as the electricity from solar farms. And both solar farms and wind farms require covering a pretty significant amount of land with solar panels and wind turbines and also building very big transmission lines to bring all that electricity from the countryside into the city.

Both of those things were often very strongly resisted by local communities, as well as by conservation biologists who were concerned about the impacts on wild-bird species and other animals.

Now, there was a lot of other people working on technical solutions at the time. One of the big challenges, of course, is the intermittency of solar and wind. They only generate electricity about 10% to 30% of the time during most of year.

But some of the solutions being proposed were to convert hydroelectric dams into gigantic batteries. The idea was that when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing, you would pump the water uphill, store it for later, and then when you needed electricity, run it over the turbines.

In terms of wildlife, some of these problems just didn’t seem like a significant concern. So when I learned that house cats kill billions of birds every year, it put into perspective the hundreds of thousands of birds that are killed by wind turbines. It basically seemed to me at the time that most, if not all, of the problems of scaling up solar and wind could be solved through more technological innovation.

But as the years went by, these problems persisted and, in many cases, grew worse. So California is a state that’s really committed to renewable energy, but we still haven’t converted many of our hydroelectric dams into big batteries.

Some of the problems are just geographic; it’s just you have to have a very particular kind of formation to be able to do that, and even in those cases, it’s quite expensive to make those conversions.

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Other challenges are just that there’s other uses for water, like irrigation, and maybe the most significant problem is just that in California the water in our rivers and reservoirs is growing increasingly scarce and unreliable due to climate change.

In terms of this issue of reliability, as a consequence of it, we’ve actually had to stop the electricity coming from the solar farms into the cities because there’s just been too much of it at times. Or we’ve been starting to pay our neighboring states, like Arizona, to take that solar electricity.

The alternative is to suffer from blowouts of the grid. And it turns out that when it comes to birds and cats – cats don’t kill eagles; eagles kill cats. What cats kill are the small common sparrows and jay’s and robins, birds that are not endangered and not at risk of going extinct.

What do kill eagles and other big birds, like this kite as well as owls and condors and other threatened and endangered species, are wind turbines. In fact, they’re one of the most significant threats to those big bird species that we have. We just haven’t been introducing the airspace with many other objects like we have wind turbines over the last several years.

And in terms of solar, you know, building a solar farm is a lot like building any other kind of farm: you have to clear the whole area of wildlife. So this is a picture of one third of one of the biggest solar farms in California, called Ivanpah.

In order to build this, they had to clear the whole area of desert tortoises, literally pulling desert tortoises and their babies out of burrows, putting them on the back of pickup trucks, and transporting them to captivity, where many of them ended up dying.

And the current estimates are that about 6,000 birds are killed every year, actually catching on fire above the solar farm and plunging to their deaths.

Over time, it gradually struck me that there was really no amount of technological innovation that was going to make the sun shine more regularly or wind blow more reliably. In fact, you could make solar panels cheaper, and you could make wind turbines bigger, but sunlight and wind are just really dilute fuels, and in order to produce significant amounts of electricity, you just have to cover a very large land mass with them.

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In other words, all of the major problems with renewables aren’t technical, they’re natural.

Well, dealing with all of this unreliability and the big environmental impacts obviously comes at a pretty high economic cost. We’ve been hearing a lot about how solar panels and wind turbines have come down in cost in recent years, but that cost has been significantly outweighed by just the challenges of integrating all of that unreliable power onto the grid.

Just take, for instance, what’s happened in California. At the period in which solar panels have come down in price very significantly, same with wind, we’ve seen our electricity prices go up five times more than the rest of the country. And it’s not unique to us.

You can see the same phenomenon happened in Germany, which is really the world’s leader in solar, wind and other renewable technologies. Their prices increased 50% during their big renewable-energy push.

Now you might think, well, dealing with climate change is just going to require that we all pay more for energy. That’s what I used to think.

But consider the case of France. France actually gets twice as much of its electricity from clean zero-emission sources than does Germany, and yet France pays almost half as much for its electricity. How can that be?

You might have already anticipated the answer. France gets most of its electricity from nuclear power, about 75% in total. And nuclear just ends up being a lot more reliable, generating power 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 90% of the year.

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