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.
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.
We see this phenomenon show up at a global level. So, for example, there’s been a natural experiment over the last 40 years, even more than that, in terms of the deployment of nuclear and the deployment of solar. You can see that at a little bit higher cost, we got about half as much electricity from solar and wind than we did from nuclear.
WELL, WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR GOING FORWARD? I think one of the most significant findings to date is this one: Had Germany spent $580 billion on nuclear instead of renewables, it would already be getting a 100% of its electricity from clean energy sources, and all of its transportation energy.
Now I think you might be wondering, and it’s quite reasonable to ask: IS NUCLEAR POWER SAFE? AND WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THE WASTE?
Well, those are very reasonable questions. Turns out that there’s been scientific studies on this going over 40 years. This is just the most recent study, that was done by the prestigious British Medical Journal Lancet, finds that nuclear power is the safest. It’s easy to understand why.
According to the WHO, about 7 million people die annually from air pollution. And nuclear plants don’t emit that. As a result, the climate scientist James Hansen looked at it. He calculated that nuclear power has already saved almost 2 million lives to date. It turns out that even wind energy is more deadly than nuclear.
This is a photograph taken of two maintenance workers in the Netherlands, shortly before one of them fell to his death to avoid the fire, and the other one was engulfed in flames.
NOW, WHAT ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
I think a really easy way to think about it is that uranium fuel, which is what we used to power nuclear plants, is just really energy dense. About the same amount of uranium as this Rubik’s Cube can power all of the energy you need in your entire life. As a consequence, you just don’t need that much land in order to produce a significant amount of electricity.
Here you can compare the solar farm I just described, Ivanpah, to California’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. It takes 450 times more land to generate the same amount of electricity as it does from nuclear. You would need 17 more solar farms like Ivanpah in order to generate the same output as Diablo Canyon, and of course, it would then be unreliable.
WELL, WHAT ABOUT THE MINING AND THE WASTE AND THE MATERIAL THROUGHPUT?
This has been studied pretty closely as well, and it just turns out that solar panels require 17 times more materials than nuclear plants do, in the form of cement, glass, concrete, steel – and that includes all the fuel used for those nuclear plants.
The consequence is that what comes out at the end, since its material throughput, is just not a lot of waste from nuclear. All of the waste from the Swiss nuclear program fits into this room. Nuclear waste is actually the only waste from electricity production that’s safely contained and internalized.
Every other way of making electricity emits that waste into the natural environment, either as pollution or as material waste. We tend to think of solar panels as clean, but the truth is that there is no plan to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20 or 25-year life.