A lot of experts are actually very concerned that solar panels are just going to be shipped to poor countries in Africa or Asia, with the rest of our electronic-waste stream, to be disassembled, often exposing people to really high level of toxic elements, including lead, cadmium and chromium, elements that because they’re elements, their toxicity never declines over time.
I think we have an intuitive sense that nuclear is a really powerful strong energy source and that sunlight is really dilute and diffuse and weak, which is why you have to spread solar collectors or wind collectors over such a large amount of land.
Maybe that’s why nobody was surprised when in the recent science-fiction remake of Blade Runner, the film opens with a very dark dystopian scene where California’s deserts have been entirely paved with solar farms. All of which, I think, raises a really uncomfortable question: In the effort to try to save the climate, are we destroying the environment?
The interesting thing is that over the last several hundred years, human beings have actually been trying to move away from what you would consider matter-dense fuels towards energy-dense ones. That means, really, from wood and dung towards coal, oil, natural gas, uranium. This is a phenomenon that’s been going on for a long time.
Poor countries around the world are in the process still of moving away from wood and dung as primary energies. And for the most part, this is a positive thing.
As you stop using wood as your major source of fuel, it allows the forests to grow back and the wildlife to return. As you stop burning wood in your home, you no longer need to breath that toxic smoke.
And as you go from coal to natural gas and uranium as your main sources of energy, it holds out the possibility of basically eliminating air pollution altogether.
There’s just this problem with nuclear: While it’s been pretty popular to move from dirtier to cleaner energy sources, from energy-diffuse to energy-dense sources, nuclear is just really unpopular for a bunch of historical reasons.
And as a consequence, in the past, I and I think a lot of others have sort of said, “In order to deal with climate change, we’re just going to need all the different kinds of clean energy that we have.”
The problem is that it just turns out not to be true. You remember, I discussed France a little bit ago. France gets most of its electricity from nuclear. If France were to try to significantly scale up solar and wind, it would also have to significantly reduce how much electricity it gets from nuclear.
That’s because in order to handle the huge variability of solar and wind on the grid, they would need to burn more natural gas.
Think of it this way, it’s just really hard to ramp up and down a nuclear plant whereas I think we’re all pretty familiar with turning natural gas up and down on our stove.
A similar process works in managing the grid. Of course, it goes without saying that oil and gas companies understand this pretty well, which is why we’ve seen them invest millions of dollars in recent years in promoting solar and wind.
This just raises, I think, another challenging question, which is that in places that are using a lot of nuclear – half of their grids that are mostly nuclear and hydro – going towards solar and wind and other renewables would actually increase carbon emissions. I think a better alternative is just to tell the truth. That’s what a number of scientists have been doing.
I mentioned earlier that hundreds of thousands of birds are killed every year by wind turbines; what I didn’t mention is that a million bats, at a minimum, are killed every year by wind. The consequence has been that bat scientists have been speaking out about this. This particular bat species, the hoary bat, which is a migratory bat species, is literally at risk of going extinct right now because of the significant expansion of wind. It’s not just wind, it’s also on solar.
The scientists who were involved in creating the Ivanpah solar farm, who were involved in clearing that land, have been speaking out. One of them wrote:
“Everybody knows that translocation of desert tortoises doesn’t work. When you’re walking in front of a bulldozer, crying and moving animals and cacti out of the way, it’s hard to think that the project is a good idea.”
And now we can see these phenomena at work at an international level. In my home state of California, we’ve been stuffing a lot of natural gas into the side of a mountain in order to handle all that intermittent solar and wind. It’s sprung a leak. It was equivalent to putting 500,000 cars on the road.
And currently in Germany, there’s protesters trying to block a new coal mining project that would involve destroying the ancient Han back forest in order to get to the coal underneath, all in an effort to phase out nuclear and expand solar and wind.
The good news is that I think that people still care about nature enough for these facts to matter. We saw last year in South Korea a citizen’s jury deliberated for several months weighing these different issues. They had to decide whether they were going to phase out nuclear or keep it and expand it.
They started out 40% in favor of expanding nuclear, but after several months and considering these issues, they ended up voting 60% to expand nuclear.