Energy policy – where our priorities should lie

Jonathon Porritt
May 17th, 2011

There are all sorts of widening fault-lines on energy policy within today’s Green Movement.  In the good old days, we’d just rub along together happy in the knowledge that for almost all of us energy efficiency came first, reducing the use of fossil fuels and vastly ramping up renewables came next, with nuclear (and carbon capture and storage for that matter) largely seen as a bit of a sideshow.

No more.  The emergence of an eloquent pro-nuclear green lobby has exploded that (admittedly frail and rather woolly) consensus.  Energy efficiency now goes as disregarded as ever, as a new fight rages between the supporters of the nuclear industry versus the supporters of renewables.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’re now into a strict fight in terms of those two options.  The days when people talked about “co-existence” are long gone; this is now either/or, not both/and.  And disturbingly, in every single decision that the UK government has taken over the last few months, it’s clear that they’ve thrown in their lot, yet again, with the nuclear industry.  Fukoshima doesn’t seem to have changed that.

There’s one simple test for this hypothesis: where do you think the debate would be if the UK Treasury put the same sort of cap on funding for the nuclear industry (including paying off historical liabilities) as it has put on funding for renewables?

It’s maddening, yet again, that the nuclear industry has succeeded in turning its wretched sideshow into the main show – even though everybody recognises that even the most optimistic scenario for nuclear means it won’t be generating any more electrons in 2040 than it is today.  And I can’t help but admit to real anger at the growing number of leading Greens who’ve been co-opted by the nuclear industry as it rises once again from the dead.

So perhaps we ought to be trying harder to find common ground elsewhere – and in particular on what needs to be done now to address the needs of the 1.4 billion people in the world today who are still without electricity, and 2.5 billion people who are cooking on open stoves, often at great risk to their own health.

Our sad little nuclear vs. renewables spat obscures the fact that this is where our priorities should lie – as has been spelled out very eloquently both by Ban Ki-moon in his call for “universal energy access by 2030” and in Practical Action’s excellent campaign to persuade people to get behind this overarching priority.

There are moves afoot to tie this to the Rio +20 Conference next year – and given how dispiritingly uninspiring the current agenda looks for Rio +20, that has to make a lot of sense.  It’s a goal that all our NGOs, in both the development and environment lobbies, could enthusiastically mobilise behind, and persuade us in the process to keep our falling-out over nuclear in rather more realistic perspective.

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18 Responses to “Energy policy – where our priorities should lie”

  1. Iñigo Says:

    What do you think of the actual electricity mix in Spain? It seems that wind is covering between 15 and 20%, hydro another 10%, nuclear 20%, and the rest covered with combined cycle and other (co-generation and the like). Plans are there to increase solar and wind. Could this be the way?

  2. Xobbo Says:

    This is a very divisive way of thinking. Personally I thought I was a supporter of both renewables AND nuclear energy as a way to combat climate change – if you’re forcing me to be against one or the other then I agree that you and I aren’t on the same side any more.

  3. Bill Maslen Says:

    I have to agree with both previous commentators: you’ve failed to substantiate your rather remarkable “either/or” contention. Modern life is far too complex to be reduced to a simplistic black-or-white issue. The servers which host the website on which your blog is published are sucking electricity from somewhere… reducing the energy debate to the level on which you’re tackling it here represents a failure to discuss this very difficult issue in a duly serious, thoughtful fashion. Let’s avoid the soundbytes – and in particular, the sound and fury – and get down to some serious debate: the kind of debate on which practical action must and should be founded.

  4. Ron Blanchard Says:

    As a Canadian living in the Province of Ontario, I’m struck by the similarities to the debate occurring here. The difference, however, is that the upcoming Provincial election (October 6th) has the opposition Conservatives promising to cancel the Liberal government’s $7 billion (CDN) renewables deal (solar and wind) with Samsung.

  5. Paul Fenn Says:

    The debate about nuclear vs. renewables is shadowed by the White Elephant of the Cold War – a prerogative of the energy industry to control the transition – and to charge extra for it. As an American energy activist I totally agree with Mr. Porritt. Nuclear revival is inconsistent with a renewable energy future: they are opposite paths. Nuclear is deadly, unsustainable, and insecure. An energy system consisting primarily of local renewables and demand technologes is economically feasible today – given a political will that is lacking in both UK and US political chiefs. Xobbo calls Porrit’s view “divisive,” which is really to say – principled. Xobbo’s criticism implies that our civilization can no longer afford principles. Nuclear and renewables are not merely different options – they are opposite in inclination. Renewables decentralize, democratize and detoxify our economies. Nuclear re-centralizes, militarizes and introduces an historic new toxicity. The nuclear vs. renewables debate is not “divisive” – this charge that it is such, is itself divisive, reflecting a dangerous bunker-mentality – that we cannot afford debate or controversy. Mr. Maslen says “modern life” is too complex for “black and white” thinking – which is to say, rubbish – modern Mammon he must mean – we cannnot afford principles. Then why bother? We can have peace with war too? Sound modern? It reminds me of the arguments of 200 years ago that slavery could co-exist with a free society. If climate change were the world’s only energy crisis, perhaps there might be something to this. But what of nuclear proliferation? Wars with emerging nuclear states? And how do things look down the road after 10 Fukushimas? 100? Some societies refuse to learn and will carry the cross of ignorance to their collective graves. Monbiot now leads the lambs of Middle-of-the-Roadism (Blairism/Clintonism) into a sleep of ages from which they will perhaps never return.

  6. Why must UK have to choose between nuclear and renewable energy? | Kleenergy Ecosystems Says:

    [...] to Jonathon Porritt, it isn’t. In a recent blog post discussing renewables and nuclear power, he asserts that: “It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’re now into a strict [...]

  7. John Tucker Says:

    Without storage capability on the grid nearly all renewables will result in more coal and LNG use as baseload to cover requirements. As nearly all nuclear capacity not realized in the last 30 years became Coal power we have been down this road before and its a disaster.

    I agree with 2. Xobbo.

  8. Elisa Says:

    Thank God for Jonathon Porritt–please can he get a column in The Guardian? Fed up with deniers of obvious truths and nuke shills having it (mostly) their way through unsubstantiated claims, outright lies, and a quasi religious faith in this failed and tragically dirty technology.

  9. Helen Says:

    We of a “Green” persuasion seem to be in as much of a muddle as governments! How efficient is wind power? Does solar work in northern climes? Can nuclear be a safe option? How much does it all cost?
    Is climate change a reality and is it still possible for mankind to do something about it?
    Surely we have the scientific competence to answer these questions decisively, so we can stop the debate over whether and what and get on with it!

  10. phil Says:

    Germany, Italy, Switzerland…..whether the pro-nuclear lobby want to admit it or not, this debate is increasingly one being led by govt’s prepared to take a bold leadership position and those that wont. Jonathon is absolutely right to articulate frustration with some quarters of the green movement that ignore the huge subsidies, state guarantees and plethora of risks (terrorism, quakes, electricity market pricing) that are well beyond the balance sheets of nuclear companies.

  11. Bryan Elliott Says:

    Sorry. A nuclear green here. It’s the renewable-pushers trying to frame this as either-or. Us pro-nukes have no interest in excluding renewables, so long as we can all get coal, oil and natural gas out of the mix.

    Of course, we’re decidedly /against/ natural gas backed anything. If a wind turbine or solar panel needs to be backed with natural gas, it has not been located well within the grid.

    The goal is reduction of carbon emissions to zero. Period. You can keep framing the debate over how to do this in a way that excludes nuclear all you want. You can exaggerate the safety concerns raised by Fukushima. You can lie about the efficacy of a renewable plant by stating it’s capacity up front, but hiding its output behind an annual figure in different units (1 kWh/y == 0.11 W).

    None of that will change this simple fact: We need nuclear power; it’s the only method we have right now that can fill coal’s slot without producing more carbon dioxide.

    Get over that. Then join us pro-nukes in trying to save those that will be affected by the changing climate, rather than trying to win political and ideological battles.

  12. Sophia Says:

    Bryan, I generally agree with you. I am a reluctant (but pragmatic) nuclear green. We will not meet our emissions targets in the UK without nuclear. Around 30% of our existing capacity will be going offline by 2020 and if nuclear is abandoned more coal/gas will be brought online as renewables are unlikely to bridge this gap. Wind / hydro / PV generation cannot be compared like for like with nuclear / fossil fuels because it is intermittent. Personally I think the government should be backing tidal / wave energy more as this is at least predictable. Sadly the UK marine industry is struggling to get off the ground at present.

    I do completely disagree with your comment that “If a wind turbine or solar panel needs to be backed with natural gas, it has not been located well within the grid”, this is simply not true. Wind farms are generally sited where the best wind resource is (usually up in Scotland where the energy demand is lower) and wind output is generally not predictable until about 3 hours before the delivery period. Balancing the grid is a complex process so for unpredictable generation like wind some form of flexible back up is required somewhere on the grid. Check out the National Grid’s “Operating in 2020″ document if you don’t believe me.

    I pray that we might one day be 100% renewable but it is going to require huge investment not only in the technologies themselves but in a major re-vamp of the grid. Will it happen before we are all under water?? =)

  13. Rupert Wolfe Murray Says:

    It’s absurd that Mr Porritt is forcing us to choose between nulcear and renewable. As the Government’s Committee on Climate Change points out “the optimal policy is to pursue a portfolio approach, with each of the different technologies playing a role”. The committee says we should aim for 40% renewable and 40% nuclear by 2030 (plus 15% Carbon Capture and Storeage, and the rest by gas). That makes a lot of sense as it’s “becoming clearer and clearer”, to use Mr Porritt’s words, that renewables have no chance of providing enough power for modern society (does he propose we go back to a 1920 lifestyle?). I hate nuclear as much as you do but it’s safety record is excellent (how many people actually died at Chernobyl or in Japan?) and it’s the only way to displace the real CO2 villain: COAL. The environmental movement sometimes reminds me of the “united front” approach used by Communists: no comrade is allowed to express a dissenting view. United we stand, divided we fall. But times have changed. We’re not at war. Why the confrontational approach? If you read Orwell, much of his writing in the thirties was directed against English Communists who slavishly followed Moscow’s line and were too cowardly to challenge it. He was a natural communist and yet he was vilified by the movement that he loved.

  14. William Says:

    Energy issues are as important as water and food for the people. The problem is, all of this is just talk with no action behind it. It is all about the money. All things necessary for life are under strict control by rich businesses that are in bed with government politicos taking bribes. All of it is sold at maximum profit. Nothing is going to change until control is in the hands of the people..

  15. Jonathon Porrit vs George Monbiot on nuclear power « Cool the Earth Says:

    [...] over the future of energy, by putting it in terms of choosing between nuclear and renewables (Practical Action). In reply, George Monbiot dared him to explain why can’t nuclear power co-exist with [...]

  16. BlueRock Says:

    It truly is a choice between nukes and renewables – and nukes conclusively lose:

    1. the highly toxic waste that no one knows where to store for 100,000+ years

    2. the risk of catastrophic reactor failure in a clearly destabilising and heating world

    3. the escalating cost of nuclear in comparison to the falling cost of renewables

    4. time to deployment: a decade for each nuke; weeks or months for renewables

    5. the fact that a network of massively distributed micro-generators are not compatible with inflexible nuclear reactors – Google ‘Renewable Energies and Base Load Power Plants Are Essentially Incompatible’ for a paper from the German renewable energy agency

    6. the opportunity cost of nuclear power – by not locking up the £5 or £6 or £10 billion each nuke will cost, we could rapidly deploy massive amounts of renewable energy *now*

    7. renewables – wind in particular – produces much less CO2 / kWh than nukes for entire lifecycle – wind = 10 g. and nukes = 66 g. (source: Sovacool)

    8. job creation – far more jobs are created for renewables per £ spent than nukes – Germany now employs over 300,000 in their clean tech sector

    Every significant way this is analysed, renewables are the optimum solution to mitigating climate change.

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