In this photo taken Oct. 12, 2012, the sun rises behind electricity poles and wind turbines in Nauen, near Berlin, Germany. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ferdinand Ostrop


Nuclear power advocates are trying a new line of attack on solar and wind energy — it’s too darn cheap!

In the real world, however, the unexpectedly rapid drop in the price of cleantech, especially renewable power and batteries, is a doubly miraculous game-changer that is already cutting greenhouse gas emissions globally and dramatically increasing the chances we can avoid catastrophic climate change.

As I detailed on Monday, the New York Times in particular keeps running slanted articles talking up nuclear and talking down renewables — articles that totally miss the forest for the trees. That culminated in a truly absurd piece last week, “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course,” which is the exact opposite of reality, as Goldman Sachs has detailed in its recent reports on “The Low Carbon Economy.”


This post will focus primarily on the big picture, the forest. I will deal in later posts with a few of the more interesting trees, such as whether, the U.S. should consider give existing nukes some sort of short-term carbon credit so they are not shut down prematurely and replaced by natural gas.

The big picture reality of the clean energy revolution

The big picture reality is this: The world is finally starting to take some serious action to avoid catastrophic climate change, which means first the electric grid will decarbonize, and then the transportation system. That means global coal use peaks or plateaus first — and then oil does.

In fact, the nation and much of the world — including Europe and China — have already started with decarbonizing the grid, for various reasons. One reason grid decarbonization is coming first is that even big countries only have to begin replacing a few hundred (mostly coal) power plants to start decarbonizing the grid. Compare that to the transportation sector, which involves replacing tens of millions of vehicles and possibly building a vast new fueling infrastructure for a zero-carbon fuel.

Second, we have vastly more choices to slash CO2 emissions from the electric sector — efficiency, solar, wind, hydro, other renewables, nuclear, and (in the short term) replacing coal with natural gas. But, in truth, we’ve dawdled for so long, we really need to go as fast as possible to carbon-free power, so natural gas probably needs to be removed from this list. And countless studies have undermined the notion that natural gas provides a significant net greenhouse gas benefit (because of methane leaks and because gas inevitably displaces some true zero-carbon power alternatives, like nuclear and renewables. The window in which it makes sense to build new natural gas capacity and infrastructure for climate reasons is shutting rapidly and very possibly shut already.

Compare all this to the transportation sector, where the options for decarbonization are far more limited. In fact, until recently, efficiency — higher fuel economy — was the only decarbonization strategy that made economic sense and avoided the need for a new, expensive fueling infrastructure. That’s why every major country including ours has aggressively pursued tougher fuel economy standards. As for the alternative fuels, sorry corn ethanol and natural gas, but the transport sector needs to go to zero, and neither of you make the cut. Indeed, studies suggest natural gas is unlikely to have a net carbon benefit as an alternative fuel and could make things worse.

Really, the only two plausible options to fuel carbon-free vehicles are hydrogen and electricity — when both are made from carbon-free sources. And only electric vehicles can actually deliver carbon-free transport at lower lifecycle cost, and very possibly a lower first cost, than gasoline powered cars. That’s going to get even more obvious in the coming years, now that the sharp drop in battery costs have brought them well below the key price point needed for mass-market adoption.

So the future of transportation, especially urban transport, is electricity. And in fact, electric vehicle sales have exploded world-wide since 2010, with the very real possibility that within the decade they will have a comparable sale price to gasoline vehicles and a much lower operating and fuel cost, even running on carbon free power.

So that makes the rapid decarbonization of the grid even more important, so that the electric vehicles keep decarbonizing the transportation sector. Let’s take a deeper dive into the grid.

The transition to a carbon-free grid has begun and is unstoppable

Most people, including most opinion-makers and journalists covering energy and the environment, are not up-to-date on the “miraculous” and game-changing revolutions that have occurred just in the last couple of years with such core enabling climate solutions as solar power, wind power, LED lighting, batteries, and electric vehicles.

That’s why I launched my ongoing series “Almost Everything You Know About Climate Change Solutions Is Outdated.” As I wrote last week: If it surprises you that U.S. solar has jumped 100-fold in the last decade — and prices are now under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour — you should read this post.

I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve already written on this, especially since Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) has repeatedly made the same point, as has the International Energy Agency (IEA), as has Goldman Sachs. But I haven’t written much about Goldman Sachs’ findings yet, so here’s their core conclusion from their new July 20 report, “The Low Carbon Economy: Our Thesis In 60 CHARTS” (emphasis in original):

In a debate that is often dominated by strong views on what should or could happen in the future, we let the numbers speak for themselves. In our eyes, a relatively clear picture is emerging from the data: Select low carbon technologies are rapidly taking market share in a number of sectors and are changing the way that energy is generated, stored and consumed across the global economy.

These technologies are now at a scale and growing at a pace that they deliver carbon emission savings at the gigatonne scale, but they are also transforming the competitive dynamics in industries like lighting, power generation and autos.

Renewables, efficiency, and electrification of transport have emerged as the big winners in the race to find the most affordable, scalable, carbon-free sources for power generation and travel. Many core technologies are growing exponentially while cost and performance steadily improve.

Here is what Goldman Sachs expects to happen just over the next decade:


The result of this revolution, they conclude, is that “On our wind and solar numbers, emissions in IEA scenarios could peak as early as c.2020, rather than 2030.”

Again, you’d never know any of this big picture once-in-a-century transformation from reading the New York Times, which just continues to write article after article that misses the forest for the trees.

Yes, it is true that this revolution is happening so fast that it is “transforming the competitive dynamics in industries like lighting, power generation and autos,” as Goldman Sachs noted. And that means there will be dislocations.

For instance, the clean energy revolution means other low-carbon or zero-carbon technologies that haven’t reached the point of exponential growth — and that are not experiencing learning curve improvements in cost and performance — are very likely to fall further and further behind. That is where nuclear power finds itself. As do hydrogen fuel cell cars.

It also means that the electric grid in particular will go through some growing pains as it starts to integrate renewables at a faster pace than anybody thought possible just a few years ago. The Times, bizarrely, has chosen to publish article after article over-emphasizing and indeed exaggerating those growing pains, while projecting a future for nuclear power that currently doesn’t exist.

The New York Times utterly misrepresents whats happening in Germany

For instance, in their “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course” story, the Times asserts:

In Germany, where renewables have mostly replaced nuclear power, carbon emissions are rising, even as Germans pay the most expensive electricity rates in Europe.

I have kept both of the hyperlinks from the Times piece so you can see for yourself what game they are playing. It is quite rare that a newspaper story links to two articles that so thoroughly debunk the points the story is trying to make.

The first hyperlink is apparently meant to cover the assertion, “In Germany, where renewables have mostly replaced nuclear power.” But as you can see, the link goes to a December 2015 “Clean Energy Wire” story with this lead chart:

German power

Power generation in Germany (in billion kwh). – Renewables (blue) contributed the largest share. Data: AGEB, 2015.

This chart does not, however, show “renewables have mostly replaced nuclear power” (orange). Quite the reverse. The chart explicitly shows that, for example, from 2013 to 2015, renewable generation rose 42 billion kilowatt-hours (bkwh) — while natural gas dropped 11 bkwh, hard coal dropped 9 bkwh, lignite dropped 6 bkwh, and nuclear dropped 5 bkwh. In short, renewables up 42 bkwh, fossil fuels down 26 bkwh, and nuclear down 5 bkwh (while overall, generation was up). Oops!

Since renewables have been mostly replacing fossil fuels, as the chart shows, you can probably guess that carbon emissions haven’t actually been rising. The second hyperlink goes to a March 2016 story that contains this chart:

germany emissions

Graph by Clean Energy Wire, data from German Environment Agency (UBA) and Green Budget Germany

As you can plainly see, this chart does not show that “carbon emissions are rising.” Quite the reverse. German emissions have generally been falling.

So how does the Times get to its claim that German will “carbon emissions are rising” when the most one can objectively say is in recent years they have been flat? Well the links do note that CO2 emissions rose a whopping 1 percent in 2015. Or, as the first article put it, “Germany’s CO2 emissions have inched up in 2015 despite a rapidly increasing share of renewables in electricity production.”

Why did emissions inch up? The first link immediately goes on to explain, “The main cause for the year-on-year rise were cooler temperatures compared to 2014.” Not exactly a compelling argument for “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course.”

Yes, German electrical rates are high. The Times could have written an interesting story on why. It is actually a gift the Germans gave the world in its fight against global warming. The Germans decided to rapidly deploy solar power during a time when it was quite expensive to do so. Indeed, it was over five times more expensive to deploy in Germany back then than it is to deploy in the U.S. Southwest now!

That massive German investment helped solar power come down the learning curve faster than people expected, and today, as I’ve reported, utilities in this country and around the world are signing contracts for solar power at the unheard-of price of four cents a kilowatt hour or less — which is roughly one third of the average residential rate in this country.

Rather than trashing the Germans the way the New York Times does, we should all be thanking them! But the Times is not in the thanking business. They are in the slanting business.

The bottom line is that nothing that has happened in Germany supports the ridiculous thesis: “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course.” The truth, as the second link the Times itself provides explains, is that “a 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power within a decade, lent impetus by Japan’s Fukushima disaster, has seen dirty coal maintain a significant share of the energy mix.”

It was Germany’s decision to speed up the shutdown of its nuclear reactors that caused the drop in CO2 emissions to (temporarily) stall. Personally, I wouldn’t have made that decision, since the short-term consequences were almost inevitable. But for reasons only known to itself, the Times seems to be trying to make one of the biggest heroes of the climate action story in Germany — renewable power — into a villain.

The Times piece tries to do the same thing in its discussion of the competition between renewables and nuclear power (and natural gas) in this country. I’ll deal with that in my next piece.

Jul 28, 2016 12:05 pm


original story HERE

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