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Nuclear Energy and My Greenpeace Conundrum

Marc Gunther's picture
FORTUNE magazine

Marc Gunther is a writer and speaker who focuses on business and the environment. He worked for 12 years as a senior writer at FORTUNE magazine, where he is now a contributing editor. His most...

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  • Jun 5, 2013

Greenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.

A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:

We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.

This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years.

Noisy activist groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network have important roles to play in the “ecosystem” that includes business, government and environmental groups. They spotlight the most egregious practices, target the worst polluters, build popular support and, indirectly, help connect  companies to other NGOs. In a way, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and RAN function as the business-development arms of NGOS like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy; they raise a ruckus and companies turn to the corporate-friendly NGOs to help them get out of trouble.

Greenpeace also deftly deploys a tactic called “rank ’em and spank ’em,” comparing, for example, the climate footprint of leading IT companies or the seafood purchasing practices of big retailers. These campaigns helped persuade Facebook to shift away from coal and influenced major grocery chains to adopt seafood purchasing policies. What’s more, Greenpeace has the ability to work effectively with business, notably by helping to persuade Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and others to join in a global shift towards natural refrigerants.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s this, from Phil’s letter:

Greenpeace Speaks Out to Eliminate Nuclear Power:

Greenpeace is working to end the expansion of nuclear power. The U.S. already has more nuclear power plants than any other country. The United States currently has 104 operating nuclear reactors, and each one is a threat to public health, safety and the environment.

Nationwide, 1 in 3 Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. Do you? If a meltdown was to occur, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people and leave large regions uninhabitable.

This passage, by the way, follows a section headed Greenpeace Speaks Out to Curb Global Warming. Does that make sense to you?

Nuclear_Power_Plant_CattenomIt doesn’t make sense to me. If we want to keep the lights on, and at an affordable price, without increasing the risks of climate change, nuclear power–at the very least, the plants we have today, and quite probably, more–has to be part of the solution. If Greenpeace manages to persuade the US or other governments to “eliminate nuclear power”–that’s what the headline says–the risk of catastrophic climate change will grow much worse. Climate activists/environmentalists who  support nuclear power include Stewart Brand (in his excellent book Whole Earth Discipline), ex-DOE chief Steven Chu, contrarians Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus (see Going Green? Then Go Nuclear), the former British prime minister Tony Blair, economist Jeffrey Sachs nd ex-NASA scientist James Hansen.

In an essay about this scientific paper, Hansen and his NASA colleague Pushker Kharecha recently wrote:

…without nuclear power, it will be even harder to mitigate human-caused climate change and air pollution. This is fundamentally because historical energy production data reveal that if nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal), which cause much higher air pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced.

Using historical electricity production data and mortality and emission factors from the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we found that despite the three major nuclear accidents the world has experienced, nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009. This amounts to at least hundreds and more likely thousands of times more deaths than it caused. An average of 76,000 deaths per year were avoided annually between 2000-2009, with a range of 19,000-300,000 per year.

Likewise, we calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971-2009. This is about 15 times more emissions than it caused. It is equivalent to the past 35 years of CO2 emissions from coal burning in the U.S. or 17 years in China — i.e., historical nuclear energy production has prevented the building of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants….

We conclude that nuclear energy — despite posing several challenges, as do all energy sources — needs to be retained and significantly expanded in order to avoid or minimize the devastating impacts of unabated climate change and air pollution caused by fossil fuel burning.

As I understand it, this paper compares nuclear power to fossil fuels. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club will argue that the superior alternative, for a host of reasons, is an electrical power system that relies on solar power, wind power and other forms of renewable energy. In theory, they’re right–but it has yet to be demonstrated that a modern electricity grid can rely upon intermittent sources of energy for round-the-clock affordable power.

Germany is the country most often praised by enviros for its commitment to renewable energy. According to Osha Gray Davidson’s excellent Kindle Single, Clean Break, Germany gets about 25 percent of its electricity from solar, wind and biomass. But  Osha reports that getting to Germany’s goal of 80% of electricity from renewables will require building 5,000 miles of power lines, at a cost of $25 billion, as well as developing cost-effective means of energy storage for days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Already, Germany residential electricity customers pay about 28 cents per kilowatt, roughly three times the average cost in the U.S.; about 5 cents of the 28 cents is attributable to renewable energy subsidies, according to Der Speigel. Electricity from Germany’s solar installations cost four times as much as a Finnish nuclear plant that’s behind schedule and over budget, according to this analysis by Alex Trembath. Solar panel prices have dropped more than 80% in the past five years, so driving prices lower won’t be easy.

To be sure, nuclear power is also expensive and it comes with significant tradeoffs, as do all forms of energy. (Solar and wind projects in Germany are destroying natural habitat, provoking a backlash from environmentalists.) Nuclear waste disposal remains a big issue in the US, although the problem is more political than technological. Another big drawback:  Nukes take a long time to build, in part because of opposition from groups like Greenpeace. But countries like France have devised solutions to the problem of nuclear waste, and smaller-scale, next-generation nukes could be deployed more rapidly, assuming they clear regulatory hurdles in the US. In any event, in the near term, no new nuclear plants will be developed in the US because natural gas prices are too low. So the issue is moot for now.

Given that, I’m renewing with Greenpeace. The NGO does a lot more good than harm.

But I hope my friends at Greenpeace and the Sierra Club will rethink their opposition to nuclear power. We don’t need an all-of-the-above energy strategy–that’s folly, if it includes burning lots of fossil fuels–but we do need an all-of-the-above low carbon energy strategy, led by a strong commitment to renewables and energy efficiency, but including nuclear and some natural gas (ideally with carbon capture) to provide affordable baseload power. Instead of trying to eliminate nuclear power, environmentalists should work with industry to make it safer and cheaper.

As the Greenpeace banner above says: “Climate change is deadly. Get serious.”

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I K's picture
I K on Jun 4, 2013

Instead of trying to eliminate nuclear power, environmentalists should work with industry to make it safer and cheaper.

I really don’t get comments like this. Do you think that the physicists and engineers who designed nuclear reactors were stupid or didn’t care nor want them to be safe or that current engineers and physicsts would not do their best to make them even safer with newer tech and materials. Or do you think a hippy who goes to a anti nuclear rally whos main job is working part time at McDonalds and whos most skilled talent is playing the guitar badly is somehow going to “work with industry to make it safer and cheaper”

Marc Gunther's picture
Marc Gunther on Jun 4, 2013

Climate activists can certainly help to make nuclear power cheaper–by accepting or even promoting it as a low-carbon energy source.

Safer, maybe not literally–I probably should have written that environmentalist could help explain the tradeoffs around all energy sources and thereby ease people’s worries about nuclear safety, such as they are. 

Right now the message from groups like Greenpeace is:

Solar and wind = good


It’s not nearly as simple as that.

Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Jun 4, 2013

How safe do you want? Quantitatively … really .. do the math. 

Consider, Japan has about 0.5 malignant melanoma cases per 100,000 per year. So if you moved all the Fukushima evacuees to Queensland in Australia, the children would end up with roughly the Queenland average for malignant melanoma … 67 cases per 100,000 per year. Other cancers would rise to because Australia has more BBQs and more red and processed meat => more bowel cancer. 

Bottom line? Moving back into the evacuation zone would be far less carcinogenic than moving to Queensland (or anywhere else in Australia). If cancer risk due to sunshine was treated the same way as cancer risk due to radiation, then the whole of Australia would be an evacuation zone … for ever.

Things get even sillier when the insignificant risks from radiation are compared with the calamities of a changing climate. If you aren’t pro-nuclear, then you are part of the problem. We don’t need mushy headed romantics making decisions based on woolly notions … we need clear rational numerate informed decision making. 




Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 5, 2013

Frankly I’d rather see more posts like Gunther’s.

Gunther, what in your sincerest opinion is the reason for environmentalists’ (what I deem as irrational) attitude toward Nuclear power. The stats are there for all to see, but yet the opposition of Peace and Environmental groups (seem like they are one and the same thing) to nuclear power is (as far as I see it) bordering on fanatical, and hard to perceive as anything else but insincere and malicious.

Marc Gunther's picture
Marc Gunther on Jun 5, 2013

I don’t think it is sincere or malicious. Long before climate change became a big issue, environmental groups and others opposed nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy. Many of their supporters feel strongly about these issues. I believe their concerns are worth taking seriously. Nuclear power is expensive, there are real risks, including proliferation, waste disposal remains a challenge. Govt subsidies for nukes in the US are massive. 

My belief is that despite all that, given the alternatives, nuclear must be part of a climate solution.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 5, 2013

Marc, what most environmental groups don’t understand or ignore is the fact that politically popular solar/wind cannot currently replace ‘baseload’ high carbon intensity coal due to the intermediate, non-dispatchable natural of solar/wind power.  Until industrial scale power storage becomes a technically feasible and physical reality, only nuclear, lower carbon natural gas and perhaps geothermal is capable of economically displacing significant coal.  Geothermal unfortunately is limited to regions with suitable thermal geological formations (most often in areas strongly opposed by the NIMBY crowd).  Solar thermal is another feasible option; technology wise, but is very inefficient and therefore is often excessively costly. 


Environmentalist love to use Germany as the example of how Developed countries can substantially expand their renewable power supply.  Besides the high cost issue you raised, what many advocates once again don’t understand or ignore is how much Germany relies on neighboring EU countries connected to their power grids.  When the wind blows and sun shines, the potentially excess electric power (supply exceeding Germany demand) they routinely export to adjacent countries, which makes it necessary for neighboring countries to trim power generation from their fossil fuel, hydro or nuclear plants.  When the wind does not blow or sun shine is lost and Germany power demand exceeds supply, guess who they rely on to makeup this gap in power generation?  Their neighbors, who must ramp up their power generation capacities. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 5, 2013


I deeply respect and am grateful for your voice on this issue. Perhaps your push will/might change some minds.

The opposition to Nuclear power has become a self fulfilling prophesy (of sorts) by garranteeing that trully safe, advanced Nuclear power, that is non poluting and cheap, never comes to being.

I and others of like mind find the stance of environmentalists incredulous (or is it ludicrous),  because the Science of Nuclear power is there for all to see, including technologies like LFTR and DNMSR. Dnmsr is virtually impossible to weaponise and both LFTR and DNMSR leave almost no long lived waste and pose almost no environmental harzard in case of a Tsunami,an Earthquake, or even a Nuclear strike (pun). They can also be factory, built small and modular, and not needing hugely expensive concrete containment domes.

For the Environmentalist groups to ignore science and headstrongly oppose any kind of nuclear power in spite of the fact that DNMSR and LFTR can bring power to even 3rd World nations, which may be lacking in good/steady wind, sunshine, or the wealth to throw at storage,  some of these nations in fact having their own bountiful home supply of poluting coal, for them to refuse to acknowledge the benefits to the World of these nuclear technologies, does continue to boggle my mind.

Anyway thanks for the exchange.

Thomas Gerke's picture
Thomas Gerke on Jun 5, 2013

On Germany:
You mis-interprid the transnational power flows. (either wilfully or out of ignorance)
Europe has a common market for electricity, but every nation is responsible for ensuring enough capacities to deal with load management. Germany has those capacities but they are not always utilized, because of market mechanisms. 

When wind & solar feed power into the distribution grid, this represents a drop of demand on the european transmission grid. The result: At noon german power becomes as cheap as during off-peak => thus european neighbours buy cheap lignite / nuclear power (that feed into the transmission grid). They replace their  mid & peakload plants with cheap baseload power (under the current market design) from Germany.  
Your attempt to turn the market forces of buying cheap when possible as Germany forcing others to ramp their power up & down (btw: something that happens every day) is silly. 

Furthermore the German Energy Strategy is focused on “Efficency & Renewable Energy”… people love to ignore the former because it’s destroys their little fantasy the high cost. Of course energy is more expansive per unit across the board in Germany, but that’s long standing policy. 
The result is for example the fact that while having a rapidly transforming electricity supply system, the total cost per capita is about the same as the inefficent system of the US. 

Just consider that the US wastes about 1,800 TWh of electricity because of inefficiency compared with economies like Japan (also a summer peaker) or Germany. 

Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Jun 5, 2013

Sweden uses about double the electricity that Germany uses, but her electricity generates < 20 gm-CO2/kwh compared to 450 gm-CO2/kwh in Germany. So it doesn’t much matter how much she uses. Germany needs energy efficiency because her electricity is so filthy. It’s the same in my country, Australia, we are even worse, with over 800 gm-CO2/kwh because we are totally non-nuclear. So our Green party is very much in favour of trivialities like energy efficiency.

You don’t need to worry about energy efficiency if your energy is clean (not as far as climate change is concerned anyway).

Sweden is 50/50 hydro/nuclear … so she’s lucky having hydro resources and smart having nuclear. 


Thomas Gerke's picture
Thomas Gerke on Jun 5, 2013

While we agree that climate change is a very important issue and fossil fuel use has to end, it is not the only important issue. Renewables are able to tackle several issues at once and deliver more benefits to society than nuclear IMO. 

And frankly, even if you just look at CO2 emissions I don’t see how nuclear could make a meaningful contribution in the next 10-30 years. Especially since most nuclear advocates propose new designs that would take (at least) a decade till they could go into commercial operation. 

But we definatly agree on several goals. 

As for sweden:
Sweden is definatly lucky to have good hydro ressources.  But the truth is, they wouldn’t need nuclear power if they would increase efficency abit. 
They could easily stop wasting about 70 TWhs of electricity… nuclear provides only 56 TWhs.

This should even make alot of micro-economic sense for the swedish population, since their household electricity rates aren’t exactly too cheap to meter. ( approx. $0.27 / kWh) 

I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

Not exactly correct becuase youe so called peaker plants are not ultra expensive vs normal plants and also peak dwmands tend to be in the winter around 6pm in europe a time where solar produces the sum of zero output. 

What solar on a normal day like today which will have about 60GW daytime demand does is replace fairly cheap despatchable gas or coal.

Now if germany had its absolutely peak demands during noon and in the summer months you would be correct the installation of solar would allow them to close a lot of very low capacity peaking plants like ocgts and oil fired plants.

Right now solaes true valuw to Germany is just the marginal fuwl saving in ramping a FF plant down and thats possibly as low as 20 euro per mwh


As for the efficency argument again its fake germany is not that efficent the UK for instance is more energy efficient. Ibstead of spending 100B euro they coild have just upgraded all tjeor FF plants to newer more efficent tech.  Or somply banned new cars under a certain MPG


Either way bwfore this decade is up the conclusion will be in and imo solar will be abandoned in favoir of high capacity factor wind and nuclear

Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Jun 5, 2013

During Sweden’s nuclear build she added electricity at 7 times the per capita rate at which Germany has added wind+solar over the past decade. France added nuclear electricity about 5 time faster.

During the 1970s/80s people just built nuclear and it worked. They didn’t need new grids, energy storage, energy efficiency. And nuclear can deliver many more advantages that renewables can’t even dream of … desalination, overnight electric vehicle charging, synthetic fuel generation, etc. 

China isn’t waiting for new nuclear designs, but it is developing them … particularly small modular reactors. When they come on line, they will roll off production lines on the back of trucks. In comparison, renewables are an environmental nightmare. Vast areas of land covered in mirrors, PV, wind farms etc. If it’s farming land, that’s irresponsible, if it’s forest, ditto.

Run the numbers. Please. How big an area would you have to cover with mirrors to produce with solar thermal electricity the amount produced by the 6 Fukushima power plant reactors? You would have to cover an area about the size of the 20 km evacuation area … permanently. Level it, and cover it in concrete and metal and mirrors… for ever. Why? With nuclear, people can live there, farm there and wildlife can have a share also, but not if you blitz the area for a solar thermal electricity plant.




I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

Nuclear is too powerful that was a  part of its downfall

Smaller nations simply can’t take even a single reactor let alone a six reactor nuclear power station

Even a fairly big country like the UK with 65 million people could only take one nuclear power stations with six EPRs. A second would present difficulties and a third would be a bad idea. Thus only needing one or two such nuclear power stations means it would be a difficult and expensive venture as the volumes would not be there to get economies of scale. 

This is where China is different. It could potentially take a hundred nuclear power stations with five hundred reactors.  It can achieve economies of scale. 

The USA could perhaps take twenty, six reactor stations and thus also reach a cheap price.

This is where hhopefully small modular reacrors can succeed.  Smaller nations that can take 200MWe units. Units that are mass produced and hence buying and install just one in your nation isn’t going to be a costly venture. 

I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

Especially if you put it into context of other things like smoking, alcohol,  driving,  or huge killers such as trips and falls and pets

Also the biggest stupidity in the vast majority of life lost statistics is that they seem to assume that if you cut out the risk factor you save x number of lives. for instance smoking kills one million so if we ban smoking we will save a million annually….sounds right…but its not

You just save them to be killed by something else a time period later be it a car accident or a stroke or a non smoking related cancer or their new pet dog. 

So any danager should not be quantified in the lives saved or lost becuase we are not immortal it shoild be quantified in the number of years extended. 

I dont know the ststs for smoking but for arguments sake lets say the average snoker dies aged 80 and the average non smoker dies aged 85


 and a million die from smoking yearly. Its disingenuous to claim a million will be saved 

ots more logical to say on average if you stoped smokong you would extend your end of life by 5 years.



I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

In the same way thieves can help cut crime by returning some stolen goods?

I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

If you reduce risk factor A you just increase risk factor B as we are mortal.

100,000 out of 100,000 will die.

Reduce the risk of cancer from 100 out of 100,000 to zero and you increase other causes of death by exactly 100 out of 100,000

It sounds counterintuitive to say this but trying to reduce all risks might actually not be a net good for us. For instance lets say a quick killer Iike heart attacks.  If we could completely get rid of heart attacks lets say the result would be that there is a corresponding increase in other less desirable ways to die like liver cancer. The tradeoff is ofcourse you extend life but there is a balance in that too. Would you rather die aged 90 in your sleep from a heart attack or die over the course of a year from a brain tumor aged 93.


I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

It’s not that its simply that most so called green cheerleaders are actually self sustainable cheer leaders. If they could they would produce their own shoes farm their own food and make theor own smartphones from base metals.

As such anything ‘central’ is seen as negative over the alternatove that is in their control.  So solar on their homes roof to them is far more preferably to a utility owned power station be it coal gas or nuclear.

Now self sustainability seems a nice idea but there is a good reason we specilise. If we all tried to make everyrhibg ourselves not only would we be dirt poor but we literally could not male most thongs. Try building a smartphone in your garage. 

Once you realise trade is a huge benifit and we can’t be self sufficient but need to work together you should logically come to the conclusion that micro home solar at this and for the foreseeable isn’t feabisbe so ots one or another large central station. 

BTW this is also tje reason solar is liked over the much more effective wond power.  You cant bolt a huge wind turbine onto your roof

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 5, 2013



Perhaps I miss your point, but small modular next gen Nuclear Power would be ideal for Smaller Nations, Once these designs are being mass produce by larger, wealthier countries.

African Countries which have coal for instance, would be more amenable to setting aside their coal if The US or China woul sell them small and factory built 4th Gen Nuclear and take back the waste or sealed modules after 30-60 years etc.

This is where Renewables fail. Renewables advocates think every country can afford to build new grids, new storage, and fluctuating Windmills. Sure Africa has a lot of Sun, but they also have a lot of Rain Forest and Rainny days. What should they do on a week in the rainy season?

As I said elsewhere antinuclear-ism is a self fulfilling prophesy that has hindered the development of advanced 4th gen, Nuclear Power which lack the self-same disadvatages that renewables advocates complain of about Nuclear Power.

The idea that renewables advocates think their solar and wind science experiments would work planet-wide is annoying.  I hate to say this, but it really feels insincere to me.

Thomas Gerke's picture
Thomas Gerke on Jun 5, 2013

Let met get this straight:
You think renewables require massive transmission grids but nuclear is the decentralized solution? 
You should think this through, especially if you call a 200 MWel reactor a small unit. 

Actually I am baffled and such statements explain why nuclear advocates seem to convince nobody anymore.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

Most nations have a national grid so building a nuvlear station will meean replacing a coal station which entails no additional infrastrucutre assuming the same sized units. Ie 1GW reactor replacing a 1GW coal station.

Where a wind farm needs for instance a new substation anda new line linking it to the nearest distribution point which coild be a considerable distance away


Plus very importabtly highly variably sources need more transmission distrobuion and conversion stations.

For instance a 1GW nuclear plant needs a line and substation cable of handling 1GW of power wgile a 10GW PV farm producing the same annual energy requires a 10GW line and substation. That means potebtially 10x as much lines and substations etc

I K's picture
I K on Jun 5, 2013

All solutions require a national grid so none is more or less decentralised than the other. Your pv panels on your roof are just as central as a nuclear power station.

The advantage of snall modular reactors is that you can build many and have economies of scale.

As pointed out traditional nuclear power stations are so powerful just two with six EPRs wach would be too nuch for a fairly populous nation like the UK.

And build just two of anyrhing and it will be costly. Be it shoes cars pens or nuclear power stations. However the uk could take a hundred 200MWe SMRs buil at one factory also building for naby other nations. Produce 10,000 of them and they will be cheaper than coal and replace all current coal and gas used in power generation

Thomas Gerke's picture
Thomas Gerke on Jun 5, 2013

You see another reason why it’s REALLY difficult to discuss with pro-nuclear folk? 
Your comparisons are always ridicoulessly choosen in order to give your argument an advantage… It’s like you are trying too hard, which actually weakens your argument. 

1. The majority of the worlds population live in countries that have a highly developed national grid. And most countries that do have a big transmission grid have to invest in renewing it at the moment anyways. 

2. Replacing an old coal power Station of equal size VS building a 10 GW solar farm in a remote area. Seriously?

I grand you, putting a new nuclear power station at the location of an old power station would be more economically. However I don’t think that has happend alot in the past, since coal power stations were traditionally build close to the source and nuclear power stations were build in rather remote areas but in the region of consumption centers. 

But if you build solar in a grid optimized way, you would choose to build rooftops solar and not a single 10 GW solar farm. 

Additionally, Renewable Energy advocates don’t propose 100% PV energy system, but an efficent mix of technologies based on the local technical potential. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 5, 2013


Where did I mention anything about  Decentralized Solution?

Nuclear can replace current Coal Plants using the same transmission lines, plus you can increase capacity at the current site, and just beef up the powerlines if neccessary without having t create new powerline infrastructure.

Please read the post before responding.

Joey Ortiz's picture
Joey Ortiz on Jun 5, 2013

Do you know what is really quite hilarious? Organizations like GreenPeace and individuals like ourselves who think that ENERGY GENERATION IS UP TO A VOTE.


A hypothetical that is reality in Germany:

Lets say there is sufficient political and social pressure to subsidize the use of solar and wind energy immensely. From economics, solar and wind energy is put up wherever people think its worth it. Some amateur engineers put it on their houses because they find it awesome to homebrew their electricity. Some power companies put it into their production portfolios for public relations and to disconnect their economics from the volitility of fuel prices. On and on capacity for wind and solar grows. So a year later you want to put in solar and wind energy. Capacity has already been growing for a year. Even though the costs of your solar and wind installations is subsidized, on certain days you may have trouble selling it back to the grid. You notice that during Germany’s sunniest and windiest days, you try to put your electricity into the grid to collect your reward but there is literally nowhere to put it in. Without a load on your power inverter connected to the grid, there is no voltage drop across your cells or the motor in your turbine, there is no power transfered to the grid, and you don’t collect any money, or there is less load and you collect less money.

As a gas plant operator, you find this annoying, but you still make your money. You finally get fed up with twisting dials manually and buy a computer to throttle up and throttle down the generator, going in and out of the “sweet spot” maximum torque maximum efficiency zone as you follow solar and wind patterns. Your efficiency drops, your CO2 per kilowatt-hour increases, and Germany begins to pay you more to keep your dispatachable highly-throttable generator connected to the grid to avoid a blackout.

As a coal operator, you are basically seasonally screwed. Your plant, which has a hard time being throttled, is seemingly useless during windy-sunny seasons, with no load on your generator to push except for several hours a day, when it would not be worth it to try to kick on the burners. Eventually, you plan to upgrade your burners to allow more rapid throttling. As a coal producer, you conteplate that coal-to-liquid conversion may be more profitable.

As a nuclear operator, you are totally screwed. Germany hates you, for one, charging you up the !@# for even existing. Same with coal, you have a hard time ramping up and down, especially since your plant was not designed for it. With a highly variable load on the grid feed-in and pathetic carbon prices, you shut down almost out of depression, except maybe during the booring calm cloudy months where you get beaten by coal’s prices.

All in all, a ton of money was spent supporting something that made life as a nuclear operator extremely difficult. Eventually, the thing being supported, solar and wind, became uneconomical in spite of the subsidies. So for any given level of subsidy, there was a specific amount of wind and solar that would be installed, and NO MORE THAN THAT. The problem is, this amount is not very much. With a 20% load factor for solar, 30% for wind, at around 30% of German electrical capacity being renewable, you already see days where you can’t fetch a price for your solar and wind, no matter where you are. At around 35%, you can’t fetch a price during so many days you decide EVEN WITH SUBSIDIES IT WOULD NOT BE WORTH IT ECONOMICALLY to install more solar or wind. They bump the subsidies, this figure goes up to 40%. Worse, for every percent increase in subsidies, the resulting increased renewable capacity goes up less and less: diminishing returns. In addition, electricity prices go up thanks to annoyances felt by gas and coal operators: increasing costs. This is by far the hardest way to becoming carbon free, and will virtually guarantee when you consider energy generation can only go up and up that Germany will continue to be one of the dirtiest economys in the world. Only now it will also be one of the worst.


By comparasson, consider a flat carbon tax.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 6, 2013

there are only two “true” renewables and that is solar and wind what more of a “mix” can you offer

anyway even if you build say 100GW of solar PV on rooftops to give you the same energy as 10GW of nuclear (v.expensive vs larger ground based) you still have to upgrade massive lines and converter stations.

Residental units that were wired up to have a max demand of say 50GW are now exporting 100GW which means you need to potentially double the capacity of lines and converters. plus placing solar PV on a large scale on rooftops is the most loss method as you are exporting from the low voltage grid to the high voltage grid which is the most loss route vs a nuke exporting to a factory directly via the high voltage at 3% loss

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 8, 2013

If you could get them to be technology-neutral, I’d come back.  The bottom line for me is that anti-nuclearism kills tens of thousands of people per year; I don’t see what good they could possibly do that would offset that.

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