Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Which Ralph Nader Demonstrates That He Has No Idea how To Solve Our Energy Problems

From Grist's interview with Nader:
Q. Going forward, what sets your environmental platform apart from the other candidates'?

A. I'm basically promoting a massive conversion from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. I'm not talking about corn ethanol, which has a very poor net energy- and water-usage characteristic. I'm talking about industrial hemp. I'm talking about plant life that can be efficiently converted to fuel -- like sugar cane, agricultural waste, cellulosic grasses, and certain kinds of biomass that can be grown with a spectacular ratio of energy inputs to outputs. I'm talking about a very fundamental remodeling of our economy -- a conversion from industrial-age, 19th-century technologies like the internal combustion engine to renewable, sustainable technologies of efficiency and production. We should have vehicles that get well over 100 miles per gallon. As Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken have shown, we can create far greater efficiencies in the use of our natural resources, whether it's copper, iron, oil, gas, timber, you name it.

I don't know where to start with this. The misunderstanding of how energy technology works is so fundamental that it's hard to take it seriously. And as cellulosic ethanol seems to be rapidly losing credibility as a "green" fuel, it seems Mr. Nader is a bit behind the times.
Q. Your website says, "No to nuclear power, solar energy first." How do you plan to phase out nuclear and phase in renewables?

A. Oh, this is easy. The first thing you gotta do to stop nuclear power is prevent government guarantees of Wall Street loans to nuclear power companies to build plants. They will not get private-sector financing without a 100 percent Uncle Sam guarantee. You appeal to conservatives and liberals who don't like corporate welfare and say, "Let's stop rigging the playing field and cut off loan guarantees to nuclear power."

As far as the renewables are concerned, you can do it in two ways: You can basically eliminate all direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear and say, "Let's have a level playing field." Or you could actively increase tax credits and subsidies to solar power because it has superior environmental and geopolitical benefits. Furthermore, the government's a big customer -- it can take its entire procurement power and direct it toward solar energy and sustainable technology.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that the current loan guarantees for nuclear only cover 80% of costs. Also, never mind that renewables currently receive extremely generous subsidies compared to nuclear in terms of the power they generate, but for some reason Exelon and FPL are planning to build new nuclear units anyway.
Q. Do you see renewable energy costing consumers more than conventional electricity?

A. If you include the costly military and environmental externalities of fossil fuels and nuclear, solar has been cost-competitive for years. If you exclude the externalities of finite fuels, wind power is already competitive, passive solar architecture is competitive. Meanwhile, the price of photovoltaics and other forms of solar-generated electricity are coming down very fast every year, and are on an upward curve of innovation -- with new technology, refined ways of producing the film, etc. They will be uniformly competitive within the next 10 years.

I wonder if Nader is a betting man. If so, I'll gladly bet him a large sum of money that not all forms of solar technology will be "uniformly competitive" (in terms of cost per kWh) as of March 20, 2018.

I'd also like to see an analysis that actually supports the view that solar "has been cost-competitive for years." It's well-known that solar is extremely expensive, even compared to other renewables. Take, for instance, the case of natural gas. Until a few years ago, this was the ultimate fuel- cheap and relatively clean. It's really hard to argue that solar was cost-competitive with natural gas in 2001 when environmental externalities were figured in. But it seems like Nader is much more into appealing-sounding talking points than stuff like evidence and science.

Q. What do you think is the most important environmental issue we face after climate and energy?

A. It's all about solar, in all its manifestations -- from passive solar to active, including photovoltaics, solar thermal, and efficient biomass [plant life fed by sunlight]. Wind is also a form of solar energy, because the sun creates the earth's climate, including the winds within it. Solar is the greatest universal solvent for environmental hazards.

This is the sign of a mind that simply cannot think holistically. Think of all the environmental problems that Nader takes personal credit for solving. Now consider how many of those would have been solved by greater adoption of solar energy technology. Doesn't seem like so much of a "universal solvent," does it?

Q. Maybe you should get an honorary percentage. On to another topic: Who is your environmental hero?

A. There are several. One is David Brower. Another is Barry Commoner, who wrote Making Peace With the Planet, among other great books on the environment. The third one is Amory Lovins.

With a hero like Lovins, it's no wonder Nader is so confused. I'm actually surprised by the incredible lameness of Nader's anti-nuclear arguments, given his reputation- I would say that it's actually below the level of Harvey Wasserman. Compared to the relatively competent (if still ultimately unconvincing) anti-nuclear arguments of groups like the UCS, there's no comparison.

Take, for instance, this 2007 piece by Nader about nuclear power. Besides recycling tired 1970s talking points (like characterizing nuclear as "A pretty complex chain of events to boil water."), he also offers a curious challenge:
Here is a suggestion to put the industry's propaganda to rest. Will any high nuclear industry executive debate physicist Amory Lovins at the National Press Club filled with electric company leaders? If so, please visit and contact Mr. Lovins.
I'm not so sure that an industry executive is the man for the job. But I'd pay a handsome sum to see Lovins publicly debate someone like Robert Bryce, who handily demolished Lovins' core theories about energy efficiency. Or how about Sir David King, who has been instrumental in reviving nuclear power in the United Kingdom? It's time that we let the public know that both economics and climate science are pretty firmly in the pro-nuclear camp.


ryanshaunkelly said...


Ralph Nader would love a REAL debate.

Sovietologist said...

If he'd love a real debate, why is he volunteering Lovins to do it for him?

ryanshaunkelly said...

This will take many more than two people.

Mine was USN under Rickover then Westinghouse - but I would like to hear from Dr Caldicott & Pres Carter too.

Stephen said...

If you took away all subsidies the first thing that would happen is solar and wind ventures would cease to exist. The second is solar generating projects would liquidate, pull up the solar panels and try to sell them as surplus.

If you had no subsidies and basically allowed for anything coal would win for base load power. we already have coal plants in place and lets face it: Coal is dirt cheap because it's basically dirt that burns.

If you had a system where there were no subsidies and where all power sources were responsible for the costs of the whole fuel cycle and energy system. For example, coal being taxes proportionately to the damage done to health and the enviornment, then nuclear wins hands down and the others may as well forfit.

The only problem nuclear really has is the boneheaded, redundant regulation and the fact that it can be hijacked to force hearings, stalling and so on.

If you cut subsidies you have to create a fair regulation process.

In that circumstance, nuclear wins.