Climate analyst Jesse Ausubel is getting a lot of press with his new, controversial, deeply flawed study, “Renewable and nuclear heresies”–UPDATE: available here and you can also get the main points from this 2005 Canadian Nuclear Association talk and the accompanying PPT presentation.
He says ramping up renewables would lead to the “rape of nature.” His study concludes:
Renewables are not green. To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and biomass, cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square metre that each source could produce smashes these environmental idols. Nuclear energy is green. However, in order to grow, the nuclear industry must … form alliances with the methane industry to introduce more hydrogen into energy markets, and start making hydrogen itself…. Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.
Uh, no, no, and no. Jesse popularized the notion that the economy has been decarbonizing for many decades (see Figure 2 of the PPT). This has led him to make a bunch of serious mistakes.
First, he basically thinks decarbonizing is all but inevitable with some effort on our part (i.e. pushing nukes and hydrogen hard). But if you look closely at Figure 3, you’ll see that in the last few years we’ve been “recarbonizing” — coal use has been soaring while natural gas use has stalled. (Also, even Ausubel’s historical decarbonization was an essentially meaningless trend, since it did not stop absolute carbon levels from soaring dangerously in recent decades.)
Second, if decarbonization is all but inevitable, then global warming will mostly take care of itself. He doesn’t come out and say this, but his talk never discusses the threat of climate change, which is much more likely to rape nature than renewables.
Third, he thinks hydrogen is the inevitable future. In fact it is a dead end — the energy carrier of the future is electricity, hopefully with cellulosic ethanol. Sorry, Jesse, no one in their right mind would use nuclear power to make hydrogen, especially since fuel cells just convert the hydrogen back to electricity — wasting some 75% of the original electricity and requiring you to buy expensive electrolyzers, hydrogen infrastructure, and fuel cells.
His fourth mistake, the land analysis, which got all the recent attention — “Renewable energy projects will devour huge amounts of land, warns researcher” — is the most serious, I think.