Image credit: Solarcentury, used under Creative Commons license.
When feed-in tariffs for renewables were introduced in the UK, George Monbiot denounced them as a rip-off subsidy for the better off. Despite tumbling solar prices and rising installations, Monbiot has stuck by his guns—arguing that a combination of wind, nuclear and energy efficiency are the only sensible way for Britain to generate clean energy. Now a war of words has erupted, with a leading green pioneer, Sir Jonathan Porritt, denouncing Monbiot's "weird contrarian crusade", and arguing that nuclear and renewables cannot coexist.
It all started when Monbiot challenged Porritt to explain his stance on the incompatibility of renewables and nuclear. What, he asked, had the Government's Committee on Climate Change got wrong in advocating for nuclear? What should the nation's energy mix be like? Aren't there times when nuclear might even be preferable to renewables?
Porritt's response on why the UK must choose renewables is as fiery as it is detailed.
Insurance Liability is a gigantic Hidden Subsidy
He begins by arguing that the Committee on Climate Change's cost projections for nuclear are way off base—most notably because they exclude the issue of insurance liability:
Does Monbiot - or anyone, for that matter, on the Committee on Climate Change - actually understand the scale of this subsidy? Recent research by Versicherungsforen Leipzig GmbH (summary in English), a company that specialises in actuarial calculations, shows that full insurance against nuclear disasters would increase the price of nuclear electricity by a range of values - €0.14 per kilowatt hours (kWh) up to €2.36 per kWh - depending on assumptions made.
Meanwhile, he says, Monbiot also seems oblivious to research that the ferocious cost reductions in solar could lead to grid parity by 2020, even in rainy Britain.
Why Renewables and Nuclear Cannot Coexist
From the the vicious anti-renewables lobbying of the nuclear industry, to the problem of balancing a grid that uses renewables that may ebb and flow and nuclear power that must run 24/7 (as opposed to more responsive biomass or gas plants), Porritt provides plenty of material on why the two technologies can't exist side-by-side.
And when asked what his ideal energy mix would be, he suggests that 100% renewables are possible by 2050—if an aggressive push for efficiency is also followed—and that natural gas with carbon capture and storage provide a favorable alternative to nuclear as a bridge technology.
At the risk of evoking that false balance we always warn of, I will confess that I am stumped. While my green-leaning background has lead to an inherent distrust of nuclear, I have always tried to keep an open mind about what tools are best for fighting climate change and ensuring clean energy. And in a topic with so much data coming from all sides—many with vested interests in one side or the other—it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. Yet try as I might, I find it hard to envision a disaster scenario stemming from solar or wind that comes even close to the problems at Fukushima. And with relatives in the UK emailing stats on the impressive production from their solar panels, I find it hard to believe that we humans can't make a 100% renewable future if we actually put our minds to it.
Both Monbiot's challenge on why nuclear and renewables should be mutually exclusive, and Porritt's denouncing of Monbiot's "controvercialist tendencies" are well worth reading in full.
Whichever side you fall on, it's clear that battle lines are being drawn that will shape our energy future for decades to come.