Shellenberger provides expansive clean energy vision in 7:25

On February 23, 2016, the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability hosted a debate on following proposition:

Is California’s 100% Renewable Strategy Globally Viable?

The debate format was a two on two with a moderator. On the side defending the viability of the strategy, Mark Z. Jacobson, the Stanford professor and energy system model creator whose work is widely cited as proving the practicality of a 100% wind, water, solar energy system for all uses, was teamed up with Dale Bryk of the National Resources Defense Council.

On the side opposing the 100% renewable energy strategy Michael Shellenberger, an ecomodernist who has concluded that clean energy future will not work without nuclear energy and most recently has founded an organization named Save Diablo Canyon, was paired with Ken Calderia, one of the four climate scientists who have publicly challenged policy influencers who dismiss nuclear energy to reconsider their opposition.

There were several hundred people who attended the event in person; UCLA also live streamed the event and archived a recorded copy on YouTube.

I recommend watching the full event when you have the time. While doing so, please pay close attention to the body language of the participants. You should notice that at least one of them would be fun — and profitable — to have as a poker opponent. Some of his faces are priceless “tells” that make it clear what he is thinking; bluffing would not come easily to him.

For this second clip from the debate, I’ll focus on Michael Shellenberger’s opening statement. Like Jacobson, he fired his points rapidly to fit them into a tight allotted time window. For those of who have studied debate, pedagogy and/or public speaking, I suspect you can find a number of examples of recommended tactics and strategies.

Note: Mark Jacobson’s lead in the words per minute category didn’t last long. Michael spoke 1450 words in 7:25, for an average of 195 words/min or 3.2 words/second.


Michael Shellenberger: Thank you Oliver and thank you everybody for coming. So, those of us that hope to make it to the year 2050 have the chance to see something that is really amazing. Which is that there’s the possibility that every human being on earth will have the possibility to live a life of basic material prosperity. And that’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about the fact that we have been around for 200,000 years. In 1820, eighty-five percent of us lived in extreme poverty; today just fifteen percent of us do.

That’s an amazing possibility. The other thing that can happen is that overall, humankind’s negative environmental impact could peak and decline. And this follows the same everywhere in the world. People go from being subsistence farmers who depend on wood and dung to getting jobs in cities, usually in factories or office buildings. They tend to have fewer kids, invest more in them.

Pollution rises… all forms of pollution rises at first in cities but then it peaks and declines. Pittsburg in 1940, smoke filled the streets. Bejing today, New Deli today, but over the last 40 years in the United States, pollution has been going down. All forms of conventional air pollution except one and that’s carbon dioxide. But here’s something that’s amazing. In the United States and some European countries, now our carbon emissions have peaked and are going down and much of that is from our transition from coal to natural gas.

That’s a vision that I think should be inspiring to all of us. This vision of universal prosperity and more room for nature. So here’s the challenge for it. To get to that, as Mark mentioned, there are still two to four billion people that depend on wood or dung for their primary energy. They’ve built a lot of hydroelectric dams in Africa, they’ve got a lot of natural gas, some of them will be able leapfrog coal to natural gas. But everywhere in the world, still, and a major study just came out of seventy-six economies, the amount of energy we consume is precisely coupled with our per capita GDP.

In other words, the amount of energy that it took for us to be making $50,000 per capita in the United States is the same amount of energy as it takes the Chinese and Indians. In fact, it takes the Chinese and Indians a little more energy. So energy and quality of life are coupled. That’s why a lot of us think that energy will probably double or triple globally by 2050… towards the end of the century.

In this process, you see some really exciting things happening. People move to the cities and wildlife returns. Forests grow back when people don’t need to use them as their wood fuel. In the United States and Europe our forests have been coming back for 100 years. Our wildlife is coming back to the point where we have so many more conflicts.

And as I mentioned, the big challenge as we move is the final pollutant, CO2; we’ve got to get that number to zero. And you can see a pattern here. We’re going from more carbon intensive fuels, wood and dung to coal, to oil, to natural gas, to uranium. Which is what we use for nuclear fission. Higher power densities in each fuel with fewer pollutants and waste.

So, when you think about any kind of productive process, when it comes to the environment, it’s really simple. You want the least amount of nature, or what we call natural resources, coming in. You want the most product, whether it is electricity or shoes or anything else coming out. You want the least amount of waste and the least amount… hopefully zero pollution.

And what you find is in that progress, that process of wood and dung, to coal, to oil, to natural gas, to uranium, that’s exactly what happens. Declining carbon content, declining pollution content. Smaller amounts of natural resource are required to produce more power.

To give you an example, not far away from here, the last nuclear power plant in California called Diablo Canyon. On three football fields of area in size, it produces power for three million people. To produce that same amount of power with solar, you would need over 100 times as much land. To produce that same amount of power with wind, you would need 500 times as much land.

This is… I rely on the IPCC for the data and the numbers I’m going to be citing tonight. Mark’s numbers are not IPCC’s numbers and you can just look that up after we’re done here tonight. Does nuclear, does its uranium fuel scare people? Sure. Do vaccines scare people? Absolutely. Do we get over our fears? We do, when we realize that those fears put us at risk. We can’t let irrational fears put us at risk. Go look at the peer reviewed literature. Just Google it on the mortality, deaths from energy sources. It goes on that same decline. Wood and dung, to coal, to oil, to natural gas, to uranium its a very simple process.

It scares us, sure. But fertilizer, nitrogen fertilizer comes out of the same process used to make ammunition. And we don’t ban fertilizer, say we’re not going to use fertilizer anymore. It’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City building. We don’t allow our fears to govern what we do. We don’t ban high rise buildings. I get terrified when I go into them.

We overcome our phobias. So let’s talk about the role of solar and wind. They’re vital. I mean, I’ve been an advocate for solar and wind for about 20 years of my life. One of the challenges that we had… I spent about ten years working to build Cape Wind off the coast of Cape Cod. One Dale’s board members, Bobby Kennedy Jr. stopped that project from getting built. It was in his view shed. It was right where he liked to sail. He’s also been an obvious critic of vaccines. He says vaccines cause autism. And he’s been a big critic of nuclear power.

So, can solar and wind play a role? Sure. But the opposition to solar and wind comes from, you guessed it, people who are concerned about the natural environment. That’s where it comes from in California; local Sierra Club chapters sue to stop solar farms. And I’m not saying it’s a wrong thing; I’m not saying it’s a right thing. These are local land use issues. But the idea that you can scale up a power source that requires so much more land and put all of your eggs in that basket, I think is a risky move when it comes to a climate perspective.

So, let’s talk about the economics of this. Dale’s group, the NRDC, which I used to work for a number of years ago, we succeeded in getting huge subsidies for wind and solar. So to give you a sense of it, solar is subsidized at 140 times more than nuclear and wind is subsidized 17 times more than nuclear. Don’t believe me; don’t take my word for it. Congressional Research Service did the study. Those are the subsidies.

When the wind subsidy is cut off, no more wind turbines get built in the United States; full stop. The same thing is true in the UK and in Spain where they are just phasing out those subsidies.

So, I’m going to wrap up by just asking a question of my panelists. I want to equalize subsidies too. I hope all my panelists will agree with me. Let’s equalize energy subsidies. Let’s expand the Renewable Portfolio Standards in all of the states to include nuclear. Let’s treat all zero carbon sources of energy equally and fairly. And I also further ask, let’s work together to stop Diablo Canyon from getting closed down. NRDC hasn’t taken a position on it; Mark Jacobs [sic] has called for the last nuclear plant in California… he wants to tear it down.

That plant produces more power than all of our solar in the state, which has taken 20 years to build up. It will put the equivalent of more than 2 million cars worth of carbon dioxide pollution on the road (snapping fingers) overnight. How often do you get a chance to prevent that much carbon emissions from going up?

So, I want to invite all of you as well to please join me in Saving Diablo Canyon (laughter) and preventing California from going the wrong direction on climate change. Thank you very much.


I do not have as many arguments with what Shellenberger said as I do with Jacobson’s volley, but I do have a couple of comments.

We’re going from more carbon intensive fuels, wood and dung to coal, to oil, to natural gas, to uranium. Which is what we use for nuclear fission. Higher power densities in each fuel with fewer pollutants and waste.

Shellenberger’s sequence of wood and dung to coal, to oil, to natural gas, to uranium has one fuel that does not match the sequence of higher power density. Natural gas might cleaner and less polluting that oil because it is a more pure hydrocarbon in its natural state, but it is far LESS energy dense because it is a gas. Only when it is refrigerated and shrunk to 1/600th of its natural volume — at standard temperature and pressure — does methane have a slightly higher energy density than gasoline or diesel fuel.

I would also have used my pocket visual aid of a simulated uranium dioxide fuel pellet to illustrate the huge leap from combustion energy sources to fission energy sources. That tiny pellet — if it was an actual fuel pellet — would contain as much energy as a ton of coal, or 147 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

FuelPelletvisual

Does nuclear, does its uranium fuel scare people? Sure.

I would have inserted the word ‘some‘ between ‘scare’ and ‘people’. In my crowd, that fear is not innate or natural; it is carefully taught in some households sometime well after a child learns that ovens are hot and that parking lots are places where they need to hold adult hands. In other places, it is never taught and never learned.

Other than those quibbles, I think Michael did a stellar job with his opening statement. He had several other excellent opportunities to rebut and to answer questions. Again, I recommend viewing the whole debate. If you have plans to be in a nuclear energy debate in the future, it would be a good way to prepare.

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