The Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University hosted the 2016 Silicon Valley Energy Summit yesterday. The headline attraction was an “Oxford-style” debate featuring two Nobel laureates–Steven Chu and Burton Richter–versus UC-Berkeley’s Dan Kammen and NRDC’s Ralph Cavanagh. The topic was promoted as Resolved: “The World Needs A Nuclear Renaissance.”
The event was live-streamed and then published on YouTube. Andy Revkin (@Revkin) of the New York Times notified his followers about the event with the following tweet.
— Andy Revkin (@Revkin) June 3, 2016
It’s not completely fair to set up a debate that pits two scientists against a team that includes a lawyer. As a general rule, scientists have spent less time practicing the art of persuasion and finding winning talking points when compared to lawyers.
In this case, the scientists involved are far better than average communicators; they both have long and distinguished records of service, publication, committee work and participating in public discussions. They also have deep understanding of the importance and complexities of our existing energy supply system. Their opponents were well informed with pro renewable and aggressive efficiency talking points and they were exceptionally good speakers.
Though the headline of Revkin’s piece might be misinterpreted as a judgement about the debate winner, he explained that he was merely reporting on the final score of the game under the governing rules provided at the start.
Nine people said they swayed in one direction. Eight were swayed the other. I’ll let you watch to figure out which side won, if you care. This result was clearly within the margin of error, and the unswayed majority demonstrates how positions on this issue, particularly among those most engaged, are deeply rooted and not open to suasion.
It’s not surprising when an hour long debate among skilled participants doesn’t change many minds, especially when the audience is already reasonably well informed about the topic.
A good debate, however, is not just about reversing existing positions with a single stroke. It is one of many tools that help people learn. It provides time-efficient insights into issues that have many nuances and strongly held views that can be extremely far apart, even among well-educated and informed people.
The below qualifies as a good debate. It was well worth the time invested in watching it. Since most people have less available time than I do, I’ve also isolated some highlight sections below.
The moderator, Jeff Ball, took the liberty of starting the discussion with a slant; he shared a future prediction attributed to the International Energy Agency and emphasized that the IEA, described as “one influential group of experts” believes that nuclear energy will only increase its electricity market share from 11% to 12% between now and 2040. Ball’s introduction also pushed the discussion towards a focus on the United States, even though the advertised debate topic was whether or not “the world needs a Nuclear Renaissance.”
Burt Richter, during his opening statement, directly contradicted the wind, water, sunshine, storage and geothermal visions that Dan Kammen wants to depend on. He earned a laugh by playing the wise old man card and calling Kammen a “young puppy,” but his point was deadly serious. The all renewables crowd makes big claims, but the people responsible for providing power to society aren’t buying their assertions.
Ralph Cavanagh made a statement that makes a lot of sense by suggesting that competitive markets should reduce their reliance on day ahead bidding and move towards a system with competitive procurement of longer term contracts, which he later defined as being as long as 20-30 years.
It’s worth noting that the owners of both Vermont Yankee and Kewaunee would probably have kept those power plants running if they had been able to land a long term power purchase agreement (PPA) that was even remotely comparable to those available in their territories to suppliers of hydro, wind or solar energy.
Large scale energy storage is of the major cornerstones of the argument coming from the side that believes a nuclear renaissance is unnecessary. They admit that the wind and sun often are not available at the time that people want or need power, but they provide a litany of various technologies that they confidently assert will be available by the time they are needed.
Steven Chu, a man with a deep energy research, national laboratory management, and Department of Energy leadership background does not believe that the technologies listed are capable of more than filling in for brief outages. They are not long term solutions and cannot provide seasonal storage. Kammen optimistically, but vaguely disagreed.
Kammen specifically talked about the possibility that electric cars and light vehicles could someday offer virtually free storage to the grid. Supposedly, such sources would be called on to fill in the gaps when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining.
Burt Richter pointed out the weakness of that idea. As he says, you can’t strand all of the people in the US at their homes or places of work because the wind died and grid operators needed to drain their batteries to keep the lights on.
For the final debate highlight, it’s worth watching the confusion at the end of the debate when the moderator attempted to score the results.
There is little or no doubt of the root source of most of the opposition’s arguments. They are directly from the playbook that Amory Lovins began developing in the early 1970s when he was one of the first campaigners for Friends of the Earth, that he first published in his seminal Oct 1976 Foreign Affairs article titled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” and that he has refined during the past 40 years of being lauded as an energy guru.
The arguments were seductive then; they still manage to deceive some people some of the time.
People that recognize the truth, ask the necessary hard questions and expose the lack of demonstrable successes in the Lovins energy strategy mirage are finally making their voices heard.
I’d love to have the opportunity to engage in a public debate about the bright future of nuclear energy with the best that the antinuclear opposition has to offer.