Beyond Technology Tribalism

A Call for Humility and Comity in the Clean Tech Debates

Last week, Stony Brook professor and economics blogger Noah Smith published a blog post titled “Nuclear will die. Solar will live.” In the post, Smith argues that nuclear power plants are incredibly large, capital-intensive, and complex investments, while solar power “can be installed in large or small batches” and continues to benefit from cost reductions. Smith ties solar’s success to nuclear’s challenges and criticizes Breakthrough Institute for our “anti-solar antipathy.”

Smith’s claims are at odds with those of the US Energy Information Adminstration and the International Energy Agency, both of which report that solar still costs significantly more than new nuclear plants, even when those plants face major cost overruns, such as those just announced at the two plants under construction in Georgia, and even excluding the system costs of solar at significant penetrations.

Recent analyses from both the UN's Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) and the Brookings Institute find that high-renewables scenarios will cost up to four times as much as high-nuclear scenarios, while a new paper published in Applied Energy (Hong et al 2015) found that a nuclear-free pathway would cost 50 percent more and require fifteen times more land area.

Moreover, both IPCC and the IEA strongly warn against excluding nuclear power in their climate mitigation scenarios. Irrespective of the cost of solar and nuclear at relatively low present-day levels of deployment, few credible assessments have concluded that significant climate mitigation can be achieved without substantially larger contributions from nuclear power, which presently provides over 80 times more electricity nationally and 20 times more globally than does solar power.

But in his post, Smith is rehearsing one side of an argument that has raged between solar and nuclear advocates for years (if not decades), and I’d like to suggest that maybe it’s time for all of us to step away from the keyboard for a few moments and take a deep breath. Because the truth is, IEA, EIA, IPCC, DDPP, and Brookings actually have no idea what the transition to zero-carbon energy will cost. Noah Smith certainly doesn’t and neither do I.

Cost projections like the ones I quoted above get traded around all the time in arguments about energy and climate. There’s value to them. But they’re fundamentally a product of assumptions about rates of technological change, economic growth, costs of unknowable climate impacts, and other factors.

The upshot is that no one knows what low-carbon energy technologies will cost in the future. So it would be foolish to foreclose any zero-carbon energy technologies or decarbonization pathway. And it is essential to honestly confront the challenges faced by all low-carbon technologies without descending into tribalism and stereotyping.

This is the biggest problem with energy debates today. Efforts to promote one technology are automatically interpreted as opposition to another. Noting the limitations and challenges faced by anyone’s favored technology is considered an attack. Smith, ironically, complains about Breakthrough trolling solar while simultaneously trolling nuclear.

So how are we to differentiate good faith analysis from “trolling?” Here are two useful rules of thumb: First, are you willing to acknowledge the challenges associated with the technologies you advocate? The world’s heavy dependence upon fossil energy has not been a gigantic conspiracy against humanity. Fossil fuels dominate because they are cheaper and more reliable than low carbon alternatives. Were that not the case, solar, wind, and nuclear would not require sustained and continuing subsidies, deployment mandates, loan guarantees, and research support. For the record, Breakthrough has long recognized that scaling nuclear to levels necessary to mitigate climate change will require significant, sustained improvements to nuclear reactor technologies.

Second, do you advocate public support for other key low-carbon technologies? To be clear, that needs to extend beyond vague support for “research.” Supporting further research for technologies one does not support (as Smith does when he calls for more research into thorium reactors) while advocating deployment subsidies for those one does is really just stealth tribalism.

If we’re expecting advanced nuclear or solar technologies to emerge by partitioning “installation” (or diffusion) from “research,” then we’re tying both hands behind our backs. That’s why we at Breakthrough have continued to support renewables deployment policies, and indeed have long advocated deployment policies that would more rapidly drive renewables innovation, even as we have gotten clearer about the limitations and challenges associated with significantly scaling solar and wind energy.

In Smith’s defense, it’s difficult not to descend into tribal politics and draw sharp lines between our favored technologies. I’ll admit to being guilty of it myself sometimes. I’m trying to do less of it. It’s also hard to be a generalist, because you have to depend on experts and given the wicked and polarized nature of present-day energy debates, that often ends up meaning depending upon experts who are intensely partisan themselves.

Consider New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s longstanding dependence on the intensely polarizing climate blogger Joe Romm. I’m not sure how it is that Krugman decides that someone like Romm is right, while, say, Michael Levi or Roger Pielke, Jr., is wrong, other than establishing that Romm is on his team. I doubt that Krugman (or Smith for that matter) has ever actually run the numbers on the costs-per-kWh of solar or nuclear, or thought about how to account for the value of nuclear insurance or the real cost of integrating intermittent energy technologies into electrical grids. Nor do I think it likely that Smith has ever compared the benefits, in terms of cost or safety, of salt-cooled thorium-fueled reactors versus salt-cooled uranium-fueled reactors, or sodium fast reactors, or any of the dozens of other promising advanced nuclear reactor designs currently under development.

But what I do know is that the he-said, she-said attacks upon one another by solar and nuclear advocates have poisoned every echelon of the energy policy discourse, from the blogosphere all the way up to policymaking. Global warming is a huge challenge. It will require every low-carbon technology we have. Putting all of our eggs in either the solar or nuclear basket presumes knowledge of the future path of those technologies that nobody actually has.

Our best shot at transitioning to a low-carbon energy future is to bet on a broad portfolio of low-carbon technologies. What we need are not technology-neutral policies but technology-specific policies that provide support for key energy technologies all the way from research to demonstration to deployment and commercialization. Establishing a broad consensus for that kind of portfolio approach would go along way to taking the edge off of discussions about nuclear versus renewable energy technology.

A few years ago, I got into a similar tiff with Stephen Lacey, who then worked with Joe Romm at the Climate Progress blog and is now a Senior Editor at Greentech Media. Since then, I’d say both of us have had the opportunity to better understand the promises and obstacles remaining for our favored technologies. In a recent exchange, Stephen shared with me the ways in which his views, and just as importantly his posture, toward climate mitigation and energy technology have changed. With his permission, I’ll leave the last word to him:

The tribal warfare that is so common in debates about the low-carbon energy transition has burned me out. After watching and participating in these debates over the years — feeling like I always need to have the ‘right' answer — I’ve come to believe they are more about posturing than addressing the hard realities of energy.

I know most people are well meaning. I believe a robust and sometimes heated debate is healthy. But when we constantly pit ourselves against different tribes, we shut off a chance to seriously consider the merits of their arguments.

I’ve fallen victim to this tribalism in the past. However, as I’ve realized over the years how difficult it will be to serve 9 billion people with cheap, clean, abundant energy, I want to open myself up to more ideas on how to do that — not less.