Snippets on Energy #8

Image credit: Chris LeBoutillier via Unsplash

This is the last installment of a mini-series on the energy transition. For a catalogue of prior posts written on the topic please visit the article titled:
The crux of the energy transition.

When it comes to the environmental and health impacts of various energy sources, we see a completely different picture compared to previous assessment points. Regarding direct pollution (released during energy production) renewables and nuclear are simply unbeatable. Statistically speaking they are the cleanest and safest sources of power humanity has ever encountered. Yes, even nuclear — based on past experience. (The future of nuclear is a completely different story however, but more on that later.) True, when disaster struck, the death toll can be high — but compared to the amount of energy these plants have produced in the past half a century, they’ve actually saved many more lives than they took during the unfortunate events of Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and all the rest — combined.

Strictly on a statistical basis and measured per Terawatt-hours produced (that is one trillion watts — the annual consumption of 27,000 people in the EU) nuclear was historically responsible for a mere 0.07 deaths — or one death per every 14.3 TWh of electricity generated. Brown coal, the dirties of all energy resources on the other hand was taking 32.7 human souls for every TWh — 467 times more than nuclear. It’s no wonder: air pollution kills. The decision of the German government to phase out nuclear sooner than coal has actually sent several hundreds or thousands of people to their graves… Much more than it was lost in nuclear accidents (and their aftermath). One should never underestimate the persuasive power of fossil fuel interests, even when it comes down to sacrificing actual lives.

Oil can be found in the middle of the bunch with 18 deaths/TWh, while natural gas comes at a cost of 2.8 lives on average. “Renewables” are taking 0.02–0.04 lives only, earning the title of the safest of all energy sources. So, looking at death rates from direct air pollution we seem to be on the right track! We will be soon closing all coal fired power plants in Europe, switch to renewables, plus some nuclear, while the rest of our electricity will be coming from natural gas. Electric vehicles will flood the streets and the air of Europe will be clean once again. At the same time will also get rid of the green house gas emissions, a true win-win right? (Err, except for natural gas which is still releasing a whopping 490,000 tons of CO2 / TWh, but it is a “bridge fuel” [sic!] so why bother.)

What rarely gets accounted for discussing these wonderfully clean, new energy sources is the impact they have on the other side of the globe. Cobalt used in batteries (a poisonous heavy metal) is mined using ‘artisan’ and child labor with no protective equipment, or any care for human (and environmental) rights. Or the mining of rare earth metal neodymium — a key ingredient in wind turbine magnets — in Batou, Inner-Mongolia, where radioactive toxic waste gets poured into open-air tail-ponds, where it is allowed to dry up and thus taken up by the wind… Blowing it into the nearest city. Solar panel production is no exception either: forced labor is reported to be used at the biggest producer of the world.

There is no such thing as clean (and cheap) energy. Sure, the “production” of these metals could be made more people and environmentally friendly… But at what cost…? Would it raise the price of panels and turbines into a prohibitive range? Most probably, I guess.

Of course oil extraction too is highly destructive. Production in the Niger-delta, and other less fortunate places, is killing more people and animals than any of these processes mentioned above. Oil spills, tanker accidents, methane releases etc. are abundant in the history of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, all of these are considered to be nothing more than “externalities” (using corporate lingo) — minor costs to be taken care of compared to the (once) enormous profit margins. It seems, that environmental damage is the price we pay for cheap energy.

Now back to nuclear. Dismantling old power-plants, and getting rid of the spent fuel rods, or the wastewater produced by Fukushima for that matter, is still a problem waiting to be resolved. And a very big one (1). In my opinion, we shouldn’t allow any new plants to be built unless the building (not just the planning!) of a robust solution is well underway. But you know, this is just one of those bugging little externalities someone would surely take care of in the future… Yeah, sure just like CO2.

Doubling down on our efforts to add renewables and nuclear to the energy mix and to electrify everything in a rapid rush just exacerbates our predicament even further. It creates a huge demand for these materials and increases competition to supply them at the lowest cost possible. It creates incentives to open more mines on Earth than ever before, further deepening their environmental impact. Activities, which are already leading to increased air pollution from dust — containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic elements. The burning of even more fossil fuels to move those heavy machines. Water pollution and competition for fresh water with local agriculture. Permanent damages to fragile ecosystems. Loss of biodiversity. Human rights abuses.

Is this what we really need amidst an already severe ecological crisis…?

Why haven’t it occurred to anyone that we should power down instead? Because it is a lot less profitable…? For sure there are no easy choices in this matter. The energy transition will cost us a lot, but not acting will cost us even more. Doing it right however, by down-scaling human activities first and giving up most of the conveniences in the West, could make this transition a lot less damaging for the planet and the rest of its inhabitants.

I know that this is a tall order and not a particularly popular message. The wealthy part of the planet must learn to live with much less energy to avert the worst of the ecological crisis. At the same time the global south must also give up their dreams to live like Americans. No one on this planet can afford this lifestyle anymore. Voters from all classes would need to accept the fact that there is simply no going back to the early 2000’s. There are not enough cheap resources left to do that. No carbon budget. No more habitats to destroy. And no planet to devour.

Until next time,

B

Notes:

(1) If the future of energy production turns out be as intermittent and as unreliable as I, and experts much smarter than me predict, then we are in deep-deep trouble. Should the active cooling of spent fuel rods laying around in open-air pools, be disrupted for a mere couple of days, the cooling water would first boil then dry up completely, allowing the still highly radioactive rods to burn in the open air, releasing tons of radioactive pollution into the winds… I wonder, if there is any plan C for that event at any nuclear site should the supply of diesel for the backup generators be disrupted…

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