The pros and cons of seven positions on zero-carbon energy: A guide
Debates on energy policy can easily derail. To recognise and avoid caricatures, we need a better understanding of what the different positions are and aren’t. In this piece, Rauli Partanen, author of the free e-book Writing about energy: A companion for journalists and readers, offers some much-needed mental clarity.
By Rauli Partanen
A mix of zero-carbon sources such as solar, wind and nuclear, generated by AI. (Image: vecstock, Freepik)
There seems to be a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and even name-calling going on regarding positions on different sources of clean energy. A lot of these problems are born from the term ‘renewable’, which has somehow come to mean ‘clean’ in a rather exclusive way. This misnomer easily creates division, so here I try to explain what being pro-renewable, pro-nuclear, pro-RE100% (100% renewable energy) and pro-‘level playing field’ actually mean.
This should all be pretty basic stuff, but given the number of misunderstandings I see on social and traditional media regarding these subjects, it seems it’s not.
I consider myself to be pro-renewable. I think we need to allow these technologies to play their part. But this does not mean we should build them in all circumstances, support them fiscally above everything else, ban other alternatives, or have ‘adding more renewable energy’ as a policy goal. At least for me, being pro-renewable is a statement that we should use these energy sources to replace fossil fuels, to mitigate climate change wherever they make sense, at the quantity that makes sense.
For example, even if I am pro-renewable, I would not want to see an ancient forest razed for energy, because, well, it doesn’t make much sense to protect nature by destroying it, now does it? Renewable energy sources should follow the same rules of assessing environmental impact as any other projects, and we need to be able to talk about their problems as well.
For me, being pro-renewable is a statement that we should use these energy sources to replace fossil fuels and mitigate climate change wherever they make sense
Indeed, renewables need to answer for their external costs and problems just like any other adult, and saying this out loud is not being anti-renewable. Quite the opposite; I think people who argue that others should pay for all the externalities of any given energy source are doing that technology, and society, a disservice in the long run. It also does not exclude me from being pro- other solutions as well!
So yes, pro-renewable, but not at any cost, not under all circumstances, not as an end goal in itself. One can be pro-renewable but oppose a certain renewable energy project if there is good reason to do so. The end goal is clean, reliable and affordable energy for all, as soon as possible.
When someone is pro-RE100% (or something close to that), it basically means they want to ban all solutions other than those that fit under the ‘renewable energy’ label. For RE100% people, renewable energy is the end goal, and they are sometimes prepared to go to disturbing lengths to get there. For example, these people often argue that nuclear energy should either be banned or made so expensive that it will go away. Pretty much from everybody, everywhere.
Some RE100% people also want to limit the role of bioenergy, given its problems for the environment and biodiversity. Bioenergy’s Global Warming Potential (GWP) can be quite high, even if the ‘biocarbon’ eventually gets sucked into the biosphere (and then gets burned again, so in reality, forest-based bioenergy is carbon neutral some 50–100 years AFTER we stop using it, meanwhile causing a lot of warming to happen).
I agree with this position on limiting the role of bioenergy to something that can honestly be called sustainable (ecologically, socially and economically), but it also makes the whole RE100% idea much more unlikely to ever work at required scale and acceptable cost. Bioenergy is, together with hydro, the only major reliable source of renewable energy. And the reliability of our energy/electricity system is something we cannot give up.
One of the key assumptions of RE100% arguments seems to be that renewables’ costs are forever externalised for others to pay
One of the key assumptions of RE100% arguments seems to be that renewables’ costs are forever externalised for others to pay (and therefore remain very ‘cheap’ and only get cheaper). In this line of thinking, the intermittency of wind and solar production is a problem for nuclear energy and the rest of the energy system, if it cannot ramp up fast enough to keep the grid stable or stay profitable, even when forced to pay the costs of others. There is a weird ‘master-slave’ setting at play, and that comes from the core target of having more renewable energy, at any cost – as long as that cost is incurred by someone else.
To give an analogue in medicine, RE100% is like wanting to ban working medical treatments, like vaccines or antibiotics, and force everyone to use a certain set of treatments for all sicknesses. It is an ideology that demands a problem be solved in a very specific way, even if it would cause much bigger problems.
A person who is anti-renewable is more or less categorically against wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy. Given that the term ‘renewable’ includes many different technologies, one is rarely against all of them. So there are degrees to this: maybe someone is against burning biomass, but that does not necessarily mean she would be ‘anti-renewable’ or against wind, solar or hydro as well.
Maybe someone is against burning biomass, but that does not necessarily mean she would be against wind, solar or hydro as well
These people want to ban at least some of these technologies and ban people and companies from investing in them. I must admit I have never met such a person. Being anti-renewable is a different position from being against renewable energy subsidies, preferential treatment, or portfolio standards for renewables (see level playing field below).
It is also a different position to being against a certain project, which might be just due to the NIMBY effect (Not In My BackYard). I am generally for wind, but can understand if people do not want to have a wind farm in their neighbourhood. I’m not so sure I would either!
Anti-nuclear means you want to ban nuclear energy from being used, either immediately or in the long term, OR you want to see it restricted or hindered in a way that it eventually becomes uneconomical. Both cases have been represented in numerous countries and political parties around the world. People even claim that nuclear is uneconomical AND it should be banned by law – perhaps preventing anyone from wasting their money building it or accidentally making it more economical?
Anti-nuclear means you want to ban nuclear energy, or you want to see it restricted or hindered in a way that it eventually becomes uneconomical
Often, but not always, people who are anti-nuclear say they are pro-renewable energy or even pro-RE100%. Sometimes these people are just anti-technology or anti-modernity in general. Other times, they project their general angst or distrust of big organisations, government or hierarchies in general onto ‘something’, with the nuclear industry presenting an almost perfect target of opportunity. Sometimes they have a personal reason to hate the technology, industry or institutions.
This list is not exhaustive.
And as with anti-renewable above, even if one is against a specific project, it does not mean one is against nuclear in general. Such a person might even be vehemently pro-nuclear in general, just against a certain project for certain reasons.
I consider myself pro-nuclear. But not at any cost, and not exclusively. So being pro-nuclear does not mean I want only nuclear or that I want it at any cost. For me, it means that we should allow nuclear to play its role to its full potential in cleaning up our energy production – just as we should with other clean energy sources. I would not want to see nuclear forced into places where better options exist – but we need to compare the options on a level playing field (more on this later).
For me, pro-nuclear means that we should allow nuclear to play its role to its full potential in cleaning up our energy production
As with renewable energy, one can be pro-nuclear and oppose a certain bad project for good reasons. And as with renewables, this is a difficult line, as people tend to justify their ends. It could mean that one claims to be ‘pro-nuclear or pro-renewable’ in general, but then comes up with all kinds of reasons and justifications to oppose any given project.
6. Pro-100% nuclear
I have not met many people who push for 100% nuclear, or even something close. Most who I consider to be extremely pro-nuclear still see a role for other clean energy sources, and certainly not many want to ban people from investing their own money in solar panels, for example.
The boldest I have seen are claims that we might do well to use nuclear to provide the majority of our energy needs. The best reasoning for this I have seen is that nuclear is seen as the only reliable source of both heat and electricity that can scale up significantly. Electricity is only 20% of our end energy use, so we need to solve that heat thing as well, along with transportation fuels. Yet fundamentally, this is an ideological position.
7. Pro-level playing field
Most who are pro-renewable AND pro-nuclear are these things because they are pro-level playing field. I certainly am. Let’s allow all solutions to ‘play it out’ on an honest level playing field – and in an ‘open marketplace’. Each technology and producer should pay for their costs and not externalise them onto others.
Oh, and this includes, first and foremost, fossil fuels as well. Depending on the statistical value we use for a human life, if we include the health cost of air pollution released from coal burning alone in Europe, this might easily double its cost in electricity production, not to mention costs associated with carbon dioxide emissions.
We aim for a low-carbon, reliable and affordable energy system, so we should design the market and regulations in a way that supports achieving this goal
The system we are aiming for is low-carbon, reliable and affordable energy services for all humankind, as soon as is feasible. We should design the market and regulations in a way that supports achieving this goal as effectively as possible. Depending on the circumstances, the optimal result might well be RE99% or nuclear 99%, an equal mix of both, or something else, probably even some fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage in the mix.
Not being for a level playing field by definition means that you are against something. It means you would like the market of policy frameworks to be tilted towards something and against something else.
Being pro-something is not in itself exclusive. Being pro-vaccination does not mean one argues we should not also use antibiotics or other proven ways to cure and prevent disease. Being pro-RE100%, pro-100% nuclear or something similar, however, is exclusive. It excludes other solutions that do not meet a predetermined and often arbitrary range of criteria. That is an ideological position, while being inclusive is more of an evidence-based position. The difference between these two is, of course, that only one is based on evidence of something actually working or not working.
Sometimes people who demand change to this or that policy are called out as lobbyists, or shills, or thought to be anti-everything else. This is often not the case, because the current state of things should not be mistaken for a level playing field.
Having more solutions at our disposal means we can solve problems faster, with less risk and at lower cost
An example: someone might call for abandoning or not adding a feed-in tariff for one energy source. This does not mean she is against that energy source. She might simply be FOR a more inclusive and level playing field. It is a fact that having more solutions at our disposal means we can solve problems faster, with less risk and at lower cost, so this is not a bad position to be in. It is a good one.
So if you want to see yourself as ‘neutral’ on these topics, or a cool-headed analyst, that is fine. But then you need to acknowledge that the current situation (policy environment, market design etc) is biased. It is nowhere near what can be called a level playing field. By being in favour of letting the current system play out, one actually favours some solutions heavily over others, depending on the region and country.
Rauli Partanen is a board member and co-founder of Suomen Ekomodernistit, RePlanet’s member organisation in Finland. He’s an award-winning science writer and analyst, focusing on energy, the environment and human society. His books include Climate Gamble, The Age of Energy and Writing About Energy. Rauli and his family of five live in the beautiful countryside of Finland. In his spare time he gives Capoeira classes. This article first appeared in The Fourth Generation.