Energy Disrupters Unite 2019. A smaller conference in an important city in an important province in a country that I love, even with it’s problems. Here I spent 2 days listening to some of the most driven, and insightful people I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Their talks wandered over and through almost every topic under the sun related to decarbonization and the multitude of proposed paths to that goal.
Whether is was Biomimcry and a circular economy with Michael Pawlyn… The social aspects of a world attempting to purposefully change rather than accidentally change by Malcolm Gladwell… Battery technology improvements, by Dr. Christina Lampe-Onnerud of Cadenza Innovation… Novel application of Blockchain technologies for flexible energy market regulation and costing by Jojo Hubbard… The inevitability of electric cars and other small commuter vehicles by Volkswagen…. Hydrogen, ammonia, and synthetic fuels as replacements for gasoline and natural gas…. The ways of resolving conflict by realizing that conflicts of interest and conflicts of values are not the same…. The fears of nuclear, why and how to answer and assuage them…. Or how technology evolves through social means, while also evolving the very social fabric that shapes it, the entirety of the conference followed through with it’s name and encouraged us all to face the problems that we face together.
But throughout most of it I felt like a bit of an outsider and I couldn’t put a finger on why. Sure I’m not the most social person so I might have done my best impersonation of a wall flower from time to time( which definitely wasn’t prevented by the amazingly comfy sitting arrangements). But in the end it hit me that despite everything that I saw ostensibly being aimed towards the same goal, it felt to me like all the paths, options, and opportunities were acting as if they were competing Against each other prior to confronting fossil fuels usage, rather than competing With each other while confronting fossil fuels usage.
But that doesn’t just apply to renewables technologies. I’m sure everyone who has any interest in the energy sector has come across a nuclear advocate who champions nuclear at the expense of all other options. Probably using arguments similar to “it’s the most efficient method”, or “it can do it by itself so we don’t need to waste money on anything else”. I know I have. But I believe that I can’t wonder at why I felt it was happening at the conference without examining whether I thought that way about my chosen method of transitioning our energy sector and how it interacts with the rest of the energy ecosystem. I might be occasionally less than observant but I like to think that I try to avoid being hypocritical.
But what can I do to counter this way of thinking? I can’t lampoon other industries for fighting among themselves before tackling the true challenge if what I have chosen to represent is behaving in the same flawed manner.
Well if we think about this, the basis of this flawed conflict is the assumption that a technology can do everything, so therefore it must compete with everything. But as anyone who has followed the development of the F-35 fighter jet can tell you, if you try to be the best at everything, you’ll just end up being not that great at anything.
So what needs to happen is we need an energy ecosystem, instead of an energy cage match. To find niches for every option where they can showcase how they operate best while still having enough overlap with competing technologies to promote friendly competition to spur growth in both groups and prevent the formation of cartel-esque behaviour.
But where would nuclear fit in in this supposed ecosystem?
Some might expect me to call it the apex predator and to put it right at the top, but I have a history of reversals and I see no reason to stop. In fact nuclear is the very bottom of the food chain, the plants and algae that support the whole vibrant ecology above it. In words our more video game focused readers might understand more easily, nuclear is the healer main. The person who is already sitting pretty as the teams medic when you sign in to the matchmaking screen.
Algae supports every thing on the planet, no playing favourites or picking winners. Good healers do likewise, even if the player behind them could do better than their teammates in their position. The goal isn’t to be the best at the expense of others. The goal is to survive, to grow, to thrive, and in the end, to win as a team. And I believe that if we don’t win as a team, we won’t win at all in this endeavour to clean up our planet.
So it doesn’t matter if solar and wind have intermittency issues if nuclear is there to back them up instead of natural gas. They can add to the grid with much finer resolution than nuclear for their prices which allows a much more on demand growth in available production to match energy usage. It doesn’t matter if we currently have problems recycling materials, as nuclear can give us the energy to do it anyways. It doesn’t matter what nuclear is capable of doing by itself, because if we support everyone else with it, we as a species gain the benefits of every source and technology and group.
The energy production of the global economy and the goal of decarbonization is not a zero-sum game. The future quality of life on our planet is too important for the rules to be shank or be shanked.
The possibilities of the global energy economy are boundless, a nigh infinite vista of opportunity for cooperative competition with more than enough room for everyone to find their niche and flourish. It doesn’t matter if you represent wind, hydro, batteries, solar, geothermal, nuclear, hydrogen, synthetic fuels or any other net-zero-emission technology. And I feel confident in saying this because it is almost impossible to truly grok how much energy and power our world can truly handle. But if it is produced and managed in not merely a sustainable way, but a regenerative and judicious manner, we might be able to finally truly explore and admire all of the bounties that our world has to offer us.
Thank you. Thoughtful and interesting. I would like to think that you are right, but I dont. There is a whole array of nuclear technologies and between those you are correct, I believe. However between fossil, renewables and nuclear you are wrong, I think. Carbon (fossil and bio too) is out if you accept CO2/CH4 problems – rather certain. Renewables? Name is misguided but I move on. Weak (1000X less than fossil and 1000,000,000X less than nuclear) but that is not fatal. Weakness means plants are huge and invade/cover/take over the environment, hardly green. Size makes them v vulnerable in freak weather again, bad but not fatal. Intermittency and unpredictability make them a menace on the grid. Because wind power goes a CUBE of wind speed fluctuations are much larger than many imagine, and at high speed it has to be stopped. Of course fossil fuel interests are backing renewables as their only chance. Only nuclear is powerful resilient safe 24/7 with secure fuel. I dont see the choice. Run Nuclear with steady output and use excess when demand is lower for hydrogen/desakination etc. Renewables not needed
yeah I agree that renewables have problems. but Nuclear has the ability to help support them and thus we can work together with the people that prefer these options but aren’t intrinsically anti-nuclear. If we take the way forward of nuclear for everything then we just spend effort fighting eachother, when it should be spent replacing fossil fuels. But when we work with renewables and renewables groups we benefit from shared purpose. This articles isn’t about the technical merits of any one path forward, it is about the social benefits of working to face the challenge ahead of us. Plus, do you think that nuclear is incapable of helping the other technologies to improve? with how much energy is offered by nuclear we can spend more energy in improving all the technologies that work well with us until we finally can get them to the point where their current troubles are minimized. Plus, sometimes what might be a problem for one aspect is a benefit in other situations. solar takes up huge amounts of land for the amount of energy it generates, but guess what. what if your project already is slated to take up huge quantities of land? one of the exdamples I saw at the conference was Michael Pawlyn talking about a program to halt the spread of desertification by building a wall of plants to stabilize the soils on the edge of a desert. that’s a great place for solar panels since you can put them on stilts above the planting zone so that the growthe cannot interfere with the powerproduction and they benefit from being out of the desert sun so they grow much more reliably. And since the project will span a very large area already it is a perfectly viable solution to generate your energy on the project footprint which also allows for the project to not need to be connected to a grid, or even operate in an area where there is no grid at all. If you judge every technology only by its ability to slot into a current grid and generate power for modern cities then you miss out on all the possible niches that these other technologies can prosper in.