Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019. 288 pages.
With the increasing cacophony surrounding carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and climate change as President Trump’s first term draws to a close, more rational voices are needed in the discussion of energy policy. Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist’s well-written and factual new book A Bright Future makes a solid contribution to this discussion. The book is a collaboration between an American professor of international relations (Goldstein) and a Swedish mechanical and nuclear engineer (Qvist), and its main message is described by its subtitle, “How some countries have solved climate change and the rest can follow.” This subtitle is a bit misleading, however. The book limits itself to a discussion of fossil fuels used in the electric power sector, and does not address emissions from other sectors, notably transportation.
Goldstein and Qvist’s main proposal is to clean up the electric power sector through a rapid major buildout of nuclear power plants, and then electrify everything possible. Such a buildout has historical precedents, and the authors assert that the experience of jurisdictions such as Sweden, France and Ontario demonstrates that it is possible. The book’s unapologetically pronuclear stance might persuade political centrists and open-minded people that more nuclear power is in our future. It won’t convince hardened antinuke ideologues, but then again, nothing will.
Among the topics covered are the radically different policy approaches taken by two wealthy European countries, Sweden and Germany, in dealing with CO2 emissions; increasing political pressure for 100 per cent renewables to meet the real-life growing demand for global energy; and the implications of the increasing replacement of coal by natural gas in the power sector. An important section deals with the widespread irrational fears of nuclear power. The book concludes with suggestions for how the world’s electricity sector can decarbonize at the fastest rate.
Goldstein and Qvist take the now-common position, espoused by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and many others, that anthropogenic CO2 emissions have conclusively been shown to be the main cause of a warming climate. Therefore, the authors’ message is one of urgency, maybe even alarmism. The book uses the term carbon pollution to describe CO2 emissions, which some people would dispute given that CO2 is the main building block of plant life. The basic premise of the book will not be accepted by so-called “climate sceptics.” However, climate change is not the only reason that we should reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. From climate alarmists to sceptics, it is likely that most can agree fossil fuels are limited in long-term supply and too useful as chemical feedstocks for future generations for us to burn them now. Our interests are all aligned.
Sweden and Germany differ mainly in their policies toward nuclear power and fossil fuels (coal) in the electricity sector. During the 1970s, Sweden and several other countries – notably France – built out their nuclear power generation fleet in an effort to become more independent of fossil fuels and the vagaries of fluctuating prices caused by international markets. Today, as a result, Sweden and France have very low levels of CO2 emissions from their power sectors. Germany, on the other hand, while having some nuclear power plants, in the past decade embarked on what was called the Energiewende (energy transition), which saw a massive buildout of renewable energy (wind, solar) and the closure of nuclear power plants. This has resulted in the necessary continued use of coal for power in Germany. As the authors state, “It just substituted one carbon-free source for another, and CO2 emissions did not really decrease at all.”
The book looks into the desire for a 100 per cent renewable energy (100% RE) power sector, and the accuracy of claims that it is easily possible. The 100 per cent renewables subject is large and complex, and the book covers a lot of it. Goldstein and Qvist bring up the case of engineering Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford, who has done numerous studies, embraced by environmentalists, that assert 100% RE is easy and inexpensive to achieve. These assertions are rejected by many other credible experts – it is one of the peculiarities of our age that different groups of supposedly credible people make exactly opposing claims in energy policy. Increasingly, it seems to be a question of which “expert” you want to believe and whose “judgement” you trust. It is hard for the general public, not to mention politicians, to sort it all out.
Goldstein and Qvist contribute significantly to the debate by debunking two common myths about the 100% RE claims. The first myth is that using 100% RE is possible now, as large Silicon Valley companies and numerous municipalities claim to be doing. These claims are false. If their facilities are connected to the U.S. grid, the physical power they get is from a mix of sources. Depending on location, these sources can include renewables, gas, coal and nuclear. To make their claims, these companies sometimes invest in renewable energy projects that feed power into the grid somewhere else, equal to the amount of power they consume. Therefore, they can accurately claim 100 per cent net renewable energy, but not 100 per cent physical energy. An entity can correctly claim 100 per cent physical RE today only if it is disconnected from the grid or if it is in a location, like Quebec, that uses 100 per cent hydro power.
The second myth is that the only thing that matters in the use of renewables in the grid is their cost. Article after article in the press breathlessly pronounces that “renewables are now cheaper than coal,” or some variation thereof. Even if the cost is lower, what they fail to mention is that the value of intermittent generation (wind, solar photovoltaic) in the grid is also lower than that of dispatchable generation (coal, nuclear and especially gas). Furthermore, in the absence of storage, that value decreases with increasing RE penetration. Intermittent renewables are a different asset class from coal, gas and nuclear power, and have potentially very large grid integration costs, which are usually discounted by RE promoters.
In a section entitled “Methane is still Fossil,” Goldstein and Qvist correctly point out that the decline in the use of coal in power generation is not due to renewable energy, as some claim, or to “a liberal war on coal,” but rather to cheap methane (the largest constituent of natural gas) used in combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants. The book mentions Ontario’s phaseout of coal: the last coal plant in Ontario, the Nanticoke Generating Station of approximately 4 gigawatts (GW) output, was decommissioned in 2013. The authors imply that nuclear power was the cause of the phaseout, noting that Ontario has been a world leader in nuclear power, having deployed it in the 1970s. Others have claimed that the closure of coal was due to the buildout of about 4.5 GW of wind power in Ontario. The reality is more nuanced.
A number of large CCGT plants were built in Ontario in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Energy centres with names like Brighton Beach, Greenfield, GTAA, Halton Hills, Port Lands, Goreway and others contributed more than 4 GW of capacity to the Ontario system, distributed from Kingston through the GTA to southwestern Ontario. Recent data from Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator indicate that 28 per cent of nameplate generation (about 10 GW) is from natural gas/oil. The closure of the last large coal generating stations in Ontario was mainly due to a mix of nuclear refurbishments and the expansion of the natural gas generating fleet.
One thing the book does not mention, but implies, is that is relatively easy to “fuel switch” from coal to natural gas because the energy density of natural gas is of the same order of magnitude as that of coal – in fact, about twice that of coal.1
The irrational fears of a large percentage of the population represent a major obstacle to a rapid buildout of nuclear power. The book’s exploration of this psychological resistance and risk perception is its most valuable contribution to energy policy. Goldstein and Qvist write, “Of the many people who feel that nuclear power is ‘too dangerous’ surprisingly few ever ask ‘compared to what?’ It’s pretty dangerous compared with fairy dust, which meets the world’s growing energy needs without any costs or risks.” The real comparison, of course, is with coal, “the world’s dominant and fastest growing fuel, the leading cause of climate change, the fuel that kills a million people a year.”
Goldstein and Qvist also explain the critical difference between “scary” and “dangerous.” Scary (fear) is an emotion that can cause people to act irrationally, whereas danger is a probability of something bad happening. Scary is diving off an Olympic diving platform, which many people would hesitate to do although it is not actually a dangerous activity. Similarly, nuclear power may feel scary, but it is not actually very dangerous. These ideas need further exploration and public discussion.
The authors tie the original basis of the fear of peaceful nuclear power to its concurrent development with nuclear weapons. As the Cold War fades in our collective memories, this association is fading too, with hope that power and weapons will become fully dissociated in our minds.
Importantly, Goldstein and Qvist address the Linear No Threshold (LNT) paradigm for radiation exposure risk. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, radiation health experts made the assumption that no level of exposure to ionizing radiation was safe for humans. This assumption meant that there was no exposure threshold below which radiation was not harmful: the amount of harm was linearly proportional to exposure, and never zero. LNT for exposure risk was widely adopted across the nuclear sector, resulting in extremely – and maybe unnecessarily – low exposure limits. In recent decades, its accuracy has been questioned. Some nuclear safety agencies no longer use LNT. The book discusses its history, merits and weaknesses. It is an important part of the public discussion.
In addition to discussing the safety of nuclear power, Goldstein and Qvist also address the related issues of proliferation and waste storage. They outline the succes of the International Atomic Energy Agency in preventing proliferation, and the future need to supply certain countries with nuclear fuel so they are not obligated to develop their own enrichment facilities. The book explores some of the realities and myths surrounding nuclear waste, proposals for storing it and how Finland is preparing the world’s first long-term storage repository.
The authors point out that the antinuclear lobby, which has been well funded, has progressively been changing its criticisms, as each criticism is proven to be incorrect over time. They point to a growing pronuclear tendency in the environmental movement and see it as a hopeful sign.
The book and its message are timely, and can support the current momentum in support of nuclear power. The overall premise of the book is good, and it should be required reading for anyone serious about energy policy today.
1 Energy density is typically defined as Lower Heating Value measured in megajoules per kilogram.