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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Green Parrots

Below I Fisk an article titled Monbiot is "Part of the Problem": Jonathan Porritt on the Folly of Nuclear Power written by Sami Grover over on Treehugger.

A contender for the title of my article was: Is Sami Grover "Part of the Problem?"

The definition of a green, or environmentalist for that matter, is not very precise. If your definition of a green is a hemp-wearing, dreadlocked, tattooed, vegan, organic-gardener, animal rights activist, with a degree in environmental whatever, then no, I don't fit that stereotype very well ...neither does Sami come to think of it.

However, I do own eleven acres of forest that I'm allowing to return to old growth. I also own solar panels and a Nissan Leaf, and was the first to incorporate the A123 battery technology into an electric bicycle, designed the hybrid solar home and solar fence and have written roughly a thousand articles on all things environmental including a 400 page book on the topic of biodiversity and population. I'm greener than most greens you will ever meet although instead of a degree in environmental whatever, I have two engineering degrees, and for what it's worth, my youngest daughter (17) is an enthusiastic urban gardener with several chickens, ducks, and meat rabbits in our/her backyard farm there.

From behind the skirt of another writer, Grover viciously attacks George Monbiot (who is IMHO the most honest and courageous environmental journalist on the planet). Unlike most of us, Monbiot has the integrity (and balls) to speak the truth even when it means being ostracized from green monkey troops (or parrot flocks). I used the adjective "viciously" only as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Grover's ridiculous use of the same word to describe nuclear power proponents.

Are anti-nuclear activists paving a road to hell? In their self-righteous zeal, have the anti-nuclear activists become the bad guys?

Here are two articles by Monbiot that Grover forgot to provide links to:

The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all

The double standards of green anti-nuclear opponents

Not long ago I concluded a debate in the comment field over at Grist with an anti-nuclear activist. In the course of the discussion he called me naive, childish, pathetic, petulant, stupid, weak-minded, a shill, a zealot, a fool, an ideologue, and an intellectually dishonest troll. He was, in a nutshell, a bigot.

Later I was banned from commenting on the website of an anthropology professor who also has a propensity to call commenters names ...just prior to banning them.

Like the rest of us environmentalists, Grover has been fed a steady diet of misinformation for decades now by overly zealous, anti-nuclear activists who have embraced the philosophy, "When you know you are right, the ends justifies the means." There may be some merit to this philosophy when you are right, but when you're wrong, you end up paving a four-lane highway to hell. Happens all the time.

A few years back I began looking into this information and discovered it was at best, grossly distorted ...when it wasn't a complete fabrication. The fact that Grover has never applied any critical thought to these anti-nuclear arguments speaks volumes.

We can't all be experts in all fields. Sometimes we're forced to pick champions. On the pro-nuclear power side you could pick NASA climatologist, Jim Hansen, author of Storms of My Grandchildren who (putting his money where his mouth is) was once arrested for protesting outside of a coal-fired power plant. His book makes a strong case for nuclear power.

You could pick George Monbiot, environmental journalist and author of Heat, written when Grover was probably a teenager (reprinted in 2009).

Or James Lovelock, formulator of the Gaia hypothesis.

How about Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog fame? Barry Brook of Brave New Climate, or maybe Steve Kirsch (who received the National Caring Award from the Caring Institute in Washington DC, which celebrates those special individuals who, in transcending self, devote their lives in service to others, especially the disadvantaged, the poor, the disabled and the dying) and on and on.

Followers rarely apply critical thought to the words of their chosen champions, they simply parrot what they are told and thanks to the internet echo chamber, the noise can bounce around for years as it is parroted by other uncritical non-thinkers. We are basically herd animals after all and an anti-nuclear stance is an important tribal marker for many green monkey troops/parrot flocks.

When feed-in tariffs for renewables were introduced in the UK, George Monbiot denounced them as a rip-off subsidy for the better off.

Translation, Monbiot pointed out that some parts of the world are very sunny and some are not. Spain and Tucson Arizona for example, get seven times more sun than Seattle, or England, or Germany. Solar makes much more economic sense in some places than in others. Wealthy Germans used tax money from poor Germans to put solar panels on their homes. It will never be an economically viable major source of energy there.

Here in Seattle, solar makes little sense, however we are blessed with lots of precipitation in nearby mountains allowing us to use water to generate our renewable electricity, which would be a poor option in Spain.

Despite tumbling solar prices and rising installations, Monbiot has stuck by his guns—

Tumbling solar prices? Grover needs to pop in to this solar panel cost estimator to see why so few can afford to displace their electricity use. It would cost my family over $100 thousand dollars, not including maintenance over their life span, when they have to be replaced.

...arguing that a combination of wind, nuclear and energy efficiency are the only sensible way for Britain to generate clean energy.

Monbiot does not own this argument. This is the consensus of electric power engineers world-wide.

Now a war of words has erupted, with a leading green pioneer, Sir Jonathan Porritt, denouncing Monbiot's "weird contrarian crusade", and arguing that nuclear and renewables cannot coexist.

Monbiot's green credentials easily surpass those of Porritt, who appears to have been born with a silver bucket over his head. From Wikipedia:

He was born in London, and educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford. Like many other environmentalists of his generation he lacks any formal scientific training. Despite training as a barrister, he decided to become an English teacher at St Clement Danes Grammar School (later Burlington Danes School) in Shepherd's Bush, West London in 1974.

Porritt is the son of Lord Porritt, 11th Governor-General of New Zealand. His father, who served as a senior officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II, was also the bronze medalist in the Olympic Chariots of Fire 100 metres race. As well as receiving a non-hereditary life peerage, Lord Porritt had previously been awarded a baronetcy. Jonathon Porritt is entitled to claim the baronetcy, becoming The Hon Sir Jonathon Porritt, 2nd Baronet, but has so far declined to do so.

Pip pip. Grover continues:

It all started when Monbiot challenged Porritt to explain his stance on the incompatibility of renewables and nuclear. What, he asked, had the Government's Committee on Climate Change got wrong in advocating for nuclear? What should the nation's energy mix be like? Aren't there times when nuclear might even be preferable to renewables?

Porritt's response on why the UK must choose renewables is as fiery as it is detailed.

I can think of at least one German politician in the thirties and forties who was also known for his fiery and detailed responses, however, he was still very wrong.

He begins by arguing that the Committee on Climate Change's cost projections for nuclear are way off base—most notably because they exclude the issue of insurance liability ... Does Monbiot - or anyone, for that matter, on the Committee on Climate Change - actually understand the scale of this subsidy?

Certainly, Porrit does not understand the scale. He's just parroting what he's read. This insurance argument is alive and well here in the States as well. But it's another deception. Here's the truth:

The main purpose of the Act is to partially indemnify the nuclear industry against liability claims arising from nuclear incidents while still ensuring compensation coverage for the general public. The Act establishes a no fault insurance-type system in which the first approximately $12.6 billion (as of 2011) is industry-funded as described in the Act. Any claims above the $12.6 billion would be covered by a Congressional mandate to retroactively increase nuclear utility liability or would be covered by the federal government

And as I pointed out above, it would cost my family over $100,000 to put solar on our house. That would drop to $60,000 if we could capitalize on all of the government subsidies. We got a $3,300 subsidy when we bought our Prius, $1,500 when we installed our high-efficiency gas furnace, and $11,700 in subsides when we bought our Nissan Leaf electric car.

Arguing against nuclear in favor of renewables (which are not even technically capable of powering the United States) on the grounds of cost and subsidies is a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black.

...would increase the price of nuclear electricity by a range of values - €0.14 per kilowatt hours (kWh) up to €2.36 per kWh - depending on assumptions made

The code words here are "depending on assumptions made." You can get any answer you want from a spreadsheet depending on assumptions made. This reminds me of a favorite anti-nuclear argument claiming nuclear power produces as much CO2 as coal, depending on assumptions made. You have to assume you are using a coal fired electricity plant to power electric grinders to grind up granite to get at the minuscule amount of uranium ore it contains.

Meanwhile, he says, Monbiot also seems oblivious to research that the ferocious cost reductions in solar could lead to grid parity by 2020, even in rainy Britain.

Ferocious cost reductions? Riiight. How cheap can a solar panel possibly get? It would cost me $20,000 to replace the windows in my house with cheap vinyl ones. Solar panels are a lot more complex than a window, and they eventually wear out and before that their inverters fail. But the real missing link in this cost argument is the huge cost of the super grid that would be needed to smooth out the fact that solar does not work at night or on cloudy days.

I repeat: Grover needs to pop in to this solar panel cost estimator to put the cost of residential solar panels into a real world perspective.

I'm a big fan of solar but even I am hesitant to convert my house into a tiny power plant with all of its attendant maintenance problems, costs, and risks. There is much to be said for having two wires coming to your house, just as public water and sewer systems are preferred over septic fields and wells.

Why Renewables and Nuclear Cannot Coexist

From the the vicious anti-renewables lobbying of the nuclear industry, to the problem of balancing a grid that uses renewables that may ebb and flow ...

Riiiight ...vicious. Monbiot and I have both experienced "vicious" verbal attacks from renewable fuel advocates. A biofuel enthusiast once left spittle on my sunglasses after cussing me out at a protest I was participating in.

All industries lobby, including the renewable energy lobby. George and I know from personal experience that you just don't get more vicious than a fellow environmentalist having his belief system challenged.

And when asked what his ideal energy mix would be, he suggests that 100% renewables are possible by 2050—if an aggressive push for efficiency is also followed—and that natural gas with carbon capture and storage provide a favorable alternative to nuclear as a bridge technology ...and nuclear power that must run 24/7 (as opposed to more responsive biomass or gas plants), Porritt provides plenty of material on why the two technologies can't exist side-by-side.

The above quote demonstrates in no uncertain terms the complete and utter ignorance of both Porritt and Grover when it comes to power engineering. This is a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel and methane leaks from it are 30 times more powerful than CO2. It is a bridge to nowhere. Build a natural gas power infrastructure and vested interests will never let you dismantle it. Carbon capture is an untested hypothesis. How smart is it to risk our children's futures on untested hypothesis?

Baseload power is necessary (providing power 24/7) regardless of how you choose to make it. The argument is over what should provide it, nuclear or something else, not that baseload power is incompatible with renewables. I wrote a very detailed response to this latest asinine argument when it first appeared in the parrot echo chamber:

Dirty, Baseload, Centralized, Renewable Energy

At the risk of evoking that false balance we always warn of, I will confess that I am stumped.

I'm not exactly sure what he's trying to say above, but I will agree that he's stumped alright. Translation: he understands what he is parroting about as well as a parrot does.

While my green-leaning background has lead to an inherent distrust of nuclear,

Green leaning? That's a bit of an understatement. His distrust of nuclear is--sarcasm alert--perfectly rational. The latest incident at Fukushima killed nobody while biofuel policy quietly kills a hundred or so thousand annually from malnutrition and our cars slaughter 40 thousand annually, maiming ten times that number.

I have always tried to keep an open mind about what tools are best for fighting climate change and ensuring clean energy.

...ah, crap, just spewed coffee all over my monitor.

And in a topic with so much data coming from all sides—many with vested interests in one side or the other—it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.

Data always comes from all sides. What am I missing here? It's always hard to tell fact from fiction. Once a person's livelihood gets tied to a given energy scheme, their ability to speak honestly is toast, and that is as true for corn ethanol, wind, and solar, as it is for any other energy scheme.

This lack of critical thought is stepping on our children's and grandchildren's futures, so think harder, and really open your minds.

Yet try as I might, I find it hard to envision a disaster scenario stemming from solar or wind that comes even close to the problems at Fukushima.

Try as you might you find it hard to envision? That's not a good sign. It makes little sense to choose a power source based solely on how expensive it will be when a natural disaster takes it, although that possibility should always be part of what drives its design and siting, but let's use our imaginations and envision a scenario for solar.

A Tambora-like volcanic eruption would shut down any economic engine dependent on solar power for years on end causing global economic chaos. Collapse of a large hydro electric dam could kill thousands and cause billions in damage.

And as I said earlier, the latest incident at Fukushima killed nobody while biofuel policy quietly kills a hundred or so thousand annually from malnutrition not to mention that our cars slaughter another 40 or so thousand annually, maiming ten times that number.

And with relatives in the UK emailing stats on the impressive production from their solar panels,

The word impressive does not convey much useful information. Compared to the output in a place like Spain, annual average solar output in Britain is comical.

I find it hard to believe that we humans can't make a 100% renewable future if we actually put our minds to it.

It's much easier to choose to believe something when you have so little understanding of it. Energy systems are the product of science and engineering, not personal belief systems. If we had centuries and an unlimited budget to develop renewable energy, I have no doubt it can be done. We have neither. Today's renewable technology certainly isn't capable of doing the job alone within the budgetary and time constraints available.

Both Monbiot's challenge on why nuclear and renewables should be mutually exclusive, and Porritt's denouncing of Monbiot's "controvercialist tendencies" are well worth reading in full.

I'm confident that Aristotle's dumber critics were also forever trying to stick labels like "controvercialist" and "weird contrarian" on him. Clear back in 2005, before it was fashionable (or even safe) to critique biofuels, Monbiot was the lone voice warning the world of their negative ramifications in an article titled Worse than fossil fuels. Then, as now, the spittle beflecked vitriol spewed by his fellow environmentalists was disheartening to behold. He has recieved death threats.

Whichever side you fall on, it's clear that battle lines are being drawn that will shape our energy future for decades to come.

So pick carefully. The anti-nuclear fanatics have evolved into a flock of green parrots who don't know what they are talking about.

Photo courtesy of tracie7779 via Flickr

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  1. alain9:51 AM

    " Wealthy Germans used tax money from poor Germans to put solar panels on their homes. It will never be an economically viable major source of energy there. "

    And wealthy Seattle-lites use tax money from poor US citizens to get tax rebates on their fancy electric cars with less than 100 miles range, and to get tax rebates on their solar roof panels and so much other stuff they crave, to increase their social status compared to the Joneses.

    by the way, did you ask fukushima residents what they think of your pro-nukulear diatribe ?

    Why are suddenly 90% of Japanese in favor of getting off the nuke power plant tits ? Maybe a very seismically active area is not the best place to build such plants, after all...

    Me ? I already shifted in 2006 from a dirty nuke+carbon using utility, to one supplying me 100% renewable sourced electricity, without taking any subsidies in the process . . .

    Yes you are also a green parrot.

  2. Hi Russ,

    I have to say, I object to the tone of this article.

    Having lived with a parrot for a while, I know that they are intelligent, caring creatures, not just mindless repeaters of whatever they hear :-)

    Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, thanks! Keep up the good work.

  3. I really enjoy simply reading all of your weblogs. Simply wanted to inform you that you have people like me who appreciate your work.


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