This year I changed my mind about nuclear, hydropower and vegan food
This article was adapted from Energy Weekly, a free newsletter on the clean energy transition.
Nowadays, people are more and more anchored in their own beliefs. Confirmation bias is alive and well, and it can be difficult to cross the chasm to talk to people who disagree with you, from politics to climate change to vaccines.
As 2021 draws to a close, I have reflected on issues on which my opinion has changed. Basically, I think we should all have space for dynamic opinions and be willing to discuss where and why new information is reshaping our view of the world.
I have never been an ardent anti-nuclear activist. I know there are technical challenges with waste, and three high-profile meltdowns have tarnished its reputation for overall safety, which is the basis of objections from environmental organizations. But my highest priority is decarbonization, so I’m not one to write off technology at large.
My hesitations about nuclear power are those of the dominant climate movement: it takes too long to build new plants, and they cost way too much money. With mature and cheap wind and solar technologies, it seems the fastest and cheapest route to decarbonization is to double these instead of investing in expensive centralized facilities.
This position is well summed up in this episode of the How to Save a Planet podcast, which quotes that, on average, nuclear power plants built after 1970 had a 241% cost overrun. It also takes years, sometimes decades, to get online. There is a promise of small-scale nuclear reactors, but it is often said that the technology is too far from deployment to meet our decarbonization goals for the next decade.
But I warmed up to nuclear this year. Here’s why.
First, it is a carbon-free source of electricity that can provide basic energy in a way that other clean technologies cannot. For years, I have mentally compared the attributes of nuclear to those of wind and solar. But during a session at VERGE 21 on the subject, the charming Isabelle Boemeke, the first self-proclaimed nuclear influencer, pointed out that no one is against wind and solar – we are looking for a replacement for coal plants.
Second, declaring nuclear too expensive and too slow is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have incredible confidence in the ability of engineers and scientists to do difficult things when we align mission and resources. Take, for example, the COVID vaccine. A year and a half ago, some smart people doubted our ability to develop a vaccine in a year, pointing out that our previous vaccine development record was four years. Yet when we pulled all the oars in the same direction, we were doing the impossible.
Responding to climate change will require the same coordinated, Herculean effort. For too long, I have been swayed by outdated and well-meaning nuclear stories, and have hesitated to join the fray. With climate chaos upon us, it’s time to think outside the box.
I love rivers. I grew up whitewater rafting and find nothing more nourishing than the feeling of drifting downstream. Ratty from “Wind in the Willows” said it best: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – worth doing like just messing around in boats.”
Rivers also serve as circulatory systems around the world. They bring together tributaries from all watersheds, carrying nutrients, sediments and wildlife essential to food systems and agriculture, and underpin a wealth of biodiversity.
So I come to my aversion to dams honestly. (My parents met as river guides in the 1970s and bonded against dam protests on the Stanislaus River.) The United States became happy with dams in the 20th century, building thousands of dams fragmenting river systems and threatening ecosystems. While hydropower can provide clean energy, less than 3% of the country’s 90,000 dams have facilities for generating electricity.
This year, OG Clean Energy Dan Reicher, senior researcher at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, advisor to VERGE Energy and seasoned river colleague, shared a new approach to dams – one that is supported by three groups historically at odds: the hydropower industry; environmentalists; and environmentalists.
At the heart of the strategy is the modernization of dams to add production capacity to non-power dams in order to increase electricity production, and the removal of dams that are of no benefit to society.
This approach has helped me rethink the future of hydropower. I no longer see the addition of hydroelectric capacity as synonymous with the addition of new dams. Instead, we can make better use of existing dams, while removing those that don’t serve us.
After all, hydropower has great attributes. This is a clean technology that provides baseload capacity with no ramp-up times, making it a powerful balance for intermittent clean energy resources. Additionally, pumped storage hydropower has incredible potential to provide long-term or seasonal energy storage, helping electricity achieve deep decarbonization.
I am an omnivore, but I haven’t always been. I spent 13 years in my youth vegetarian, including three vegans and one as a raw foodist. In college I lived in a vegan house (we were unbearable). In fact, while browsing through old boxes in college, I recently came across our collection of cookbooks, and it’s extensive.
Back when I was a vegan in college, (check calendar) 15 years ago, vegan food alternatives weren’t great. Often times, foods designed to taste the same as their animal counterparts were full of hydrogenated oils and preservatives. They were vegan but not necessarily healthy or tasty.
This summer I stayed with some vegan friends and achieved something that should have been obvious. Vegan and vegan food options have come a long way. The vegan cheese tasted like – cheese. The cauliflower bean and rice burrito tasted like a better burrito. Vegan fried chicken? Tasted like chicken.
I am not the only one to recognize these food innovations. The plant-based food market grew by almost a third from 2019 to 2020, and 43% over two years, according to the Good Food Institute. Bloomberg Intelligence predicts the market will explode to $ 162 billion by 2030, from $ 29.4 billion in 2020. Beyond Sausage was the 10th best-selling new food in 2020. Investment in alternative proteins in 2020 has tripled compared to 2019.
As our food choices and factory farming practices become more of a burning issue as we work on decarbonization (remember when Republicans mistakenly said the Green New Deal would take your burgers away?), it’s good news that food innovation follows the change we need. After all, no one likes to feel pressured to sacrifice things they love. But the herbal revolution gives me hope that more and more people will see climate-friendly food choices as an improvement, even if only for a few meals a week.
Did you change your mind about anything this year? Let me know: [email protected].