Clean Energy in Crisis

Recently, Environmental Progress (EP) published numbers showing that clean energy as a percentage of global electricity has been in decline for two decades. This is not just because fossil fuels are expanding more rapidly than clean energy, but also because the amount of electricity the world generates from nuclear energy has been on the decline. While solar and wind have grown significantly, they have not grown enough to make up for lost nuclear.

Now, in a new analysis, EP finds that unless something changes, things are about to get much worse. In the US, 13 nuclear plants are at high-risk of closure within the next 24 months, and half of all U.S. plants are at risk of premature closure over the next decade and a half. If that happens, the resulting higher carbon emissions will wipe out 43 percent of the EPA’s planned Clean Power Plan reductions.

Things are changing rapidly around the world. Within the European Union, nuclear plummeted from 49 to 27 percent of electricity between 2011 and 2014, and will decline another 20 percent in coming years. Germany’s carbon emissions went up last year and yet it still intends to eliminate its nuclear fleet. Sweden is attempting to tax its nuclear plants out of the market, and Swiss voters may decide this fall to follow Germany and Sweden.
 
Meanwhile, Japan may open as few as one-third of the nuclear plants it closed after 2011 Fukushima accident, even as its air pollution from burning fossil fuels has skyrocketed.
 
The good news is that it’s not too late to prevent the loss of these valuable sources of clean energy. While nuclear energy is feared by many in the West, there is growing recognition by scientists and environmentalists that nuclear energy is essential to reducing future warming — and that many of the things many of us once believed about nuclear are either not true or greatly exaggerated.
 
Last December I left Breakthrough Institute, the think tank I co-founded in 2003, so I could dedicate myself full-time to reversing the decline of clean energy. Over the last four and half months I have been variously alarmed and inspired. I was alarmed to discover that the situation facing nuclear was much worse than I had realized. I was inspired to find such a large and growing number of people who were as concerned about the problem as I was, and equally committed to fixing it.
 
And so, with this email, I am happy to formally launch Environmental Progress, a new environmental research & policy organization whose mission is to build a movement of citizens, scientists and conservationists advocating ethical and practical energy solutions for people and nature.

Our highest immediate priority is to stop the hemorrhaging of nuclear plants, and build new ones. Along with dozens of prominent climate and conservation scientists, we are sending open letters to President Barack Obama, national environmental leaders, and legislators in Illinois, and a new web site that describes our vision, introduces our people, and offers a graphics-heavy explanation of the clean energy crisis.
 
This is a crucial week for nuclear. Later this week I will give testimony to Illinois legislators about high environmental impacts of closing, and the low economic cost to saving, nuclear plants in that state. And I will be speaking at a joint White House – Department of Energy event in Washington, D.C. on the crisis facing America’s largest source of clean energy.
 
The main obstacle to saving Illinois’s largest source of clean energy — and preventing emissions from sky-rocketing — is, sadly, its most influential environmental organization, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). ELPC is aggressively lobbying to replace Illinois nuclear plants with natural gas while, rather audaciously, taking funding from natural gas and other energy companies.

The situation in California is almost as dire. State officials could force the closure of our last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, which provides one-quarter of our clean power, as early as June 28. As in Illinois, officials with environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club, are lobbying publicly and behind-the-scenes to close the plant, which would be replaced by natural gas, and increase carbon emissions the equivalent of adding one and a half million cars to the road.
 

Environmental Progress is honored to have a remarkable group of scientists and economists serve on EP’s Advisory Board. The group includes many of the scientists I’ve worked with over the last few months to urge policymakers to protect nuclear power by treating it fairly: James Hansen, the climate scientist; Burt Richter, Stanford nuclear expert and 1976 Nobel Prize winner; Peter Raven, conservation giant and former head of Missouri Botanical Garden; three ecologists, Stewart Brand, Michelle Marvier and Barry Brook, who advocate environmental solutions that also benefit the poor; and Joe Lassiter, Harvard Business School professor and nuclear policy expert.

Over the last two years I have travelled extensively seeking to understand environmental problems and solutions at the ground level in Rwanda, Uganda, the Congo, Indonesia, China, Japan and most recently India. During that time I interviewed everyone from subsistence farmers struggling to survive to senior government officials — who offer a very different perspective than industry and government press releases — and made a lot of friends from those places along the way.
 
That group includes Ning Li, the nuclear engineer who brought Bill Gates new advanced nuclear company to China; Junji Cao, one of China’s leading air pollution experts; Kun Chen, a senior engineer building China’s advanced thorium molten salt reactor; four brilliant Indian economists, Samir Saran, Vijaya Ramachandran, Joyashree Roy and Rathin Roy; John Asafu-Adjaye, a Ghanian economists focused on energy and the environment in sub-Sahran Africa; Woody Epstein, a nuclear expert living in Japan; and Todd Moss, a senior development economist at the Center for Global Development.

There is no shortage of policy solutions to save nuclear plants — rather, there is a shortage of political will. The obvious reality is that, around the world, anti-nuclear organizations are undermining environmental progress. Reversing the decline of clean energy and liberating all humans from wood fuel use will require more than energy analyses like the one we release today. What's needed is a new environmental movement. My hope is that Environmental Progress will contribute significantly to creating one.
 
Michael Shellenberger

Founder and President, Environmental Progress

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger is an award-winning author and environmental policy expert. For a quarter-century he has advocated solutions to lift all people out of poverty while lessening humankind's environmental impact.