Survey: Climate Experts Favor Retiring Coal, Keeping Nuclear

Given the choice, climate experts would kill off coal or sequester its emissions

2 min read
Survey: Climate Experts Favor Retiring Coal, Keeping Nuclear
Illustration: iStock

If you were the scientific advisor to a $200-billion venture capital fund that aims to limit global warming over the next 20 years, what investment would you recommend as having the single biggest impact? A survey of climate experts found that a majority listed the retirement of coal power—or the sequestering of their emissions—as the top priority for investment.

The retiring of coal-fired plants was picked as the number one choice among an array of other investment options such as rainforest preservation, changing the human diet to less meat (or perhaps encouraging consumption of insects), and building low-emission products. Such findings come from the Vision Prize, a nonpartisan research platform that uses charity prize incentives to carry out online surveys of climate experts.

This latest Vision Prize survey also asked the opinion of experts regarding an open letter on nuclear power by Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James Hansen, and Tom Wigley that was published on 3 November 2013. About 71 percent of experts surveyed agreed with the letter's opinion that nuclear power will play a crucial role in any plan to stabilize the effects of climate change.

At the same time, 67 percent agreed with the letter's opinion that renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass would not scale up fast enough to meet the world's expected power requirements. From the letter:

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.

The latest findings don't mean that climate experts are mostly pessimistic about renewable energy. After all, a previous Vision Prize survey that posed a similar venture capital investment scenario with a different set of possible climate change solutions found that distributed renewable energy sources ranked as the most popular choice. The same past survey also found a majority of experts taking a somewhat pessimistic view of potential geoengineering technologies.

Taken together, the Vision Prize surveys seem to suggest that a majority of climate experts favor a pragmatic approach to the goal of limiting global warming. On the one hand, that translates into phasing out coal power, or at the very least sequestering the coal power emissions that contribute to rising temperatures. And it also means recognizing that nuclear power—regardless of all its controversy—will remain a necessity in a world that wants to limit global warming while also enjoying "cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires." 

On the other hand, the surveyed experts apparently recognize the practical limits to how renewable power can help stabilize climate change in the immediate future, even if they like the general idea of renewables. As Vaclav Smil previously wrote for IEEE Spectrum, the world faces a gargantuan task of replacing a sprawling energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels with infrastructure based on renewables. "It is the work of generations of engineers," Smil writes.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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