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  • Translator: Amanda Chu Reviewer: Peter van de Ven

  • Thank you very much.

  • When I was a boy,

  • my parents would sometimes take me camping in California.

  • We would camp in the beaches, in the forests, in the deserts.

  • Some people think the deserts are empty of life,

  • but my parents taught me to see the wildlife all around us,

  • the hawks, the eagles, the tortoises.

  • One time when we were setting up camp,

  • we found a baby scorpion with its stinger out,

  • and I remember thinking how cool it was

  • that something could be both so cute and also so dangerous.

  • After college, I moved to California,

  • and I started working on a number of environmental campaigns.

  • I got involved in helping to save the state's last ancient redwood forest

  • and blocking a proposed radioactive waste repository

  • set for the desert.

  • Shortly after I turned 30,

  • I decided I wanted to dedicate a significant amount of my life

  • to solving climate change.

  • I was worried that global warming would end up destroying

  • many of the natural environments that people had worked so hard to protect.

  • I thought the technical solutions were pretty straightforward -

  • solar panels on every roof, electric car in the driveway -

  • that the main obstacles were political.

  • And so I helped to organize a coalition

  • of the country's biggest labor unions and biggest environmental groups.

  • Our proposal was for a 300-billion-dollar investment in renewables.

  • And the idea was not only would we prevent climate change,

  • but we would also create millions of new jobs

  • in a very fast-growing high-tech sector.

  • Our efforts really paid off in 2007,

  • when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama embraced our vision.

  • And between 2009 and 2015, the US invested 150 billion dollars

  • in renewables and other kinds of clean tech.

  • But right away, we started to encounter some problems.

  • So first of all, the electricity from solar rooftops

  • ends up costing about twice as much as the electricity from solar farms.

  • And both solar farms and wind farms

  • require covering a pretty significant amount of land

  • with solar panels and wind turbines

  • and also building very big transmission lines

  • to bring all that electricity from the countryside into the city.

  • Both of those things were often very strongly resisted by local communities,

  • as well as by conservation biologists

  • who were concerned about the impacts on wild-bird species and other animals.

  • Now, there was a lot of other people

  • working on technical solutions at the time.

  • One of the big challenges, of course, is the intermittency of solar and wind.

  • They only generate electricity about 10 to 30 percent of the time

  • during most of year.

  • But some of the solutions being proposed

  • were to convert hydroelectric dams into gigantic batteries.

  • The idea was that when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing,

  • you would pump the water uphill, store it for later,

  • and then when you needed electricity, run it over the turbines.

  • In terms of wildlife, some of these problems

  • just didn't seem like a significant concern.

  • So when I learned that house cats kill billions of birds every year,

  • it put into perspective the hundreds of thousands of birds

  • that are killed by wind turbines.

  • It basically seemed to me at the time

  • that most, if not all, of the problems of scaling up solar and wind

  • could be solved through more technological innovation.

  • But as the years went by,

  • these problems persisted and, in many cases, grew worse.

  • So California is a state that's really committed to renewable energy,

  • but we still haven't converted many of our hydroelectric dams

  • into big batteries.

  • Some of the problems are just geographic;

  • it's just you have to have a very particular kind of formation

  • to be able to do that,

  • and even in those cases,

  • it's quite expensive to make those conversions.

  • Other challenges are just that there's other uses for water,

  • like irrigation,

  • and maybe the most significant problem

  • is just that in California the water in our rivers and reservoirs

  • is growing increasingly scarce and unreliable

  • due to climate change.

  • In terms of this issue of reliability, as a consequence of it,

  • we've actually had to stop the electricity

  • coming from the solar farms into the cities

  • because there's just been too much of it at times.

  • Or we've been starting to pay our neighboring states, like Arizona,

  • to take that solar electricity.

  • The alternative is to suffer from blowouts of the grid.

  • And it turns out that when it comes to birds and cats -

  • cats don't kill eagles; eagles kill cats.

  • What cats kill are the small common sparrows and jays and robins,

  • birds that are not endangered and not at risk of going extinct.

  • What do kill eagles and other big birds,

  • like this kite as well as owls and condors

  • and other threatened and endangered species,

  • are wind turbines;

  • in fact, they're one of the most significant threats

  • to those big bird species that we have.

  • We just haven't been introducing the airspace with many other objects

  • like we have wind turbines over the last several years.

  • And in terms of solar,

  • you know, building a solar farm is a lot like building any other kind of farm:

  • you have to clear the whole area of wildlife.

  • So this is a picture of one third of one of the biggest solar farms in California,

  • called Ivanpah.

  • In order to build this,

  • they had to clear the whole area of desert tortoises,

  • literally pulling desert tortoises and their babies out of burrows,

  • putting them on the back of pickup trucks, and transporting them to captivity,

  • where many of them ended up dying.

  • And the current estimates are that about 6,000 birds are killed every year,

  • actually catching on fire above the solar farm

  • and plunging to their deaths.

  • Over time, it gradually struck me

  • that there was really no amount of technological innovation

  • that was going to make the sun shine more regularly

  • or wind blow more reliably;

  • in fact, you could make solar panels cheaper,

  • and you could make wind turbines bigger,

  • but sunlight and wind are just really dilute fuels,

  • and in order to produce significant amounts of electricity,

  • you just have to cover a very large land mass with them.

  • In other words, all of the major problems with renewables aren't technical,

  • they're natural.

  • Well, dealing with all of this unreliability

  • and the big environmental impacts

  • obviously comes at a pretty high economic cost.

  • We've been hearing a lot

  • about how solar panels and wind turbines have come down in cost in recent years,

  • but that cost has been significantly outweighed

  • by just the challenges of integrating all of that unreliable power onto the grid.

  • Just take, for instance, what's happened in California.

  • At the period in which solar panels have come down in price

  • very significantly, same with wind,

  • we've seen our electricity prices go up

  • five times more than the rest of the country.

  • And it's not unique to us.

  • You can see the same phenomenon happened in Germany,

  • which is really the world's leader

  • in solar, wind and other renewable technologies.

  • Their prices increased 50 percent during their big renewable-energy push.

  • Now you might think, well, dealing with climate change

  • is just going to require that we all pay more for energy.

  • That's what I used to think.

  • But consider the case of France.

  • France actually gets twice as much of its electricity

  • from clean zero-emission sources than does Germany,

  • and yet France pays almost half as much for its electricity.

  • How can that be?

  • You might have already anticipated the answer.

  • France gets most of its electricity from nuclear power, about 75% in total.

  • And nuclear just ends up being a lot more reliable,

  • generating power 24 hours a day, seven days a week,

  • for about 90% of the year.

  • We see this phenomenon show up at a global level.

  • So, for example, there's been a natural experiment

  • over the last 40 years,

  • even more than that,

  • in terms of the deployment of nuclear and the deployment of solar.

  • You can see that at a little bit higher cost,

  • we got about half as much electricity from solar and wind

  • than we did from nuclear.

  • Well, what does all this mean for going forward?

  • I think one of the most significant findings to date is this one.

  • Had Germany spent 580 billion dollars on nuclear instead of renewables,

  • it would already be getting a hundred percent of its electricity

  • from clean energy sources, and all of its transportation energy.

  • Now I think you might be wondering, and it's quite reasonable to ask:

  • Is nuclear power safe? And what do you do with the waste?

  • Well, those are very reasonable questions.

  • Turns out that there's been scientific studies on this

  • going over 40 years.

  • This is just the most recent study,

  • that was done by the prestigious British medical journal Lancet,

  • finds that nuclear power is the safest.

  • It's easy to understand why.

  • According to the WHO,

  • about 7 million people die annually from air pollution.

  • And nuclear plants don't emit that.

  • As a result, the climate scientist James Hansen looked at it.

  • He calculated that nuclear power has already saved

  • almost two million lives to date.

  • It turns out that even wind energy is more deadly than nuclear.

  • This is a photograph taken of two maintenance workers

  • in the Netherlands,

  • shortly before one of them fell to his death to avoid the fire,

  • and the other one was engulfed in flames.

  • Now, what about environmental impact?

  • I think a really easy way to think about it

  • is that uranium fuel, which is what we used to power nuclear plants,

  • is just really energy dense.

  • About the same amount of uranium as this Rubik's Cube

  • can power all of the energy you need in your entire life.

  • As a consequence,

  • you just don't need that much land

  • in order to produce a significant amount of electricity.

  • Here you can compare the solar farm I just described, Ivanpah,

  • to California's last nuclear plant,

  • Diablo Canyon.

  • It takes 450 times more land to generate the same amount of electricity

  • as it does from nuclear.

  • You would need 17 more solar farms like Ivanpah

  • in order to generate the same output as Diablo Canyon,

  • and of course, it would then be unreliable.

  • Well, what about the mining and the waste and the material throughput.

  • This has been studied pretty closely as well,

  • and it just turns out

  • that solar panels require 17 times more materials than nuclear plants do,

  • in the form of cement, glass, concrete, steel -

  • and that includes all the fuel used for those nuclear plants.

  • The consequence is that what comes out at the end, since its material throughput,

  • is just not a lot of waste from nuclear.

  • All of the waste from the Swiss nuclear program fits into this room.

  • Nuclear waste is actually the only waste from electricity production

  • that's safely contained and internalized.

  • Every other way of making electricity

  • emits that waste into the natural environment,

  • either as pollution or as material waste.

  • We tend to think of solar panels as clean,

  • but the truth is that there is no plan

  • to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20 or 25-year life.

  • A lot of experts are actually very concerned that solar panels

  • are just going to be shipped to poor countries in Africa or Asia,

  • with the rest of our electronic-waste stream,

  • to be disassembled,

  • often exposing people to really high level of toxic elements,

  • including lead, cadmium and chromium,

  • elements that because they're elements, their toxicity never declines over time.

  • I think we have an intuitive sense

  • that nuclear is a really powerful strong energy source

  • and that sunlight is really dilute and diffuse and weak,

  • which is why you have to spread solar collectors or wind collectors

  • over such a large amount of land.

  • Maybe that's why nobody was surprised

  • when in the recent science-fiction remake of Blade Runner,

  • the film opens with a very dark dystopian scene

  • where California's deserts have been entirely paved with solar farms.

  • All of which, I think, raises a really uncomfortable question:

  • In the effort to try to save the climate, are we destroying the environment?

  • The interesting thing is that over the last several hundred years,

  • human beings have actually been trying to move away

  • from what you would consider matter-dense fuels

  • towards energy-dense ones.

  • That means, really, from wood and dung towards coal, oil, natural gas, uranium.

  • This is a phenomenon that's been going on for a long time.

  • Poor countries around the world are in the process still

  • of moving away from wood and dung as primary energies.

  • And for the most part, this is a positive thing.

  • As you stop using wood as your major source of fuel,

  • it allows the forests to grow back and the wildlife to return.

  • As