Is Greenpeace Cornucopian?

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and numerous other environmentalist organizations have been long pressing for a committed global effort to tackle climate change. It is clear that the major issue here is energy production – we desperately need low-carbon energy to keep the Earth’s climatic system in balance. However, these environmentalists also fight nuclear power, one of the two established low-carbon technologies in energy production (the other being hydropower) that are the only ones so gar that provide baseload electricity. At the same time, Greenpeace & Co. have long dismissed the idea (or, rather, ideology) called Cornucopianism which states that human ingenuity and free markets will provide solutions to every challenge humanity shall ever encounter – so we don’t have to worry about climate change, acid rain, the ozone hole, overpopulation, dwindling resources etc. – there will always be a backstop technology to save us.

But isn’t it a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Greenpeace (I will stick to this organization as being representative for numerous others bot because of its status and because I know it, so to speak, from the inside) has pervasively made the claim that the climate change problem is soluble even if we phase out both fossil fuels and nuclear power (accounting for some 80% of world electricity generation). The alternatives, so Greenpeace’s argument, are renewable energies and energy efficiency. This sounds great and I would be glad if it would work in reality, but, even if we ignore the land-use problems generated by most renewables for a moment, so far renewable energies are not able to provide energy without some baseload support (either fossil or nuclear) on a larger scale. Volatility is an inherent characteristic of most renewables (the only meaningful exception being hydropower) and to date we are not able to overcome this problem. Greenpeace’s answer to this point? Energy storage on a large scale, smart/intelligent energy systems (including so-called smart grids), solar-thermal power plants in the deserts will soon be available and the problem will be solved. Wait. Hold on. It will be solved? They will be available? Where does this certainty come from? Has Greenpeace access to a powerful oracle? No. All this is in fact an article of faith. Greenpeace believes that technological progress, induced by concerted efforts of individuals, businesses and governments, will bring about the solutions needed for a world both fossil-fuel- and nuclear-free. Although they likely would not admit it, they share this attitude with Cornucopians. The only difference is that Cornucopians believe that we don’t have to do anything, not purposely at least, while environmentalists believe that we can do something (i.e., phase out both fossil fuels and nuclear power) without having an alternative in hand.

This leads us to a dilemma I already discussed recently – is nuke the lesser evil? I am not at all a proponent of nuclear power, I don’t believe the fairy tales about its safety. But the fact is that, so far, we cannot bet on being able to solve the climate change problem with renewables only. The renewables technology is not sufficiently ripe, yet. Meanwhile, the time to stabilise to climatic system is running out – we cannot wait for them to become ripe. We have to act now, on the basis of what we have to date. The a priori exclusion of a low-carbon technology due to the faith that we can make it without this technology may be just as naive as the Cornucopians’ faith in human ingenuity and free markets as drivers of innovation.

7 thoughts on “Is Greenpeace Cornucopian?

  1. Gee, am I reading my own thoughts? What happened? I disappear for a moment and things go off the track. If we continue like there will be no reasons to argue!!! What then?

    Keep well

  2. Things change. To quote an old Polish adage: “Tylko krowa nie zmienia poglądów.”

    I am not sure whether we agree 100%ly now, but I realized that some of my old arguments have been falacious. Not quite a convenient feeling to see that one was wrong and that one probably will be wrong in the future.

    But I am happy to see you pleased.

  3. Possibly we will never agree in full. Just look at our disagreement when considering “enforcement” of human attitudes changes. In my view you have pointed out the problems and dilemma associated with the introduction of “green” technologies. As it happens in nature and in many spheres of life there are no perfect solutions. One must also remember a simple engineering fact, a solution deemed to be perfect when utilised on a small scale might become a total failure when implemented in an industrial dimension. Somehow Wankel engine comes to my mind, there are obviously other examples but the bottom line is that it ( the engine) had bankrupted NSU.


  4. A bit of interesting information in addition to your essay. Two fragments below appeared in one of our business publications. For clarity some explanations:

    Medupi and Kusile – two new 4800 MW each power stations being built in SA .
    Philip Lloyd – professor of University of Technology
    Du Plessis – CEO of Green Cape Initiative
    IRP2010 – governmental energy program paper

    “If approved bidders for various tenders go ahead, we shall end with 1200MW of power from wind, 200MW from solar, 1000MW+ from photovoltaic and 14MW of hydropower. That comes to a bit more than 2600MW. But that is installed power. That is what will be produced if the wind always blows and the sun always shines. If a proper average is applied, it comes out at 560MW.
    And it’s no good looking at Medupi and Kusile, the new coal-fired plants, and claiming they will make the difference — we need them to make up for the lost years. All they do is restore the status quo.
    Now let’s look at the economics and job creation. Medupi will cost R91bn when completed and will yield about 4800MW. That’s less than R20000/kW delivered. That 560MW average from those IRP2010 contraptions (wind, concentrated solar, photovoltaic, hydro) will cost R75bn. That’s R130000/kW. Even you’re kind and assume an average production of 1000MW, the cost is R75000/kW, nearly four times more than Medupi. It is absolutely no contest.
    What about all those jobs we were told the green-friendly methods would create? Lloyd tells me that, according to the bidders, the answer is 788. So we are going to spend R95m to create each job.”

    “Du Plessis challenges my estimate of the projected final cost of wind power to be installed in SA of R130000/kW. He claims it is “between R12000 and R15000 per kW selling into the grid at an average of approximately R0,90 per kWh (from the second-round bid).
    The difference is that Du Plessis is quoting costs per kilowatt installed, not delivered. And “delivered” takes into account the load factor, which international experience indicates is 25% at best for wind and 18% for photovoltaic. We can argue about this but we won’t know until the systems are installed. Suffice to say that experience with wind in SA suggests load factors below 15% — so using 25% is very generous.
    Apples have to be compared with apples. Du Plessis claims the low cost for wind energy is about R0,89/kWh. Then we must use Eskom’s low cost too — and that is R0,28/kWh.
    The average cost of all the renewable power offered in rounds one and two, for load factors of 18% for photovoltaic, 25% for wind, 95% for minihydro and 35% for concentrated solar power, was R1,65/kWh. I didn’t check Lloyd’s figure of R0,63/kWh for Eskom (naughty of me) but its latest annual report gives a selling price average of R0,50/kWh — so is it wrong for me to presume that Lloyd’s number is probably as near as dammit to being correct?”


  5. I have not enough information to assess the quality of the cost estimates provided (or, for that matter, the realities in South Africa in general). I might point out what I think about market costs of energy generation vs. its social costs (particularly when we are talking about coal plants), but I don’t want to repeat my arguments over and over again.

  6. The fragments were for your information only. May I only indicate one important factor in relation to the cost. However you look at it the costs will trickle down and will form part of your social costs, specifically if you consider poorer countries. Regarding employment ( this is a real issue here in SA ). Sometime ago there was an analysis of that factor done by one the main South African banks. Interestingly the bank in question created a unit dedicated to financing of “green” energy projects. Their research arrived at similar conclusions as in the quotes – job creating potential is not that significant if any at all. So, irrespective of our disagreements, your doubts are at least partly supported by various evaluations.
    In my view , most of the discussions try to avoid discussing the technological issue i.e. feasibility of LARGE SCALE application of alternative concepts. People, for various reasons, do not like getting involved in technical matters, frequently with grave consequnces.

    Have a nice weekend

  7. However you look at it the costs will trickle down and will form part of your social costs, specifically if you consider poorer countries.

    I don’t understand – could you put it in other words? It may be an interesting point.

    In my view , most of the discussions try to avoid discussing the technological issue i.e. feasibility of LARGE SCALE application of alternative concepts.

    The fact is that we don’t know whether large scale application of renewable energy technologies is feasible or not until we try it out. I am convinced that we have to try, regardless of nuclear power. Fossil fuels just are not an alternative.


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