Ted Trainer, with whom I’ve had a number of debates in the past, has sent me an interesting piece claiming that “no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that [100 per cent renewables” systems are in fact feasible”. The authors, at least those of whom I’m aware, are “pro-nuclear environmentalists” (Ben Heard, Barry Brook, Tom Wigley and CJ Bradshaw) The central premise is that, given that renewables won’t work, and reductions in energy demand are unrealistic, we need to get cracking on nuclear (and also carbon capture and sequestration).
It’s paywalled, but the abstract is sufficient to get the main point. In fact, the whole piece is summarized by its title “Burden of Proof”. To give the shorter version: Unless every possible detail of a 100 per cent renewable system can be proved to be workable decades in advance, we must go nuclear.
The longer version is in these paras from the abstract
Strong empirical evidence of feasibility must be demonstrated for any study that attempts to construct or model a low-carbon energy future based on any combination of low-carbon technology.
The criteria are: (1) consistency with mainstream energy-demand forecasts; (2) simulating supply to meet demand reliably at hourly, half-hourly, and five-minute timescales, with resilience to extreme climate events; (3) identifying necessary transmission and distribution requirements; and (4) maintaining the provision of essential ancillary services.
This list is mostly notable for what’s not in it: adequate year-round power supplies, at an economically feasible cost. That’s because it’s now obvious that solar PV and wind, combined with one of a number of storage technologies (solar thermal, batteries, pumped hydro) and a bit of smart pricing, can deliver these goals. So, instead we get demands for the precise details in the list above. To lift the burden of proof a bit more, it’s not good enough to address them separately, they all have to be done at once in a single study. Unsurprisingly, no one has yet produced a study that meets all of these demands at once.*
And this is where the burden of proof works so brilliantly. Renewable technologies are well established, with annual installations of 100 GW a year a more, and a record of steadily falling costs. But, according to our authors, they haven’t met the burden of proof, so we have to put tens of billions of dollars into technologies that are either purely conceptual (Gen IV nuclear) or hopelessly uneconomic on the basis of current experience (CCS and generation II/III nuclear).
To be fair, this use of the burden of proof, while more blatant than usual, is very common. One any policy issue, most of us would like to compare an idealised model of our preferred solution with the worst case scenario (or, at best, the messy and unsatisfactory reality) for the alternatives. But it’s important to avoid this temptation as much as possible. On any realistic assessment, renewables + storage (with the path to 100 per cent smoothed by gas) offer a far more plausible way of decarbonizing electricity generation than nuclear or CCS>
Clarification: In comments, Ben Heard points out that the authors counted two publications from closely related studies together.