top of page

Getting Serious About Our Energy Future

Michael Edesess

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Dr. Michael Edison's. Michael's a mathematician and economist with expertise in the finance, energy and sustainable development fields. He is an adjunct associate professor in the division of Environment and Sustainability at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Michael, welcome to the podcast. Thanks. Hello.

Michael Edesess  0:20  

Pleasure to be here.

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:22  

So you have a piece circulating in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has turned a lot of heads in, I guess, my mind nerdy little sub community of nuclear advocates, the folks that listen to my podcast and swimmin in energy, Twitter waters, it's titled that we need to get serious about the renewable energy revolution by including nuclear power. So I'm very excited to bring you on and to chat about this piece. You know, on this podcast, you know, I do a bare bones introduction, get some bone a few days out of the way, the boring stuff, but then I really like to get a more substantive introduction from my guests as self introduction, you have a long and illustrious career. What I'm really interested in exploring, though, is that you've been on this sustainable energy road for quite a long time, and that you have some very interesting perspective to lend to us. So I'm hoping you can kind of self intro but you know, you've got a really interesting resume, you were a former Board Chair at the Rocky Mountain Institute, you had a research position at the Solar Energy Research Institute, which is better known now as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Why don't you walk us through, you know, I guess, in a sort of brief ish way, if I can keep you to a minute or two, but just help help our guests understand, you know, where you're coming at, in terms of authoring this piece where you started your journey?

Michael Edesess  1:41  

Well, I guess, I guess I have to say, I mean, I think it's very, kind of a crucial fact that I've always been an environmentalist, but but of the John Muir type, preserve wilderness explorer mountain areas, environmentalism has changed somewhat, but I think my family thinking maybe nuclear energy is a good idea is because I just want to preserve as much open space and willingness as possible. So I got I got a PhD in pure mathematics, which is inscrutable to almost anybody else. And then I decided I wanted to get a job in some applied field. At the time, the Vietnam War was going strong. And all the technology companies I would have wanted to work for were making things like antipersonnel weaponry, and somebody suggested I try this financial company brokerage firm. So I did, but I did. I didn't like it at all. I mean, I stuck with it for a few years, just so it's not to feel like a quitter. But then I decided I wanted to do something else and discovered found that this Solar Energy Research Institute was looking for people and it was in the foot of the Rocky Mountains so you know, what could be better so I managed to get a job there wasn't that easy, and worked there for a while until the Reagan administration cut that by about two thirds. So I had to do my wound up to doing computer programs for the five basically two computer programs, so the finance field and kind of stayed very much in touch with the environmental issues and all of that, that spent much more time on that than on my you know, paid work, so to speak. And I've also also always volunteered to teach at universities so that's that it's always been kind of some adjunct status of one sort or another I've taught that probably is wider range of courses is just about anybody that before currently teaching environmental economics is five years ago I taught cryptocurrency so

Dr. Chris Keefer  4:23  

so you, you mentioned in the piece, you know that you were on the board or board chair at the Rocky Mountain Institute. And you know, we've we've did an episode dedicated to Emory Levin's on this podcast, and absolutely, you know, interesting character, you know, he's, I'd say, sort of within the sort of nuclear advocacy community there's almost a sort of like villain archetype to Amory Levin's and so when I was planning this episode, I had a great guy on and we did a very nuanced show on him. But you know, as is common when you're claiming that sort of Dunning Kruger Hill, things seem pretty simplistic and you get a bit higher you get a bit elevation you see around you and the world isn't much more beautiful and complex place. And I you know, despite having strong, strong disagreements with Amory Levin's and thinking that he's really screwed us in terms of our electrify everything agenda by by moving us away from, you know, a capacity to build lots of big infrastructure that we're going to need to replace fossil fuels, I did gain a real appreciation, you know, watching some of his presentations, seeing the film that him and his wife or ex wife Hunter. Were in I mean, brilliant communicators, super smart guy, I think you describe him as I think the most brilliant person you ever met or have ever met? Yeah, I mean, I'm one day I'm gonna get Amory Lovins on this podcast. But until I do, I'm very interested. I mean, what an important figure. Can you share some reflections on, you know, meeting him working with him being on the board at the Rocky Mountain Institute? Well, it's very

Michael Edesess  5:49  

hard for me to see him as a villain. I can tell you that. And, and, and if and if it's true, which is always very hard to say that some of his work set set us on the wrong path. Well, you know, you can say that about almost anybody. Ronald Reagan set us maybe on the wrong path, but it wasn't. If he if he looked at the path. Now he might say that's not what I meant. Adam Smith, even more so. So so I don't, you know, okay, this is not any kind of a villain. He's very, extremely smart guy with knowledge about things you just wouldn't remember. You mentioned anything. Yeah. And he has in depth knowledge about it. People would tell stories about things he did that were just unbelievable, like, attending a meeting. And just working on his computer and doing some other things. He didn't seem to be there. And then and then he just summarized everything and then presented the solution. And everybody said, You're right. That's it. This This was not a typical, I don't know. I mean, I can't resist. So here's here's an anecdote that I really enjoyed. I went one time I went with him. This was this was quite a while ago, maybe 25 years ago. More than that. I went with him in Aspen to a New Year's Eve party. And I come in, and there's somebody in the code room that was hard not to look at two or three more times, who turned out to be Barbie Benton, the the Hugh Hefner Playboy model. So it was kind of that kind of thing. Amy's just kind of charged in there, and he did technological networking. I followed him around. It was fascinating. I mean, everybody he met, he just kind of tried to find out what's the latest in your area of technology, and he just gathers information. It's his, you know, it's it. But anyway, the, so I guess I must have read his path not taken in, perhaps 1976 or so. And then I attended a talk that he gave. And then I attended another talk that he gave later. And he recognized me, which surprised me a bit. I thought maybe he recognized the fellow geeks or so to speak technological geek. And that's, that's what really interested me. In him that I, you know, there was at that time, more of the idea that preserving the environment that Paul Ehrlich came up with this equation, which is just completely wrong, but it was P equals I type and times A times T I think it was with no, i equals P times A times T I think that's the impact on the environment, equals population times, technology times, whatever the third thing is. And so that said that technology is bad for the environment, bad for the impact on the environment. And I didn't, you know, I guess I believed that, but I also love technology. I love the environment. And I love technology. I went to MIT I was thrilled. The first when I first entered the classrooms, I was just thrilled to be there. And Amy's approach was use technology to use less energy. And I thought, Okay, this sounds like you know, I can really relate to that. And you know, he is he is brilliant about it. A finding ways to reduce energy use to make our use of energy more efficient.

Dr. Chris Keefer  10:06  

In your piece, you talk a little bit about how people conceive of the energy problem, I guess at that time, you know, at the time of the path not taken at the time of the soft energy path, in what I call Emory's heyday in the 70s. Can you frame that for us a little bit now, I think, give us that historical context. When we think about energy now, and the problems we face, it's, you know, almost completely caught up in concerns about climate getting to net zero. So give us that historical framing for, you know, how the energy crisis was being was being seen at that point by these particular people.

Michael Edesess  10:43  

So in Well, 1973 is probably the the turning point, because of the, there had already been some increases in the price of oil, by Libya and others, I think the some of those Middle Eastern, the, you know, the oil producing countries, maybe maybe woke up to, to the realization that they were being screwed, perhaps, because they, you know, they the, the oil majors were running the show, and they were paying them, presumably what they wanted to pay. And so they, they said, Okay, we're going to nationalize these oil fields, and then we're going to charge you to use them. But then, so the price went up. And then and then in 1973, there was the embargo because of the Arab Israeli war. And that pushed the price up some more. And then there was another increase toward late 70s. Or early, I don't know, 1980, whatever it was. So it added up to about a 12 fold increase in in the price of oil, and also shortage during the embargo. So there were long lines of gas stations, waiting to fuel up, there were restrictions on how much you could put in your tank. And Fights broke out at the, at the gas stations. So there was a lot of concern. And I think the concern about energy at that time was much more widespread than it is now. Now, the concern about climate change is probably more limited to a subset of the population. Whereas at that time, it was it was very widespread. And the concern was, one we're running out of it. And natural gas in particular, I remember I, when I was with us small partnership in the finance field, we went and visited a client, a bank in Indiana, and we get there and everybody's wearing five jackets and that kind of thing, and it was cold. And they said this this job gas, it was generally understood that natural gas was running out. I mean, this sounds a little crazy now, but at the time, because it actually had a lot to do with regulation of pipeline, prices and so forth. But it, it was generally understood that gas was had already peaked gas supply had already peaked. oil supply would peak pretty soon. And we're going to have to get more and more from overseas from Middle Eastern countries. And there was a concern that we needed to do do something about that, so that we wouldn't be paying higher and higher prices for less and less availability. And as I mentioned in that article, the kind of, you know, landmark, energy study this, this Harvard study didn't said almost nothing at all about climate change. One tiny little thing that said, and this may in the future become a big, much bigger concern. That's all. Everything else was about. The ship shortages, price rises. Pollution, cities were very polluted at the time. Los Angeles was as bad as Beijing is now. I was there. I remember one day that there was nothing across the street. And then the next day, I noticed their buildings across the street. Well, it was a change in the wind. But across the street, you couldn't see the buildings when when the It was polluted.

Dr. Chris Keefer  15:02  

And so you're laying out the context. And it's making a little more sense now to understand the kind of solutions coming out of places like the Rocky Mountain Institute, but just if you could summarize for our listeners, you know, a pretty well educated crowd. But, you know, you've laid out the problem. So what were the ideas that were attractive at that time? And to what degree Have you seen them become from maybe being fringe to being mainstream now,

Michael Edesess  15:26  

there was a lot of emphasis on simply reducing energy use. And one of one of a movies, pieces of brilliant brilliance, but it almost was it was brilliant in the sense that it went against the conventional wisdom. But it was obviously right. All economists were predicting that in the year 2000, energy use in the US would be 200 quads, quadrillion BTUs Amory predicted it would be about 100. And he was basically right. They what what the others were doing what the economists were doing, was just making. I mean, it's a very simple and mindless straight line extrapolation or, or exponential extrapolation, really, without considering the fact that when prices go up, people start to conserve, they find more ways to use it more efficiently. This was a Murray's argument that they should do that, and they would do that. But I think this, this was latched on to by, by the segment that got excited by the path not taken. Most others just thought we we need to I don't know. I guess I guess drill more. Use more, use more coal, Amory actually did suggest that we needed to use coal as a bridge to the soft energy path later,

Dr. Chris Keefer  17:25  

I guess. Yeah. I mean, I saw when I said this, this kind of Amory is villain thing, you're kind of eyebrows went up. And I do want to explain myself. And I don't mean it in a simplistic way, again, I've got a pretty nuanced take on Amory these days. But, you know, in the rejection of, of a heart energy path, you know, and an emphasis on decentralization on smallest beautiful on conservation and efficiency, which I think, you know, there's, there's a lot to that it's, it's foolish to waste energy, it's a precious resource. But if you look at one of aimers arguments, I think was that, for instance, using electricity to heat, it's, it's inefficient, you lose a lot, you know, you lose a lot there in the in the energy conversions, right. And that is true, particularly if you don't care about climate change, which as you're saying was less of a concern. If you look at jurisdictions that heat with electricity, it's places like, you know, my, my next door neighbor, province, Quebec, which you know, pursued a very hard energy path, building a lot of very large hydro dams, and have this, you know, incredible surplus of energy with which the heat in the winter and also they're basically helping all the freeloaders around them with their climate goals by providing that ultra low carbon hydro, to New England, to New York, you know, to some surrounding Canadian provinces, or France, for instance, right, which pursued a very hard energy path by, you know, in response to the opiate crisis saying, Okay, we do not have oil, but we have ideas, and building that, you know, 54 reactors and something like 20 years, and they actually also do a lot of heating. So in the context of needing to electrify everything, those places that pursued not a kind of dark, hard energy path. I mean, certainly, it was a low carbon one, thankfully, in those places, they find themselves well equipped to move forward in terms of an electric driving agenda, because, you know, fundamentally, you know, 85% of the world's energy is derived from fossil fuels. And the challenge of net zero, the challenge of climate is to replace that, even if we can reduce the amount of energy we use by, you know, a third or a half, that's still an enormous amount of fossil fuel services that we we need to replace. And so I think that's kind of where that argument came from, as well. As you know, Amory has been a long standing principle opponent of, of nuclear energy, which, you know, I think myself and a lot of my community sees as being really the the most scalable tool in order to achieve those climate goals. So I just wanted to sort of explain that that comment, and I know as someone who's spent a lot of time with him, he's an incredibly charismatic guy. I didn't want to offend you in terms of that characterization, but just just to explain sort of my my rationale where I'm coming from there.

Michael Edesess  19:57  

Yeah, like I understand Same, same way I understand people might villainize Adam Smith, I don't know.

Dr. Chris Keefer  20:07  

Right, right. Absolutely. So let's, let's talk a little bit and we're gonna get to sort of the juicy nuclear bits in a little bit here. But I wanted to talk a little bit more about what you talk in the piece in terms of, you know, the the challenges of wind and solar of, you know, you talk about the renewables army, which I think is really interesting term. I don't really like the way that sometimes taxonomies and labels can sort of simplify things. But at the same time, we do need terms to describe the phenomenon of groups of people that hold a certain kind of common views of looking at things, it's a useful way to kind of help us be more granular and understand the world. I mean, something that drives me personally crazy is just the term renewables because it lumps together so many dislikes sources, right. And lumps together intermittent wind and solar with with, you know, large scale hydro, or, you know, biomass somehow gets to sneak in the door and sound virtuous when it's labeled as part of the renewables basket. And, you know, 60% of the EU's renewable power is actually biomass, which isn't terribly great for the environment. But walk me through I guess, in the piece, you talk a little bit about what you see is, as some of the challenges of of wind and solar, I think similar to myself, you've kind of looked at the available options, and you say, hydro is great, but it's kind of tapped out and limited geothermal as well. Titles marginal, like we're really left with wind, solar, and nuclear as a potential scalable options. So I don't know what walk me through your evolving thoughts on on wind and solar and their limitations?

Michael Edesess  21:36  

Yeah, well, first of all, I mean, those three are the are the only three big options up I think people who argue for renewables, they argue for throwing in some biomass and some geothermal and some hydro and so forth. So, but but the main states would still have to be wind, solar, or nuclear. So yeah, the problem with wind and solar is that obvious. I mean, just in, in principle, you're going to you could confront challenges in scaling up. Yo, he'll do the cheapest projects in the places with the best resources first. And the, the idea that it's economical, might come from those projects. But when you scale up, the later projects are going to be those that cost more per unit of energy producing this is inevitable. And then it's at some point, you can, you can have a certain amount of penetration of wind and solar. But at some point, you'll, in order to meet the demand, you either have to have a good way to store the electricity or the energy. Well, the electricity produced by wind and solar. And it's got to be inexpensive enough. Or wind and solar have to be cheap enough that you can waste a lot of the energy that they produce, because you'll have to overbuild by an enormous amount to meet the demand at all times. Now, I think I think there are answers to all of these things from the, you know, the, let's say, the enthusiasts or those who believe we can do it that way. First of all, there are all kinds of things you can do to shape demand. But I don't I don't know to what extent these are more theoretical than practical that there's among the people that that construct the scenarios. I think it's more a belief in what we could do if everything fell into place, and if everybody did it. And yes, I mean, I don't think that the all renewables scenario is impossible. I even if it were totally economical. I think that it will Meet up with the kinds of people problems that sometimes get in the way as they got in the way of nuclear energy. There are lots of protests against wind farms and sometimes solar farms for the very reason that I might have protested years ago, and that is that they take up land. So in the article I mentioned that Bill McKibben had written this article in The New Yorker saying we can we can do it all, implying we can do with renewables. And at one point in the article, he mentioned that he was in favor of stopping the operation, I think it was of a nuclear power plant in Vermont, because he was assured that it would be replaced by renewables by wind and solar. But then, people who didn't watch winter winds on the peaks, managed to get some sort of a piece of legislation passed that barred building winter bins on them, obviously, the most advantageous place for harvesting wind power.

Dr. Chris Keefer  26:30  

It's interesting, because, for me, I asked myself the question, I mean, I think modeling is very important. There's huge limitations. There's lots of things we can't take into account. There's, you know, Russia invading Ukraine that didn't fit nicely into the, the, you know, list of variables that were available for a lot of different modeling studies. But when I look at it, I think, you know, is the evidence in like, have we have we done enough yet, you know, what's the real world teaching us and we have the example of Germany, that's, I think, about 500 billion euros into their wind and solar dominant energy transition, using coal for 21% of electricity last year, the number one source on their grid, they're probably going to use more of this next year, because they're also, you know, shackled to Russian gas to deal with intermittency problem. And it's like, okay, you have one of the wealthiest countries in the world, you know, a country in the West, that's actually really state kept. Its vertically integrated production that hasn't offered everything that has big industry, if anyone can do wind and solar and figure out the magical storage techniques that can get rid of fossil fuels. It should be Germany, right. But instead, no, you know, coal is the number one thing on the grid, they're using so much gas. So for me, I you know, it, it takes me to this, this paraphrasing of, you know, lies, damned lies and modeling. I just, I just see so much bias, and when in terms of the quality of science, like for instance, I don't want to get sued here, so I have to speak carefully. But in terms of Moxie Jacobson's work, it's like, he's, he's developed, you know, a modeling software, you know, his own set of modeling tools that will he can feed information into, and he has, he's obviously got skin in the game, he knows what he wants that model to spit out. And voila, it's but so that, you know, Wind, Water solar, can be done anywhere around the world and, you know, can can get us to net zero in whatever the timeline is. I just, I just find myself much more compelled with looking at at the real world, you know, and of course, there's going to be disruptive technologies and things can change. That's the limitations of only looking at the real world. But, I mean, if we're talking about doing things on tight timescales, I mean, what's going to happen in the next 10 years? That's so radically different? I think we need to pay attention to what we've done so far. It's not like we're theoretically looking at a but what if we try this wind and solar thing? I mean, countries have really given it a good go, California has given it a good go. And it's very interesting seeing Gavin Newsom saying hey, maybe we're gonna have to keep the people around you after all, because looking like we're gonna face some pretty big blackouts and energy shortfall, so I don't know that's, that's my take. I mean, what are your thoughts? Do you think in terms of the way the modeling lines up with with real world experience

Michael Edesess  29:07  

I have a long history of skepticism of modeling most particularly in the financial field, but but in a lot of other places as well. So

Dr. Chris Keefer  29:22  

it's kind of a necessary evil I guess it's got a role we need it but it is it wrong a lot. I mean, from from that from your work in the financial field,

Michael Edesess  29:31  

in the financial field is wrong almost all the time. Yeah. We're, I mean, how do you define wrong? This is the wrong question. But it's it's, let's, let's let's put it more clearly, it's useless almost all the time. Wrong is hard to define because it's not even clear what what it's trying to get right.

Dr. Chris Keefer  29:58  

I guess prone to bias would be My concern, and I think I just see a lot of in terms of the researchers that are that are modeling. I'm not going to label all of them this way. But when we talk about Moxie Jacobson, there's almost a like, he has an evangelical commitment to making this work. And anyway, I mean, I shouldn't apply too much, because I'm not an energy model that I don't you know, it's not something I find to have expertise in, but just from my, you know, 100 mile, bird's eye view, I have big red flags popping up. When when I when I see that sort of practice, and I can compare it to things in the medical literature. But yeah, why don't we Why don't we shift bases a little bit? So you're you have, we're gonna get to keep going through this this Bulletin of Atomic science articles. But you know, you also have written a piece about, you know, the energy transition and net zero as a as a moonshot analogy. I thought this was fascinating, because, you know, the Apollo program was expensive. I think it was 4% of government spending, but it only costs about a quarter trillion dollars $280 billion. How does that compare it to? I mean, do you think it's a useful analogy, the moonshot versus getting to net zero? And what were the what's the relative costs we're looking at? For for a net zero energy transition compared to the moonshot? What are your thoughts on that?

Michael Edesess  31:10  

Well, I think the relative cost is an awful lot more for getting to net Well, I mean, if you really wanted to get to net zero, the, if you insist on it's got to be net zero, then the costs would just just go through, go through the moon, if I may say so. But the two analogies that people use, to argue that we can do as our one is the moonshot. But that's, of course, a very specific and limited goal, it's still amazing that we were able to do it, given the kind of computing computers and all of that that we had at the time, it's just unbelievable. So I think, I think it's an example that you can say, as a really, I love that I came up with that memory, that when I went into JJ defs office, he had this plaque art in the wall that said, be realistic, do the impossible. Because I mean, it's part partly comes from rock climbing, which I did long ago. And it seemed that every time some climb was pronounced impossible, clearly impossible. Somebody came along and did it. The moonshot was kind of kind of like that, it was, seemed impossible, but it got done. But it's, it's, you know, with a limited goal. And once you get the calculations, right, and you get the power, right, I guess, you aim, right. It's, um, it's not that simple. But that maybe it's maybe it's not the hardest thing in the world. The other analogy that people use, and this is a good one, is how fast we scaled up production of tanks and airplanes in a few short years, not to mention developing the atomic bomb from 1940. Well, starting a little bit before 1940, because we're sending things sending this to Britain. But I mean, it was about five years, it's just that when I read somewhere that when Detroit, whoever was General Motors, whoever really was assigned the task of producing these things, they were asked how many can you produce, they gave some colossal number, and then they wound up producing more than twice that much. So the, you know, this is an example of maybe you can do the impossible, and maybe you can, but I mean, I think energy is is a hard nut to crack. And it's not. It's not like doing digital technology.

Dr. Chris Keefer  34:10  

You're still pouring steel and started pouring concrete laying steel building turbines. It's not it's not bytes and microprocessors. That's, that's for sure. I think there's we live in such a, especially my generation, I think, in such a time of, you know, the digital revolution that you know, the changes, we've seen anyone that cell phone, for instance, you know, I mean, I'm old enough. I mean, I'm turning 40 This year, but, you know, just It's unbelievable the kind of changes we've seen in that world. And I think there's we have that sort of expectation for heavy industry. And it's it's a little naive. One of I've had a really interesting guest on named Mark mills. And he he takes the moonshot analogy and says, Listen, I mean, the getting to netzero the energy transition that we're talking about is kind of the equivalent of putting everybody on the moon. Maybe a bit of an exaggeration, right? But we put I think 12 people on And the other one that he made, and I want to give him full credit for this, because, you know, I think so much I often critique the 100% renewables folks, and the kind of elaborate Rube Goldberg type processes that would have to be in place to maybe possibly try and balance out the intermittency and the over builds and the inter ties and, you know, the gravity suspended concrete blocks off of the cranes that are going to, you know, store energy in the titles, they just all the stuff, it seems like, it's kind of a huge contortion ism to just avoid what is, I think, a much more simple and elegant solution, which is nuclear energy. And so he made this this analogy, which was, you know, if the task was to get everybody across the Atlantic Ocean to fly everybody across the Atlantic Ocean, we could do that in jet planes or helicopters. And I mean, I've flown in helicopters a fair amount, it is awesome. It's a super fun feeling when you just take off and kind of float away and just seem to defy the laws of physics. And could you fly everybody, or, you know, big chunk of people across the Atlantic Ocean helicopters, I guess you'd have to probably set up some, you know, offshore landing rigs, for refueling, we'd have to probably have to hop over to the Portuguese islands you're on right now, as part of our way across the Atlantic, it's not the easiest way to do it, we could do it that way. It would be kind of a Rube Goldberg type situation to make that happen. Or we could just people on jet planes. But I think so much of what you know, underlies some of the incredibly creative thinking. And challenges have the kind of 100% renewable, what you call the renewables army enthusiasm is, is this what we can't do nuclear that's, that's written off the table. So we have to make do with what we have. And that requires some pretty interesting and stimulating thinking. Because, you know, one thing I've learned from hanging a lot of engineers is that they actually really love problems, I can kind of the more problems, the merrier, the more, the more more solutions they can come up with, you know, it's like, you know, give give someone a hammer, and everything looks like a nail. They love these problems. So, you know, you do use that term, the renewables army. And I'm just, again, I'm interested in your reflections on on that tribe on the characteristics of that tribe. And I guess, I'm not sure how long you've been thinking about nuclear energy now. And you know, I think this article, definitely you're, you're, you're coming out and saying, Hey, if we're serious about this, you know, if we want to have this energy transition happen, it's got to include a lot of nuclear you. Are you? How are you relating now to that group of people and some, sometimes it's easy to be sort of labeled as almost a heretic for taking that line of reasoning. Give me your thoughts on on the renewables army and, and on heresy if that applies to you at all?

Michael Edesess  37:38  

Well, I mean, the truth is, I don't really have much to do with it. I don't have I haven't had anything to do with Rocky Mountain Institute in 20 years, really. Since I, since I left the board there. I do bring up I mean, with some people, I know I bring up nuclear energy, there are some people who just kind of look look uncomfortable when they say, Well, I don't know, I have some doubts. But I don't. I haven't gotten major Twitter insults, or whatever it is, that happens on Twitter, I don't know I'm not into

Dr. Chris Keefer  38:17  

this. Definitely saving yourself, you're saving yourself, your time wisely. You're using your time wisely to not swim in those waters. I mean, what like, one of the one of the arguments that I heard pretty early on, but I thought was interesting was, you know, looking again, at what Germany has done Vasilev SMIL, summarizes this, I think really beautifully. And he says, you know, Germany, just the numbers, I'm gonna simplify them and do some rounding slightly to just make it very basic, but, you know, pre energy transition, they had about 100 gigawatts of power on their grid, you know, that was coal, gas, nuclear, some biomass, things like that, right. Their demand hasn't changed. They've now doubled their capacity. So they have about 100 gigawatts of wind and solar. And they have 100 gigawatts of coal and a lot more gas and a lot less nuclear now. And so they've doubled their grid without any increase in demand. You know, we're being told that wind and solar are the cheapest thing to add on the grid based, I guess, on wholesale prices. But Germans face some of the highest electricity prices in the EU. And you have the inability to retire, you know, those coal plants. You know, there was a target for 2038. They're rushing to close the nuclear plants this year. But calls on the table the 2038 actually got to sit down with the spokesperson of the German environment ministry at at the Climate Summit in in Glasgow at COP 26. And asked him about this thing of what is the plan around intermittency? And he was like, Well, you know, we've got Nord Stream two, we're doing gas, we're gonna do gas for a while, you know, we'll phase out the gas too, but you know, with what with what they had no answer. And so, if this, you know, the this kind of fatal flaw of intermittency, which even the Germans can't figure out, you know, again, one of the wealthiest, most industrialized, ingenious, you know, most Nobel Prize in Chemistry and engineering etc, or as a physics and chemistry can't figure out and we build all these renewables, there's still going to need a full backup. And so in your piece, you say, I'm trying to get back to the title here. If we're serious about the renewable energy revolution, you know, we need to be serious by including nuclear power. You know, Tom bliss was a friend of mine I was talking to, he said, the issue is that, you know, we're always gonna need that backup for when the wind isn't in the center aren't cooperating. So we need to have 100% capacity there. And if, you know, it's not that, that needs to be 100%, nuclear, obviously, we're using some hydro and geothermal and other things, but then the wind and solar become sort of a frill, that's, that's just kind of an expensive addition to the system. You know, from the perspective again, of Germany, having to kind of double things and maintain that full capacity. So, you know, I'm not trying to kind of push you into territory, that's uncomfortable, but I'm just wondering, you know, in terms of, clearly there's rules for renewables, particularly in off grid scenarios, perhaps, you know, in areas where it's absolutely the best siting in the world, or, you know, that solar production matches the air conditioning demand and a hot southern country. But, I mean, to what degree is your is your thinking on renewable shifting in terms of their their overall kind of place in the system? Or how central they should be? Or how important should nuclear be in terms of, of this mix that you're, you're imagining?

Michael Edesess  41:25  

I don't, I don't have the answer to that I was gonna be perfectly honest, I'm still learning about this. And I've been talking to some people who know, know more about it to try to understand if you have the, the advantage of nuclear power is always on. So so. But demand is not always on. So what you know, Jack Devanney says you can follow through and. But there, but but he also says if you got wind and solar, then then you can't use the full capacity of nuclear. So it actually damages the economics of nuclear power. So how to combine all these things is something that I'm trying to figure out. And I've, fortunately, I've connected with a couple of people who I don't think they have the answer exactly. But I think they know more than I do, about how to do this. As as to the I think the the renewables enthusiasts, I'll call them that have high hopes and beliefs about storage, I think they, they think battery prices will come down a lot and already have. But other things I've read, seem to say they're very high. And it's hard to make them come down. Like Bill Gates, his book, for example. He said, he said he tried a lot of different things. And it's it seems to be hard to get to get the cost of batteries down and they end the the durability basically. So but you know, it's very hard to say anything with any certainty about any of this because you can't tell what technology developments will be in, in the future. And I don't think people sometimes make an analogy with with data storage, which, of course has been phenomenal story, I still, I would I would I went back to kind of having to do some work in the finance field. What I did was I retreated into the mountains of Colorado, in 1982. And I assembled the new IBM PC, A, the brand new Tallgrass 20 megabyte hard disk that it had it had 20 megabytes. I thought, you know, we looked at it, my partner and I we said no, that thing stores 20 megabytes, can you believe that? It was huge, and it was noisy and it costs $4,000. Now, I take out of my little change purse, something you can barely see and it's got 128 Giga gigabytes. So this is this is incredible. But it took to use that as an analogy for how other things can come down in price, I think is a big mistake. It's possible but from, you know, I don't know the weight of opinion that I that I've heard about red seems to See that we're nowhere near getting the cost of batteries down enough. But it's it could be that that's wrong.

Dr. Chris Keefer  45:06  

Yeah, I mean, the physics I think are just so different for this digital versus very physical world. You know, it's interesting when you, when we started off the interview, you're talking about being kind of in the tradition of John Moyer Mir, who we've talked about a little bit in the podcast. But I very much share that bench. You know, I consider myself an environmentalist, a conservationist, I love wild spaces want to see them preserved. I'm also, you know, humanists. And most of my activism in my youth was very much along issues of, you know, anti war, refugee issues, that kind of stuff. But, um, and it's also interesting, you're talking about that context of, you know, graduating from MIT in, you know, into this world of the Vietnam War. And just how, you know, I think a lot of, from what I understand focus in your generation, you know, when when looking at the establishment when looking at leadership, I mean, this was the time of the war and also of, of the Cold War. You know, just, I guess, just kind of trying to understand the, the counterculture from, from the perspective of, you know, when, when you sort of came of age, I'm just, I'm just fascinated by that, you know, what the world looked like to you and how that steered you in terms of the path that you took, what the ideas that were laying around, were for you to kind of pick up and roll with. And I just in the last few minutes, I didn't I just, there's something that stood out for me. Are you aware at all of William Siri? Yeah, I mean, I found him to be a fascinating figure as someone who basically helped get Diablo Canyon built and save the I forget what the name of the dunes were. But you know, that those kinds of figures, it's interesting at that transition point, I think kind of when you're coming of age, I mean, I think series gone at that point. But there was this this, you know, Ansel Adams figure as well, you know, who was we need to do nuclear so that we don't dam or big, beautiful river valleys and can preserve nature? I mean, that kind of impetus I find really consistent with with some of my core values, I'm not sure if that's something that sort of speaks to you, or if that's a reason why you've kind of come to rethink nuclear energy.

Michael Edesess  47:09  

Yeah, that's that's definitely part of it. And that was the environmentalists interest at the time they the bad energy was hydro. And nuclear was the great hope. Now, I don't know exactly what was in the 50s. Perhaps now what what exactly turned somebody like will Siri against it? I don't know. I mean, I

Dr. Chris Keefer  47:33  

will say the state will steady state and favor but but it led to the split of the Sierra Club. And I think Bauer, foreign friends of the year, there was a huge schism, but we'll say he was actually the trained health physicist. But yeah, it's a fascinating story, that whole one, but yeah, what what happened to the environmental movement that they they had such an about face at that point?

Michael Edesess  47:54  

He would know it. I mean, he knew David Brower. Well, if I get a chance, I'll ask him how that happened. You know, what, what turned you against nuclear energy, because he was a strong opponent of it. And Fred was the I think the British representative of Friends of the Earth and is sort of I don't know if I can call it his first job there. I don't know, when this first rolls.

Dr. Chris Keefer  48:22  

All right. Well, maybe I'll try and work you for a connection to Emory. See if I can get him on the podcast and I've talked about him enough here. It's about time I actually have a conversation with the guy. Listen, Mike, it's been a real pleasure having you on. Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives. I'm gonna link the article in the show notes. encourage everyone to give that a good read. And I hope to stay in touch and maybe have you back on at some point in the future.

Michael Edesess  48:46  

Okay, thanks. Thanks a lot, Chris.

bottom of page