Nuclear power takes up less space than solar or wind


Climate change is a global problem, the most serious impacts of which will affect people in low-income countries and the most serious damage will occur in the future. In contrast, conservation is an issue that is more immediate, local and often more compelling. As a result, environmentalists have long attempted to combine climate goals with more narrow-minded concerns about habitat preservation or landscape protection.

A new poll published by new climate-focused news site Heatmap shows the limitations of this strategy.

When asked whether it was more important to roll out renewable energy as quickly as possible or to go slow “to ensure that no harm is done to natural land or wildlife, even if it takes longer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” respondents opted for the slower variant approach with an overwhelming margin of 71% to 29%.

I personally belong to the lonely 29%. I grew up in Manhattan and have lived my entire adult life in Washington. I appreciate California’s weather and natural beauty as much as anyone, but I’ve never been an outdoor person. My problem when I’m hiking anywhere west of the Rockies is that sooner or later someone will ask me to hike.

However, climate change is the first environmental issue that is really close to my heart, precisely because of its impact on things like economic development and agricultural production.

Again, I’ll admit I’m an outlier. But this isn’t about me: From Virginia to the Bay Area, large-scale solar projects face opposition, fueled in part by dirty energy interests but also by serious conservationist concerns. At the end of the day, it is simply a fact that generating electricity from wind and solar takes up a lot of space. The US has a lot of space, and it is possible to imagine amber waves from wind farms from sea to bright sea. But that would be a significant change to the existing natural and grazing landscape.

For this reason, environmentalists have always been most comfortable with small rooftop and community solar projects. There is nothing wrong with solar panels on the roof – I have panels on my roof. But while it can power a home at least most of the time, it’s impossible to meet the energy needs of industrial and commercial users.

In addition, investments in renewable energies have been booming in recent years for economic reasons: wind and sun have become cheap. And cheap wind and solar, like cheap versions of most things, come from large-scale applications. Utility-scale projects are built to optimize performance and in a cost-effective, labor-intensive manner.

Right now, much of the environmental movement is in a state of denial about these land use considerations.

For example, one analysis purports to debunk the notion that an all-renewable grid would be extremely land-intensive. It does so, first, by discussing a model that is actually not fully renewable — it is a 70% to 85% renewable grid in which “most of the remaining electricity generation would come from existing nuclear power plants and a small portion from gas-fired power plants. Carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biogas.” It is also argued that wind farms are not as space intensive as this 2021 Bloomberg analysis would show, because wind turbines themselves occupy a relatively small footprint within a wind farm. So most of the space is the space between the turbines.

That’s true enough. At the same time, it’s not exactly a good argument to convince conservationists: don’t worry about the devastation of the landscape. There is a lot of empty space between these tall, somewhat noisy metal towers.

One finding from this is that environmental organizations should reconsider their skepticism about nuclear power. Nuclear power plants are not only emission-free, they are also much smaller per megawatt than renewable energy. In fact, they are more than twice as space efficient as coal-fired power plants. And in many cases, they could be located where current or recently closed coal-fired power plants are – they use existing transmission infrastructure and add nothing at all to the existing built-up area of ​​the US.

Repurposing the space already being used to power the American grid is not, and need not be, the complete solution to decarbonizing the economy. But doing so would drastically ease the pressure to build large quantities of wind and solar arrays quickly, and allow for renewable energy to be built on rooftops and in communities that welcome it, rather than fear it. And while that strategy would involve accepting some environmental impacts in the form of waste storage, it’s worth noting that renewable energy also has some environmental impacts.

The notion that one form of zero-emission energy is “green” and another is not is a misguided relic based on 1970s degrowth fantasies that no current mainstream politician subscribes to. When the goal is decarbonization while maintaining living standards, no choice is entirely pure.

The climate movement has made the most progress when aligned with popular local environmental concerns. Unrestricted acceptance of the advantages of nuclear energy would greatly facilitate this orientation.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• Nuclear power may be mankind’s greatest hope: Mark Gongloff

• When it comes to nuclear power, smaller isn’t necessarily better: David Fickling

• Nuclear power has one last chance to thrive in the US: Liam Denning

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This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. As a co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. Most recently, he is the author of One Billion Americans.

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