The verdict is in: solar and wind have won the technology race

SonnenschiffgermanyWe continue to hear the same old arguments over and over again–in comments in these pages, in blogs and newspaper op-eds, in press releases and out of the mouths of those utility execs trying to hold on to the 20th century model of electricity generation and distribution, and, most depressingly, in the U.S. Senate which passed by a resounding 87-4 vote legislation to encourage new nuclear power development.

The arguments go like this: Germany’s Energiewende energy transition is failing; renewables are fine, but they can’t provide baseload power and thus can’t reliably power a modern industrial society; renewables are still too expensive without subsidies; we need an all-of-the-above energy strategy to combat climate change; new generation reactors will be safer, cheaper and also effectively deal with radioactive waste, and so on.

Well, that last one is a whopper and has been promised since nuclear power first emerged–call us when one of these Generation IV reactors actually exists and is providing cheap, safe, waste-free, reliable electricity–but the reality is none of these arguments, though some on their surface may seem reasonable, hold water any longer.

The reality is that a nuclear-free, carbon-free electricity future need not be the future: it can be the present. A system powered 100% by renewables supported by a backbone of electricity storage, smart grid technology and management, energy efficiency, and 21st century technology is feasible now. If by some magic wand we could do away with the world’s entire electrical system and replace it overnight, that is what we would replace it with. It’s the only kind of system that would make sense.

Since there is no magic wand, the only question is how quickly can we get there. And having to get through, again and again, arguments like these just slows us down. Where do these arguments continue to come from, since they keep coming up even after having been batted down? It’s not hard to figure out: a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system is by definition an existential threat to the nuclear and fossil fuel industries, and both have plenty of money to keep these arguments circulating, and to pay for Senate votes, for a very long time. And, as that existential threat continues to tear at these industries, expect even more ludicrous arguments and lashing out at clean energy advocates.

The simple fact is, as Rainier Baake, Germany’s minister in charge of the Energiewende, points out, is that solar and wind have won the technology race.  Says Baake,

“So there are two clear winners, and they are wind and solar,” Baake said. “We have learned how to produce electricity with wind and large-scale solar at the same cost level as new coal or gas generators.

“The question about the Energiewende is not a question about technology anymore. We have them.

“It is not a question about costs, because these new technologies produce at same costs as the last ones (technologies). And, I should point out, they are much cheaper than nuclear.

“The question now is whether we will be able to reinvent the power system so it can operate efficiently at reasonable cost and security with growing penetration of wind and solar.

“We want this Energiewende to be economically efficient – not just an ecological success story, also an economic success story.

“If it is not an economic success story, then nobody will follow us and we will lose support in Germany.”

Those who argue the Energiewende has failed typically point out that carbon emissions have not fallen substantially in Germany and that coal continues to be burned. Both are true, but both miss the point. An energy transition does not take place overnight–“transition” means exactly what it says, it takes time. And this transition was greatly accelerated five years ago, when Germany closed several reactors ahead of schedule following the Fukushima accident. In fact, the transition is working and its lessons are reaching beyond Germany’s borders.

Led by Germany, Europe installed a record amount of renewables last year, and renewables now account for 29% of Europe’s electricity generation. While carbon emissions did not fall substantially last year, they are expected to resume their decline in 2016 (emissions fell by 7.5% in 2014).  The trend is clear, irreversible, and likely to accelerate.

As for the rest of the arguments, they really boil down to a fundamental (and in the case of the dinosaur utilities, deliberate) misunderstanding of the nature of the grid and baseload power, and the inherent conflict between a 20th century system reliant on large baseload power plants and a nimble 21st century system reliant on a distributed energy system in which baseload plants–whether nuclear or fossil fuel–are obsolete.

The 20th century system worked mostly fine in the 20th century; it enabled the U.S. and much of the world to become the industrialized nations they are, it improved standards of living immeasurably, led to safer food through refrigeration, cleaner transport through rail and subways, led to creation of the internet and much more. Life as we know it would be impossible without it. Thank you, 20th century electricity system. But like all good things, it has run its course.

The 21st century system will work better. It will be much cleaner: goodbye carbon dioxide and mercury and plutonium and cesium and all the other pollutants from nuclear power and fossil fuels (not that renewables are 100% clean, but they are definitely cleaner).

The 20th century system can incorporate fairly large amounts of renewables without much problem; way more renewables than we use now in the U.S.–although a few states with large wind resources, like Iowa and Texas, are beginning to come close to hitting their limits. That is the stage we in the U.S. are at now, and, truth be told, still the stage Germany and most other European nations are, although they are much closer to the ceiling than are we.

But in the end, a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system means the end of baseload power plants. When renewables become the dominant source of power, baseload–which must operate as close to full-time as possible and cannot power up or down quickly–gets in the way. These old-fashioned plants are not merely a problem, they become an obstruction. Instead, it is necessary to have power sources, whether they be giant offshore wind farms or desert solar plants or banks of stored battery power, whose power can be adjusted up and down quickly. And yes, your rooftop solar and your energy efficient appliances and lighting are key components of the system too.

This is all as near to inevitable as it is possible to be. But, since it does pose an existential threat to powerful, wealthy industries, they will not go down quietly. They have a whole global concept presented at the COP 21 conference in December that nuclear is needed to fight climate change–since they can’t win on safety, or cost, or reliability (under the new system) or any other traditional measure, it is the only argument they have left.

And, as evidenced by the Senate vote, they clearly have a much too powerful hold on our legislators. Not that this legislation will bring new nuclear any closer to actual deployment, it won’t, but it is simply disgraceful that 87 U.S. Senators could vote for this without feeling it will harm them with public opinion. It is not a failing, per se, of our movement that we do not have a strong voice on Capitol Hill, it is instead a lack of resources. Such a presence requires money, and funders and the public simply aren’t putting up that money. That is why it is so important to participate in every NIRS Alert and meet with your Senators and Representatives when they do Town Halls and the like and write op-eds and letters to the editor–both of which are highly read by Congressmembers–and continue to talk with friends and acquaintances and continue to reach out in every way possible.

Our movement’s current lack of a Capitol Hill presence means there is an even greater need for constant grassroots pressure and mobilization. We do our best to provide you with the tools to do that, at both the federal level and for key state battles. Please use them.

P.S. Sign up for NIRS’ e-mail Alert list here:

Update, February 5, 2016. Here is a list of how every Senator voted on the nuclear amendment.

Michael Mariotte

February 2, 2016


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3 thoughts on “The verdict is in: solar and wind have won the technology race

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find that. The proposal was originally S.2461, but it was passed as an amendment to the Senate energy bill that is still on the Senate floor. Perhaps someone who knows the Congressional Record and has time to look through it could find out.


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