This year, I changed my mind about nuclear, hydro power and vegan food
This article was adapted from Energy Weekly, a free newsletter about the clean energy transition.
Nowadays, folks are increasingly entrenched in their own beliefs. Confirmation bias is alive and well, and it can be challenging to cross the chasm to talk to people who don’t agree with you — from politics to climate change to vaccines.
As 2021 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on issues where my opinion has changed. Fundamentally, I think we should all have space for dynamic opinions, and be willing to talk about where and why new information reshapes our world views.
I was never an ardent anti-nuclear person. I know, there are technical challenges with waste, and three high-profile meltdowns have tarnished its overall safety reputation, which is the basis of environmental organizations’ objections. But my highest priority is decarbonization, so I’m not one to write off the technology writ large.
My hesitation about nuclear power are those of the mainstream climate movement: It takes too long to build new plants, and they cost way too much money. With wind and solar technology mature and cheap, it seems the fastest and cheapest path to decarbonization is to double down on those instead of investing in expensive, centralized facilities.
This position is summed up well on this episode of the How to Save a Planet podcast, which cites that on average, nuclear plants built after 1970 had a cost overrun of 241 percent. They also take years, sometimes decades, to come online. There is a promise of small scale nuclear reactors, but the technology is often talked about as being too far away from deployment to meet our decarbonization goals of the next decade.
But I’ve warmed to nuclear this year. Here’s why.
First, it’s a carbon-free source of electricity that can provide baseload power in a way other clean technologies can’t. For years, I’ve mentally compared the attributes of nuclear against wind and solar. But during a session at VERGE 21 on the topic, charming Isabelle Boemeke, the self-described first nuclear influencer, pointed out that no one is arguing against wind and solar — we’re looking for a replacement for coal plants.
Second, declaring nuclear as too expensive and too slow is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have incredible faith in engineers’ and scientists’ ability to do hard things when we align mission and resources. Take, for instance, the COVID vaccine. A year and a half ago, smart people doubted our ability to develop a vaccine within a year, pointing out that our previous record for vaccine development is four years. Yet when we all pulled the oars in the same direction, we did the impossible.
Responding to climate change will require the same coordinated, herculean effort. For too long, I’ve been influenced by outdated and well-meaning narratives about nuclear, and reluctant to join the fray. With climate chaos upon us, it’s time to get off the sidelines.
I worship rivers. I grew up whitewater rafting and find nothing more nourishing than the feeling of drifting downstream. Ratty from “Wind in the Willows” said it best: “There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Rivers also serve as the world’s circulatory systems. They gather tributaries from across watersheds, carrying nutrients, sediments and wildlife critical to food systems and agriculture, and underpinning a wealth of biodiversity.
So I come to my dislike of dams honestly. (My parents met as river guides in the 1970s and bonded over protests of dams on the Stanislaus River.) The U.S. went dam-happy in the 20th century, building thousands of dams fragmenting river systems and threatening ecosystems. While hydropower can provide clean energy, less than 3 percent of the country’s 90,000 dams have facilities for electricity generation.
This year, clean energy OG Dan Reicher, a senior scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, adviser for VERGE Energy and fellow river rafter, shared a new approach to dams — one that has support from three groups historically at odds: the hydropower industry; environmentalists; and conservationists.
Central to the strategy is retrofitting dams to add generating capacity to non-powered dams to increase electricity generation, and removing dams that have no benefit to society.
This approach has helped me rethink the future of hydro. No longer do I consider adding hydro capacity synonymous to adding new dams. Instead, we can use existing dams better — while removing ones that aren’t serving us.
After all, hydro has some great attributes. It’s a clean technology that provides baseload capacity with no ramp-up time, making it a powerful balance to intermittent clean energy resources. Additionally, pumped storage hydro has amazing potential to offer long-duration or seasonal energy storage, helping electricity reach deep decarbonization.
I’m an omnivore, but I wasn’t always. I spent 13 years through my youth vegetarian, three of which were vegan, and one as a raw foodist. In college, I lived in a vegan house (we were insufferable). In fact, while going through old boxes from college, I recently ran into our cookbook collection, and it is extensive.
Back in my college vegan days, which was (checks calendar) 15 years ago, the vegan food alternatives weren’t great. Often foods made to taste like their animal-based counterparts were full of hydrogenated oils and preservatives. They were vegan but not necessarily healthy or tasty.
This summer, I stayed with vegan friends and realized something that should have been obvious. Plant-based, vegan food options have come a long way. The vegan cheese tasted like — cheese. The cauliflower bean and rice burrito tasted like — a better burrito. The vegan fried chick’n? Tasted like chicken.
I’m not alone in recognizing these food innovations. The plant-based food market grew by almost a third from 2019 to 2020, and 43 percent over two years, according to the Good Food Institute. Bloomberg Intelligence predicts the market will explode to $162 billion by 2030, up from $29.4 billion in 2020. Beyond Sausage was the 10th bestselling new food in 2020. Investment in alternative proteins in 2020 was up threefold from than 2019.
As our dietary choices and factory farm practices become more of a hot-button issue as we work to decarbonize (remember when Republicans erroneously said the Green New Deal would take away your hamburgers?), it’s welcome news that food innovation is tracking with the change we need. After all, no one likes to feel like they’re forced to sacrifice things they love. But the plant-based revolution makes me hopeful that people will increasingly see climate-friendly food choices as an upgrade — even if it’s only for a few meals a week.
Did you change your mind about anything this year? Let me know: [email protected].
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