There is a petition going around in Canada called “The Leap” sponsored by David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and others that is packed with excellent progressive sentiments and is oriented towards influencing the political climate in advance of our upcoming election.
It makes a series of 15 demands, some of which are easy for any self-regarding progressive to subscribe to, such as the need to better respect treaties with Aboriginal tribes. But some of the other demands—especially those concerning energy supply and infrastructure—are pretty incoherent.
The manifesto calls for Canada to initiate a shift to 100% renewable energy based on so-called research that holds such a shift is possible within two decades. The research is by a cult academic at Stanford University named Mark Jacobson who comes up with utterly impractical plans to power regions with renewable energy. His plan to power the New York state includes unproven, overrated, and inappropriate technologies such as offshore wind a mile deep along the entire coast of Long Island, and concentrated solar power, which needs tremendous levels of insolation to work and as such has ever only been built in deserts.
In most of the real world, the attempt to shift to high concentrations of renewable energies is failing. Germany has been going all out on a renewable energy system for 15 years, and they have only managed to reduce the amount of coal they burn by about a fifth, primarily by burning garbage and trees, which they are importing in vast quantities from around the world. Globally, the only regions successfully approaching high percentages of renewable energy are those that were there all along because they happen to be blessed with access to lots of hydro power, which not all of Canada is.
But the truly deep incoherence in #TheLeap is not the aim for a 100% renewable approach to energy, however dubious that is. Rather, the incoherent idea is that by shifting to renewable energy we can put an end to the burden exerted upon the earth of extraction.
I’m sympathetic to the writers of #TheLeap for being unfavorable to developments “nobody wants in their backyards.” But in other regards than fuel—in regards to the materials that goes into building the generation supply--renewable energies are the most extractive form of energies. Building a system on solar and wind requires vast amounts of redundant generation to gather wind power in one region when it isn’t blowing in another, transmission lines between them, as well as backup, which is virtually always fossil fuel. If instead you try to store renewable energy in batteries for when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, you would probably need more Lithium than there is in the earth. All of that metal needs to be mined and processed somewhere—be it China, or Malaysia—and the impacts on those places in terms of radioactive and other types of toxic contamination are not pretty.
By contrast, a better balanced energy system that moved beyond fossil fuels by combining renewable sources with nuclear power would be easier and cheaper to develop and would require a far smaller materials and land footprint. As is well known, nuclear, like renewable energy, produces electricity without greenhouse gases. Most experts, including the IPCC, know that combining nuclear into low-carbon energy system is essential for making those systems cost-effective and adequate for expanding economies and populations.
Nuclear energy is not considered "renewable," because it requires fuel, but the amount of power in that fuel is on a different order of magnitude than in fossil fuel and less than a millionth of it is required to do the same amount of work. For that reason, the material demands of nuclear power are exceptionally low. Two Canadian mines now produce enough uranium to power 40% of Canada's electricity demand. As importantly, our well-regulated uranium mines and deep geological waste repository projects can carefully protect the earth and its inhabitants from the impacts of our energy use.
The small environmental footprint of nuclear power has led 75 scientists concerned about conservation, biodiversity, and climate change recently called for a reevaluation of nuclear power's environmental credentials. By contrast, a 100% renewable energy system in Canada might look clean on paper, but that's because much of the mess would be elsewhere.