Solar Impulse; and other comedies

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Many nuclear supporters tend to shy away from overt criticism of renewable technologies because they are confident that in any objective analysis, unencumbered by radio-phobia, nuclear will dominate any effective response to climate change; should the world choose to give a damn. After all there is no shortage of very careful objective treatments that support such a view. But every so often the solar industry, in particular, shoots itself in the foot with a spectacular demonstration of just how bad this technology is and it behooves us all to call a spade a spade and a lemon a lemon.

I’m talking about the Solar Impulse circumnavigation project.

The Solar Impulse is a solar powered aircraft consisting of more than 17,000 solar cells and 633 kilograms of lithium batteries packed into a plane with a wingspan longer than a Boeing 747. Not to mention a cast including 80 engineers, 100 advisers, a 12 year construction time, sponsorship from 80 companies including Google, a real-time website, T-shirts and of course, the obligatory baseball caps. But my personal favourite, because the project hails from Switzerland, has to be the Victorinox commemorative pen knives which will get confiscated should you try to take them on-board a real plane.

How will Solar Impulse compare with Around the World in 80 days? That was a pretty good yarn, written by Jules Verne in 1873. But Verne’s story is fictional. Phileas Fogg didn’t exist and never really attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days to win a rather large bet. While it never happened, it did, apparently, create intense publicity at the time because people thought it was really happening. Which neatly mirrors, or perhaps I should say “heliostats”, the renewable energy “revolution”.

Some 140 years after Verne’s book, the Solar Impulse is definitely non-fiction. You can watch it in real time and buy stuff. The initial leg of the journey was on March the 9th and, as I write (May 31), they’re about to take off across the Pacific. Here’s a table of the legs completed so far and the other 6 listed on the website:

By my reckoning they’ll be about 5000 km short of a circumference, but we’ll let that slide. My real interest is how they managed to sell this as an achievement. In 2008 Mark Beaumont cycled around the planet in 195 days pedalling 29,000 kilometers … presumably with some shipping. That’s seriously tough. But it’s no feat of technology and doesn’t demonstrate a superior mode of locomotion or foreshadow a global shift to pedal power.

Does the Solar Impulse demonstrate a superior mode of transport? Does it herald a future of solar planes? Don’t be daft. It’s slow, expensive, risky, fragile, dangerous and the total payload delivered by all those panels and batteries and dollars is just a single person; the pilot. If there were ever a Solar Olympics, the motto would be something like slower, lower, and weaker.

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Potential for worldwide displacement of fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear energy in three decades based on extrapolation of regional deployment data

Hot on the heels of my previous collaboration with Dr Staffan Qvist (from Uppsala University) on the implications of phasing out nuclear energy in Sweden, I’ve just had published another new open access paper on energy policy, this time in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE. You can read it in full here.

Some details:

Citation: Qvist S.A. & Brook B.W. (2015) Potential for Worldwide Displacement of Fossil-Fuel Electricity by Nuclear Energy in Three Decades Based on Extrapolation of Regional Deployment Data. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0124074. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124074

Swedish total CO2 emissions and GDP per capita 1960–1990, normalized to the level of 1960.

Swedish total CO2 emissions and GDP per capita 1960–1990, normalized to the level of 1960.


There is an ongoing debate about the deployment rates and composition of alternative energy plans that could feasibly displace fossil fuels globally by mid-century, as required to avoid the more extreme impacts of climate change. Here we demonstrate the potential for a large-scale expansion of global nuclear power to replace fossil-fuel electricity production, based on empirical data from the Swedish and French light water reactor programs of the 1960s to 1990s. Analysis of these historical deployments show that if the world built nuclear power at no more than the per capita rate of these exemplar nations during their national expansion, then coal- and gas-fired electricity could be replaced worldwide in less than a decade. Under more conservative projections that take into account probable constraints and uncertainties such as differing relative economic output across regions, current and past unit construction time and costs, future electricity demand growth forecasts and the retiring of existing aging nuclear plants, our modelling estimates that the global share of fossil-fuel-derived electricity could be replaced within 25–34 years. This would allow the world to meet the most stringent greenhouse-gas mitigation targets.

The key finding is that even a cautious extrapolation of real historic data of regional nuclear power expansion programs to a global scale, as shown in the table below, indicate that new nuclear power could replace all fossil-fuelled electricity production (including replacing all current nuclear electricity as well as the projected rise in total electricity demand) in about three decades—that is, well before mid-century, if started soon. This complements earlier top-down work I’d published on 2060 scenarios.

Time to replace global fossil electricity and current nuclear fleet.

Time to replace global fossil electricity and current nuclear fleet.

The methods of the paper are explained in detail, and I’d be happy to debate our assumptions.

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Environmental and health impacts of a policy to phase out nuclear power in Sweden

With Dr Staffan Qvist from Uppsala University, I’ve just had published a new open access paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy. It examines the ramifications of the announced policy by the Swedish Greens Party (who is part of the current coalition government) to phase out nuclear energy in Sweden. Their platform is: “we oppose the construction of new reactors in Sweden, or an increase in the output of existing reactors, and instead want to begin immediately phasing out nuclear power.”

The electricity mix of Sweden is a leading example of a successful historical pathway to decarbonisation.

Some details on our paper:


Qvist, S.A. & Brook, B.W. (2015) Environmental and health impacts of a policy to phase out nuclear energy in Sweden. Energy Policy, 84, 1-10. doi: 1016/j.enpol.2015.04.023


• The Swedish reactor fleet has a remaining potential production of up to 2100 TWh.

• Forced shut down would result in up to 2.1 Gt of additional CO2 emissions.

• 50,000–60,000 energy-related-deaths could be prevented by continued operation.

• A nuclear phase-out would mean a retrograde step for climate, health and economy.


Nuclear power faces an uncertain future in Sweden. Major political parties, including the Green party of the coalition-government have recently strongly advocated for a policy to decommission the Swedish nuclear fleet prematurely. Here we examine the environmental, health and (to a lesser extent) economic impacts of implementing such a plan. The process has already been started through the early shutdown of the Barsebäck plant. We estimate that the political decision to shut down Barsebäck has resulted in ~2400 avoidable energy-production-related deaths and an increase in global CO2 emissions of 95 million tonnes to date (October 2014). The Swedish reactor fleet as a whole has reached just past its halfway point of production, and has a remaining potential production of up to 2100 TWh. The reactors have the potential of preventing 1.9–2.1 gigatonnes of future CO2-emissions if allowed to operate their full lifespans. The potential for future prevention of energy-related-deaths is 50,000–60,000. We estimate an 800 billion SEK (120 billion USD) lower-bound estimate for the lost tax revenue from an early phase-out policy. In sum, the evidence shows that implementing a ‘nuclear-free’ policy for Sweden (or countries in a similar situation) would constitute a highly retrograde step for climate, health and economic protection.

You can read the full paper here.

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An Ecomodernist Manifesto: intensify to spare nature

Originally published here on The Conversation.

Earth is now a human planet. Our species uses of a large proportion of its land-surface area for living space, agriculture and mining. We domesticate and transport a multiplicity of plant and animal species across continents. We sequester and divert freshwater.

We heavily exploit the world’s plants, animals and ecosystems, including the oceans. We are altering the atmosphere and changing the climate.

So if humanity wants to preserve “wild nature” forever, it seems reasonable to argue that we must pursue policies and actions to reverse these drivers of global change. This argument has been a cornerstone of environmental advocacy for decades.

This view motivates concern for the “population bomb” and “limits to growth”, and underpins ideas involving the transition of consumer societies to simpler, ecologically sustainable cooperatives.

In a newly released thesis, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”, I join with 17 other leading environmental scholars to advocate for an alternative, technology-focused approach to conservation. We stress the need to embrace the decoupling of human development from environmental impacts, by seeking solutions that intensify activities such as agriculture and energy production in some areas and leave others alone.

These processes are central to economic modernisation, improved human welfare and environmental protection. Together they offer the prospect of allowing people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature and to alleviate global poverty.

Unbalanced development

Our proposal is a declaration of principles for new environmentalism. It should be considered a working document that is open to refinement. But it is also based on evidence.

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SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission – update

Today the Expert Advisory Committee of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle was announced. The members include Dr Tim Stone (University College London, KPMG), Prof Ian Lowe (my co-author Why vs Why: Nuclear Power), Dr Leanna Read (Chief Scientist of SA), Mr John Carlson (formerly of ASNO), and me (Barry Brook). I look forward to engaging in a productive, evidence-based process with my colleagues.

The first Issues Papers has also been released today Exploration, Extraction and Milling. Further papers will be released in the coming weeks, and then there will be 90 days open for submissions. The RC will report to the SA Government within just over a year: by May 2016.