Why are renewables suddenly trouncing nuclear energy?

Wind turbines loom behind a solar farm in Germany. Image: Getty.

If recent trends continue for another two years, the global share of electricity from renewables excluding hydropower will overtake nuclear for the first time. Even 20 years ago, this nuclear decline would have greatly surprised many people – particularly now that reducing carbon emissions is at the top of the political agenda.

On one level this is a story about changes in relative costs. The costs of solar and wind have plunged while nuclear has become almost astoundingly expensive. But this raises the question of why this came about. As I argue in my new book, Low Carbon Politics, it helps to dip into cultural theory.

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2017.

Culture wars

The seminal text in this field, Risk and Culture (1982), by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas and American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, argues the behaviour of individuals and institutions can be explained by four different biases:

  • Individualists: people biased towards outcomes that result from competitive arrangements;
  • Hierarchists: those who prefer ordered decisions being made by leaders and followed by others;
  • Egalitarians: people who favour equality and grassroots decision-making and pursue a common cause;
  • Fatalists: those who see decision-making as capricious and feel unable to influence outcomes.

The first three categories help explain different actors in the electricity industry. For governments and centralised monopolies often owned by the state, read hierarchists. For green campaigning organisations, read egalitarians, while free-market-minded private companies fit the individualist bias.

The priorities of these groups have not greatly changed in recent years. Hierarchists tend to favour nuclear power, since big power stations make for more straightforward grid planning, and nuclear power complements nuclear weapons capabilities considered important for national security.

Egalitarians like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth usually oppose new nuclear power plant and favour renewables. Traditionally they have worried about radioactive environmental damage and nuclear proliferation. Individualists, meanwhile, favour whichever technologies reduce costs.

These cultural realities lie behind the problems experienced by nuclear power. To compound green opposition, many of nuclear power’s strongest supporters are conservative hierarchists who are either sceptical about the need to reduce carbon emissions or treat it as a low priority. Hence they are often unable or unwilling to mobilise climate change arguments to support nuclear, which has made it harder to persuade egalitarians to get on board.


This has had several consequences. Green groups won subsidies for renewable technologies by persuading more liberal hierarchists that they had to address climate change – witness the big push by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for the feed-in tariffs that drove solar uptake in the late 2000s, for example. In turn, both wind and solar have been optimised and their costs have come down.

Nuclear largely missed out on these carbon-reducing subsidies. Worse, greens groups persuaded governments as far back as the 1970s that safety standards around nuclear power stations needed to improve. This more than anything drove up costs.

As for the individualists, they used to be generally unconvinced by renewable energy and sceptical of environmental opposition to nuclear. But as relative costs have changed, they have increasingly switched positions.

The hierarchists are still able to use monopoly electricity organisations to support nuclear power, but individualists are increasingly pressuring them to make these markets more competitive so that they can invest in renewables more easily. In effect, we are now seeing an egalitarian-individualist alliance against the conservative hierarchists.

Both sides of the pond

Donald Trump’s administration in the US, for example, has sought subsidies to keep existing coal and nuclear power stations running. This is both out of concern for national security and to support traditional centralised industrial corporations – classic hierarchist thinking.

Yet this has played out badly with individualist corporations pushing renewables. Trump’s plans have even been rejected by some of his own appointments on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In similarly hierarchist fashion, electricity supply monopolies in Georgia and South Carolina started building new nuclear power stations after regulatory agencies allowed them to collect mandatory payments from electricity consumers to cover costs at the same time.

Yet even hierarchists cannot ignore economic reality entirely. The South Carolina project has been abandoned and the Georgia project only survives through a very large federal loan bailout.

Contrast this with casino complexes in Nevada like MGM Resorts not only installing their own solar photovoltaic arrays but paying many millions of dollars to opt out from the local monopoly electricity supplier. They have campaigned successfully to win a state referendum supporting electricity liberalisation.

Casino solar, Las Vegas. Image: author provided.

The UK, meanwhile, is an example of how different biases can compete. Policy has traditionally been formed in hierarchical style, with big companies producing policy proposals which go out to wider consultation. It’s a cultural bias that favours nuclear power, but this conflicts with a key priority dating back to Thatcher that technological winners are chosen by the market.

This has led policymakers in Whitehall to favour both renewables and nuclear, but the private electricity companies have mostly refused to invest in nuclear, seeing it as too risky and expensive. The only companies prepared to plug the gap have been more hierarchists – EDF, which is majority-owned by France, and Chinese state nuclear corporations.

Even then, getting Hinkley C in south-west England underway – the first new nuclear plant since the 1990s – required an extensive commitment by the UK treasury to underwrite bank loans. There is also an embarrassingly high price to be paid for the electricity over a very long 35-year period. Such has been the bad publicity that it’s hard to imagine a politician agreeing to more plant on such terms.

Where does this reality leave hierarchists? Increasingly having to explain prohibitive nuclear costs to their electorates – at least in democracies. The alternative, as renewable energy becomes the new orthodoxy, is to embrace it.

In Australia, for example, a big utility company called AGL is trying to seduce homeowners to agree to link their solar panels to the company’s systems to centralise power dispatch in a so-called a “virtual power plant”.

The ConversationWhen the facts change, to misquote John Maynard Keynes, you can always change your mind.

David Toke, Reader in Energy Policy, University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.