Hence, Brand has come to the position that humanity must be unbiased in its resolve to do whatever works. He opposes doctrinaire forms of environmentalism like the campaign to globally ban the pesticide DDT–a decision that, according to malaria expert Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, contributed to the deaths of 20 million children worldwide. Most pernicious, in Brand’s view, greens have resisted nuclear power, claiming that renewable sources of energy like wind and solar will one day generate all the grid electricity we now derive from fossil fuels.
Given the current capabilities of those renewable technologies, Brand thinks, that’s highly unlikely. A large coal-fired plant, a hydroelectric power station, and a nuclear reactor each might have one gigawatt (a billion watts) of generating capacity. To achieve the same capacity, a wind farm would need to cover more than 200 square miles; a solar array, more than 50. That’s a big footprint for renewables.
Admittedly, those estimates are disputed. Michael Totten, chief advisor on climate and energy at Conservation International in Arlington, VA, says that wind turbines have the smallest footprint of all energy technologies and that all current U.S. electricity consumption could be met with 400,000 turbines, each with two megawatts of capacity, placed over just 3 percent of the 1.2 million square miles of the Great Plains. If those turbines were hypothetically squeezed into one space, the footprint would cover just six square miles.
Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, confirms Totten’s numbers. Footprint, Jacobson says, shouldn’t be confused with spacing–the area between devices or around generator plants, which is usable for multiple purposes, like farming or wildlife refuge. If 50 percent of the world’s energy needs were met by wind in 2030, Jacobson says, the footprint would be less than 50 square kilometers, although the spacing would require 1 percent of the planet’s surface. Totten says, “Brand’s arguments are blatantly wrong about wind and solar, as though he simply assembled in book form what he’s heard over the years from GBN’s biggest customers.”
Arguably so. But asked about nuclear power, Totten invokes the prospect of Chernobyl-style meltdowns and reactors smashed open by terrorist-piloted planes. Reminded that these are technical impossibilities for modern reactor designs, he switches to an economic argument: nuclear plants are so expensive that the industry always requires government subsidies (see “Nuclear Power Renaissance?” November/December 2009).
But it’s notable that in the 1970s, before regulations made construction costs skyrocket, nuclear energy provided America’s cheapest electricity. Nor should we forget that France gets more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, emits two-thirds less carbon dioxide per capita than the United States, and is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity–earning $4 billion annually–thanks to its very low cost of generation.
Brand says it’s entirely predictable that many greens neither know nor are interested in educating themselves about recent developments like new reactors or cleaner fuel cycles: “As far as they’re concerned, nuclear had been stopped, they’re glad it was, and now that it’s happening again, they’re confused and upset.” That observation strikes at the heart of the matter. If today Greenpeace and an entire generation of activists simply cannot accept that nuclear power might be the most credible source of carbon-free energy, it’s because doing so would entail an almost unbearable recognition: that a very large part of their life’s work has been fundamentally, disastrously wrong, and that by obstructing the transition to nuclear back in the 1970s, they bear direct responsibility both for global warming and for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that have since resulted from coal-related pollution. It is to Stewart Brand’s credit that he can recognize that disturbing truth.
Mark Williams is a contributing editor at Technology Review.