Why renewables can’t save the planet | Michael Shellenberger | TEDxDanubia

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Published 2019-01-04
Environmentalists have long promoted renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind farms to save the climate. But what about when those technologies destroy the environment? In this provocative talk, Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” and energy expert, Michael Shellenberger explains why solar and wind farms require so much land for mining and energy production, and an alternative path to saving both the climate and the natural environment. Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment and President of Environmental Progress, a research and policy organization. A lifelong environmentalist, Michael changed his mind about nuclear energy and has helped save enough nuclear reactors to prevent an increase in carbon emissions equivalent to adding more than 10 million cars to the road. He lives in Berkeley, California. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at www.ted.com/tedx

All Comments (21)
  • Steve Farris
    Served six years working within 60 feet from a nuclear reactor core. Just turned 81. Still going strong. Glow a little at night but everything still works. LOL.
  • Scottish Suzuki
    I transitioned from the oil and gas industry to wind after 12 years. I have been in the renewable wind industry now for 6 years and can honestly say it’s not as green as main stream media makes out especially offshore wind turbines.
  • Ever since I took a nuclear engineering course in college in 1984 (just an introductory course - it wasn't my major), I've known that nuclear power gets unfair criticism, and it can be built very safely if done right. (Both Chernobyl and Fukushima had clear flaws that could have been avoided - the former in procedures and the latter in the location of backup generators). And as he said, the waste issue is microscopic compared to the problems with other energy sources. This was an excellent talk that everyone who votes needs to hear.
  • Teddy Raffudeen
    Beautiful subject. I’m impressed with his concern for the environment, and the shaping of his mind by his parents who made him aware of the awesome beauty of nature by taking the time to travel and spend time outdoors, which influenced his choice of careers. That’s why we should appreciate people like him.
  • Forge20
    I used to build nuclear submarines. Much more powerful reactors than civilian ones, and yet our safety record was impeccable. I have always wondered why we don't constitute a civilian organization along the lines of the Navy Nuclear Program. Run 'em as a public utility (not a for profit company) with military trained operators. And as a Mechanical Engineer, I'm delighted to FINALLY hear an environmentalist talking sense about energy production. Solar is CLEARLY a lousy choice, and anyone who says different is speaking politically, not technically.
  • Juan Salinas
    "Are we destroying enviroment, by trying to save climate" that hit me hard
  • Composer
    I have been a nuclear physicist (and nuclear engineer) since 1968, and most of my professional career has been spent dealing with the issues covered in this video. During the 1970's and 1980's I thought that natural energy evolution would take us beyond nuclear. The more thoroughly I examined the issues, the more I came to the conclusions Shellenberger has articulated in this video. Now, I am retired, but I spend much of my time meeting with students to make sure they understand these facts.
  • Jack Hagerty
    17:05 "Many of us have started to question our prior beliefs and change our minds." Spoken like a true scientist!

    This was a brilliant presentation. Succinct, fact-based and unemotional. The only thing he left out regarding solar is the environmental damage caused by PV panels.

    It's not just the huge materials throughput that he mentioned, but how the main material, silicon, is made. I've spent 30 years in the semiconductor industry and know the true costs of producing this material. It's made by mining quartz (silicon dioxide), pulverizing it, and heating it in electric furnaces in a reducing atmosphere. Then pure carbon is introduced (usually in the form of coal) which strips the oxygen off of the silicon atoms, creating pure silicon...and CO2! That's right, this "planet-saving, zero-emissions" power generator starts it's life by sending 16 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every 10 tons of silicon produced. If you do the calculation, and consider the amount of power a PV panel will generate over its life, you would get less CO2 per kWh if you just burned the coal in a modern power plant.

    It gets worse. The energy debt created in mining and refining the silicon is added to by having to melt it down again to pull the "boule" (single crystal ingot) that gets sliced up into PV cells. At this point, even before adding the energy costs of turning the cells into panels and panels into an installation, the cell has generated an energy debt that will not be paid off during its entire useful life. Put another way, if you had a solar-panel factory powered by solar panels, it would eventually stop working due to lack of power.
  • Steven Macdonald
    Here in 2022, it is as clear as it was when Michael Shellenberger gave this talk, that he was and still is absolutely spot on, in fact some things have already collapsed. Ivanpah Solar Farm is a derelict waste of money, not even producing any energy, yet sitting smashed and broken in the desert, except for those who had already made their fortune from it, they couldn't are less about the environment, and India are working hard to bring Thorium into Nuclear Reactors of the future. You should ask why Thorium wasn't considered during the nuclear proliferation decades, and the answer is simple.... You can't make a bomb from Thorium. For a land mass the size of the United Kingdom, we would have to cover 75% of our total land, to produce enough electricity from wind to power our countries needs. 3 years after this talk was posted, and it's just getting worse, whilst the 'green new deal' and renewables lobby are cashing in on even higher fuel prices, that are now being levied for those utterly ridiculous schemes. The line I will never forget after today........ We cannot destroy our environment, to fix our climate.
  • John Martini
    I'm glad he could come from one place or position of thought to another, better one after he saw the true facts. The sad part it that there are way too many people that only want one thing and will never listen to reason even when it is plainly in front of their face.
  • Jack B
    I remember back in school we asked our physics teacher which form of energy was the best for the future and she said (straight away) - Nuclear power, if done correctly, will last forever.
  • Flechette
    This video is creepy, here's why:

    This guy came to the exact same conclusions a classmate of mine and I came to when we were assigned an "energy" project in High School Physics. The teacher was one of these enthusiastic enviros and wanted to use his authority to push renewables. Everything he assigned had that slant.

    Anyhow, after the semester we presented our analysis: solar can't work because sunlight is too diffuse (at the time the teacher thought that everyone could just put solar panels on their roofs). We showed that even if we could make a 100% efficient (impossible)solar panel it still wouldn't work. Simple watt / sq.-ft problem.

    We looked at problems associated with storing energy from wind and solar, and came up with the exact problems mentioned in this video. So we looked at alternatives and decided nukes were the way to go. We specifically cited France (just like this guy) and their efficient and safe breeder reactors designs.



    The enviro high school teacher gave us an F. Because my lab partner and I had really high GPAs we were taken seriously when we went to the principle and protested the grade. The principle made the teacher re-grade it and explain any down marks. We ended up getting a B+.

    All this drama occurred in my HIGH SCHOOL in 1985!!!

    And today's "experts" are just now figuring this out?


    This isn't rocket science people, this is politics.
  • spectator59
    The issue isn't just the public's aversion to building nuclear plants. The problems extend to avoiding research, too. The nuclear industry is on the verge of tremendous innovation in areas such as safety and cost, including technologies such as Thorium reactors, but is being inhibited by oppressive regulation, driven by irrational fears.
  • Michael Beck
    Truth is hard to come by today in a political climate. Thank you for being open and candid.
  • Mr. Pocket
    I think solar and wind would work great in small scale applications, but for powering entire cities I think nuclear, geothermal, and hydro are the best ways to go
  • D J
    4 years after this talk, we're still trying to "save" the planet with renewables. There are huge solar farms gobbling up farm land in upstate New York right near my home. Too many people here think that's a good thing.... And Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shown that geopolitics make moving fossil fuels across the world a risky thing.....
  • Frank Taylor
    As unfortunate as it is with water scarcity in places like California, it isn't climate change as much as it the need to never build mega cities on deserts, at the edges of deserts, or semi-deserts. These aren't small deserts either.
  • Doug Dale
    It's really sad that this isn't in the main stream at all. Everyone is completely against nuclear on the large scale but if you have individual conversations with people it's not hard at all to make them see the light in regards to nuclear. I've had this conversation dozens of times and every time the person I'm talking to sees it from my point of view in the end. Solar and electric are fine on small scale grid tie systems but they really aren't efficient enough and cost far too much money compared to nuclear. If we want zero emissions and everyone to switch to electric cars and have it make sense then a nuclear powered world is the first step! After that it's going to be battery tech that doesn't require so much pollution. Batteries are a very real reason why the future might not be 100% electric it might look something more like a hydrogen/hybrid system.
  • Scotty
    Regardless of which side of this debate each of us come from we need to be having this type of honest discussion and follow facts and data.
  • theselector
    This is a FANTASTIC Talk. Makes you wonder what other 'controversial' topics the mainstream are lying to us about. I have a feeling it's most of them.