“Change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Those were the ominous words of 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg in my hometown of Vancouver. She is the most visible symbol of a movement that seems to want to throw money at the problem of climate change while voluntarily shutting down the fossil fuel industry.
How much do we need to spend to solve the climate crisis? Is the Democratic party’s proposed $93 trillion Green New Deal how we really get there? If the economic cost of climate change is in the hundreds of billions, does it make sense to spend tens of trillions fighting it?
As an engineer and entrepreneur, I’m always looking for ways to solve problems — including figuring out what the real problem is. And as a smart cities innovation cluster founder looking to the future, I can think of few debates more important than this one.
So, I think we need to take a step back. The hysteria (not just from one side) of the climate debate is not helping us think clearly about the real questions we need to resolve. How much energy will we need in the future? Where are we going to get it all?
If we solve the problem of energy, we solve the issue of too much carbon in the atmosphere and get rid of a lot of pollution. But I’m afraid the current love affair with renewables is a distraction from where we really need to be innovating.
If we want to avoid an energy crisis, we’re doing it wrong with renewables.
The move to renewables has been a costly dead end. This would be even more obvious to us today, except for the fact that we’ve seen a short-term boost in efficiency as of late.
Amazingly, we use less energy than we did a decade ago. We have energy-efficient fridges, washing machines and TVs. However, as the population keeps growing and developing nations shift to Western lifestyles, our energy needs will grow.
We’ll also need more energy to develop new materials as we run out of the easy-to-get stuff. To make concrete, for instance, we use river sand from a few places, and it’s running out — shifting to alternative supplies will require even more energy. By 2040, world energy demand will go up 24%.
Even with many countries going all-out on policy and subsidies for renewables, they’re just not making a dent. According to the CAPP study linked above, by 2040, renewables will probably be about 7% of the global energy mix.
Germany, one of the greenest countries on Earth, has had to delay its phase-out of coal plants because renewables can’t keep up. You need a lot of input for not very much output. And without those massive subsidies, it wouldn’t even be on the menu.
Besides, renewables create their own environmental hazards. Climate crisis boosters have no soft spot for the mining industry, but we’ll need to extract 12 times as much metal to meet the demand for solar panels by 2050. And when solar panels degrade, they leak toxic pollutants into the environment.
Drive a green future forward with the power of the atom.
What we’re doing right now isn’t working. What might? I’m happy to tell you that some of the solutions are already well within our grasp — and we’re already working on the next-generation energy solution.
In the short term, we can use a proven form of technology: nuclear power.
I remember when Canada was a leader in nuclear power. In fact, Canada used to sellCANDU reactor technology around the world. To this day, nuclear power is the main power source for Canada’s biggest province. Two power stations alone account for 60% of its power use. They help us avoid 80 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, about equal to taking 15 million passenger vehicles off the road.
Canada is not unique. The United States, Russia, China and many other countries still use nuclear power. France gets over 75% of its power from nuclear energy. We can build more, using technology that is safer than ever.
Longer term, we can make the switch from fission plants to fusion plants. I’m proud to say that this technology is being developed almost literally in my backyard.
In Vancouver’s suburb of Burnaby, General Fusion has attracted more than $200 million in funding, including from Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos. Their new mission is to build a demonstration power plant to prove commercial viability.
As much energy as fission reactors generate, a working fusion reactor can potentially produce far more energy, without all the toxic waste — and, no CO2, either. As it happens, now there’s a solution for nuclear waste, too: converting it into valuable commodity chemicals.
For energy companies to get back into the nuclear game, politicians need to get the ball rolling.
If politicians had been more pro-nuclear power for the last few decades, maybe we’d be in a far better position.
Until now, nuclear power doesn’t seem to be a vote-getter. So, politicians haven’t helped to pave the way forward for this world-saving technology.
Now, that’s changing. I’m pleased to see that Canada seems to be leading again, with serious calls from provincial premiers to kick-start small modular nuclear reactors, which could be a game-changer.
By promoting innovation in nuclear power, costs and construction timelines will come down, and nuclear power companies could become very profitable. This would in turn spur investment in new plants. When we make it easier for companies to see returns on their investments, economic nature will take its course.
So, politicians need to present realistic policy choices around nuclear power. If they have the courage to do that — and voters have the courage to keep electing them — this will redirect capital from entrepreneurs and investors in the right direction.
In the long run, that’s how we power up our civilization. Change is coming.
First published on Forbes.com on Feb 4, 2020.