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Skeptic Interviews Steven Koonin

Skeptic: How did you get interested in energy?

Koonin: I was educated in New York City public schools and grew up in a middle-class household. I went to Caltech as an undergrad, MIT for my PhD, and then returned to Caltech as faculty for 30 years. I was the Provost for the last nine. I am trained in nuclear physics and quantum mechanics, and did a lot of wonderful research. In the late 80s, I joined JASON, which is a group of scientists and engineers who work on the most important problems for the U.S. government, many of them classified. I got exposed to climate science because the Department of Energy came to JASON and inquired about the application of (then new) multiple processor computers to climate modeling and using small satellites to conduct climate observations. I got intrigued by that and learned about climate science and energy. And then, in 2004, John Brown, who was the CEO of British Petroleum, called me up and said, “Steve, come join us as Chief Scientist.” Suffice to say, they didn’t need me to find oil and gas… They were pretty good at that! They needed help figuring out what beyond petroleum really means. I accepted, packed up the family, and moved to London, shifting from academia to the private sector. I helped BP quite a bit with their initial foray into renewables, particularly biofuels, but also wind and solar. After living in London for five years, my wife and I were ready for a new experience. And then my friend Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist now at Stanford, became the Secretary of Energy. He asked me to help out.

Skeptic: That was in the Obama administration?

Koonin: Yes. I spent two-and-a-half years working for Obama in the Department of Energy. And I wound up doing pretty much what I did for BP, namely, figuring out technology strategies. What technology should the government be investing in, in order to reduce emissions and to improve energy security? How should it go about the process from basic research to development to demonstration to deployment? Which technologies really matter and could make a difference?

Skeptic: Can you give us a sense of what it’s like to think about these problems in different environments, from inside Caltech versus BP, and then inside a government agency?

Koonin: In the academic environment, it used to be—and I’m not sure it is now—that you could discuss, debate, and raise questions, and all of that was in the process of refining the science. In the private sector, it’s much more goal-oriented, and the goal, ultimately, is to make money. In my case, it was how do we make BP into a company that is more respectful of the environment and the climate. They weren’t so much interested in the science. It was more about what technologies should be developed or which businesses they could invest in to try to make money—and there weren’t many. In the government, I was dealing with energy security and the economic side of things, particularly the interplay of demographics and economics. The data showed that there would be massive growth in energy consumption in the next 40 to 50 years and that fossil fuels were and remained the primary source of the world’s energy. These days, approximately 80 percent of energy still comes from fossil fuels.

Skeptic: You used the term energy security. What does that mean from a government’s perspective? Is it the government’s job to make sure that people have enough energy to lead a decent life?

Koonin: Not only to have enough energy but also that it is delivered reliably. Let me make a distinction between security and reliability. Security is about the physical provision of energy, fossil fuels, uranium, or even some of the fancy hardware that goes into the electrical grid, which is manufactured abroad. We saw a dramatic example of disrupted energy security in the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, when it was very difficult to get enough oil. Up until recently, the U.S. has been producing more oil than it actually consumes, and so we’ve become, in that sense, energy self-sufficient. These days this is certainly true for natural gas, which is also a current example of energy insecurity in terms of what’s going on in Europe, where natural gas is needed for heating, for industry, and for electricity generation. The problem is that availability of this fuel in Europe relies on imports, which used to come predominantly from Russia. Geopolitically, that’s not a very comfortable place to be. In a nutshell, that’s what we mean by energy security.

Energy reliability is a different story. It’s mostly whether the fuel is capable of being delivered continuously. For example, is the refining supply chain stable? But more importantly, is the electrical grid able to deliver energy 99.9 percent of the time? We have recently seen dramatic instances of when the electricity supply fails, which leads to all kinds of chaos. Then there’s another aspect of the electrical utility business: these are regulated utilities, which means they cannot freely tend to the problems that they see.

Skeptic: Many people nowadays drive an electric car and hope that someday, there’ll be no more fossil fuel-driven cars. That seems like a good thing. But can it happen without nuclear energy? What is the current status of solar, wind, and other renewables?

Koonin: Let me give you a bigger picture of the grid first. We’d like the electrical grid to have three things: (1) We would like it to be affordable, (2) we would like it to be reliable, (3) and we would like it to produce low emissions. The only problem is, practically speaking, we are forced to choose two out of three. If you want a grid that is affordable and low-emissions, wind and solar are the way to go. The problem is that they’re not very reliable. If you want it to be affordable and reliable, then you’ve got gas, coal, and nuclear. But if you want to make that clean, you need to get rid of the fossil fuels. In other words, you need to have wind and solar, but then you also need some form of dispatchable power, that is, ways in which you can fill in the shortfall when the wind and solar don’t generate. Batteries are certainly one possibility. Pumped hydro, where you pump water up the hill and then release it to come down when you need the electricity, is another. Converting electricity into some chemical, such as hydrogen, by electrolyzing water, and then burning that chemical when you need the electricity again is yet another option. So, there are a number of ways to address the reliability of renewables, but I would say the only realistic way of dealing with this dilemma today is nuclear power. Nuclear produces a little over 18 percent of the United States’ electricity. We know how to do it. But one of the main problems is that it’s capital-intensive. When I worked in the Department of Energy, the government tried—and continues to try—to build much smaller nuclear reactors in a standardized way. Currently, our reactors are custom-built and typically produce 1.1 gigawatts of electricity. If we could build 50- or 100-megawatt reactors in a factory, truck them over wherever they’re needed, and install them successively onsite, it could solve a lot of problems. We’ll see whether we can get it cheap enough. Not many people realize that what costs the most is not the generation. Wind and solar are the cheapest ways of generating electricity. Ensuring reliability—not just producing electricity—is the most expensive aspect.

Skeptic: Isn’t the problem with nuclear also part psychological, in the sense that people fear it? Chernobyl was certainly a devastating disaster. At the same time, the major cause of deaths in Fukushima was not the nuclear power plant itself, it was the tidal waves, right? And many people conflate the Three Mile Island accident with the movie The China Syndrome, which premiered 12 days before the meltdown. Still, because the perceived consequences are so high, many governments feel compelled to restrict nuclear.

Koonin: Yes, I think it is largely a perception issue. I would add to this list of reasons why people don’t like nuclear power its association with nuclear weapons, which, of course, are terrible. And then there’s the waste issue. All of that is technically solvable, but the perception issue certainly dominates. Spencer Weart, who’s a great historian of science, wrote a book titled Nuclear Fear, in which he documents all the psychological reasons why people are not fans of nuclear power. I think nuclear power is going to be absolutely essential if the world is going to get to zero emissions on the time scale most governments and NGOs say we need to. If you look at the statistics, nuclear is by far the lowest in deaths per megawatt hour produced. With coal, you’ve got local pollution and the mining issues, and so on. So, even with Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, nuclear is the safest based on experience.

Skeptic: What about nuclear fusion? Note: Current nuclear power stations rely on nuclear fission with the nucleus of an atom being split to release energy. Nuclear fusion takes multiple nuclei and uses intense heat to fuse them together, a process that also releases energy.

40% of the world’s population right now—over 3 billion people—don’t have adequate energy.

Koonin: You know, if you believe we need to solve our energy problems in the next 30 years… Given this time scale to develop, demonstrate, and then deploy, I don’t think nuclear fusion is going to be a very big part of the near-to-mid-term solution. But let me describe what the advances have been.

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

Is nuclear fusion going to save the day? Koonin doesn’t think it’s going to be a very big part of a near-to-mid-term energy solution. This striking cutaway illustration depicts the massive complex that houses ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), a large tokamak [a toroidal apparatus for producing controlled fusion reactions in hot plasma] and its ancillary systems. It is one of the world’s most complex projects, currently under construction in France in partnership of a number of countries, including the U.S., the U.K., China, Japan, and Russia. (Illustration by Lauris Honoré; ITER)

The world’s mainline approach has been ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It’s a large tokamak reactor [a toroidal apparatus for producing controlled fusion reactions in hot plasma] that allows you to confine the plasma with magnetic fields. It’s being constructed in the south of France through a partnership of a number of countries, including the U.S., the U.K., China, Japan, and Russia. It’s two to three times over budget and delayed by more than a decade. The reactor was expected to take 10 years to build, and ITER had planned to test its first plasma in 2020 and then achieve full fusion by 2023, but the schedule is now to test first plasma in 2025, with first introduction of fusible material—full fusion—in 2035. All energy produced will be vented. And only then do we get to build a plant that actually generates electricity. There have been other developments that suggest maybe there are other ways of doing this. One is the rise of private sector magnetic efforts. A company I have been consulting with, TAE Technologies, has been making good progress on demonstrating a different kind of magnetic confinement, basically in a tube shape rather than a doughnut. In the next few years, they’re going to build their next machine. These types of advancements will get us closer to conditions where you could start to believe in making energy this way.

Skeptic: It sounds like the idea of a world operating on complete renewables, which includes the whole basket of everything you just said, is probably not going to happen till the 22nd century.

Koonin: I think that’s a fair statement.

Skeptic: In the meantime, you have all these developing countries that want to come online and join the developed world, and they need energy. At the moment, fossil fuels are still the means to do it. It seems hardly fair for the U.S., Europe, or Japan to say, “no, you can’t do that.” To which they would respond, “Well, what are we supposed to do then? Can we go nuclear?” To then only be told, “No, you can’t go nuclear either.” It seems like a big political issue.

Koonin: Yes! People have used the term eco-colonialism or eco-imperialism to describe the developed world telling the developing world to use more expensive sources of energy. But even more so, I would say it’s a moral issue. To put some numbers on these statements, 40 percent of the world’s population right now—that’s over 3 billion people—don’t have adequate energy. And as they improve their lives and develop their countries, they will need energy. 80 percent of the world’s energy right now comes from fossil fuels. It is the most widely available and reliable source of energy. So the question is, who is going to pay the developing world not to emit? I don’t have an answer to that, and I haven’t heard a convincing answer from anyone. If we dream of an emissions- free world by 2050, this is a problem.

Another aspect of that is the risk calculus. How do you rate the climate risk compared to all the other things you’ve got to worry about? It’s very different for those of us in the developed world versus someone in Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa. Or even India. I think they would say, “Well, you know, the climate risk is a couple of generations away and it’s pretty vague, while my immediate needs are energy for a refrigerator or for lighting so I can study…”

Skeptic: This 40 percent of the world experiencing energy insecurity, where are they getting their energy from? Are they still burning cow pies and wood, and other similar crude sources?

Koonin: About 10 percent of world energy comes from traditional biomass, as it’s called, so yes, for example, cow pies and wood. It accounts for up to 90 percent of energy in some developing regions. Traditional biomass is used mainly for heating and cooking, and the local air pollution associated with that is just terrible. If you’ve ever been to a city where that is the case, you smell the dung and wood burning in the air, you can feel it on your tongue just walking around…and it kills millions of people through local air pollution. You know, even though propane or LPG emit carbon, if you bring these types of clean-burning fuels to people living in such poverty, then you’ve improved their health situation dramatically.

Skeptic: Right. But it’s gradual enough that those deaths don’t make the news. Similarly, you don’t hear that much about fossil fuel-related deaths, but a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl is a massive story.

Koonin: Of course. Some people would say it sounds heartless. Every death matters. But in fact, what we’re really talking about is the large trends and the statistics in trying to deal with the problems of climate change one the one hand and that of how to provide adequate energy on the other.

Skeptic: So, how should we deal with all this? Very few people give an actual causal sequence of events of how you would get from where we are now to producing enough energy for everyone in a responsible way. Thomas Sowell insightfully noted that: “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best tradeoff you can get, that’s all you can hope for.”

Koonin: I won’t give a precise number for how it’s going to affect the economy, but a couple of general principles are useful to think about this. One comes from William Nordhaus, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018 for the following: if you try to decarbonize the economy too rapidly, you will incur increasing costs. Energy is so interwoven into everyday life and into the economy that making big changes in it is going to be disruptive, unless you do it with some deliberation. On the other hand, if you decarbonize too slowly, you load up the atmosphere with more CO2, and the climate risk goes up. And so, there’s an optimal pace of decarbonization, which lets the temperature rise to some value, let’s say, in the year 2100, and then starts to bring it down. If you do it too fast, you’re disruptive and you also deploy mature technologies, and that incurs a cost. When you look at what Nordhaus wrote in his Nobel Lecture, he would say that the economic optimum is to let the temperature go up to 3 degrees by 2100 or even 3.5, while political leaders are talking about reining things in at 1.5 or 2 degrees. If we push too much, too fast, there’s going to be popular pushback because energy will become more expensive. It will also become unreliable. Consumer choice will be reduced, energy insecurity will be increased… and we’re seeing that already. So, if you’re going to decarbonize, it needs to be done thoughtfully and taking into account all of the relevant aspects, not only the energy supply itself, but the economics, the technology, people’s perceptions of what’s going on, and so on. Nobody has written down a comprehensive plan like that. And I would think that that’s the first thing anybody would want to see if they truly wanted to solve this problem. END

This print interview has been edited from a longer conversation with Koonin on The Michael Shermer Show.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Steven Koonin served as Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Obama from 2009 to 2011, where his portfolio included the climate research program and energy technology strategy. He was the lead author of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Plan (2011) and the inaugural Department of Energy Quadrennial Technology Review (2011). Before joining the government, Koonin spent five years as Chief Scientist for BP (British Petroleum), researching renewable energy options to move the company “beyond petroleum.” For almost 30 years, he was a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech. He also served for nine years as Caltech’s Vice President and Provost, facilitating the research of more than 300 scientists and engineers and catalyzing the development of the world’s largest optical telescope. In addition to the National Academy of Sciences, Koonin’s memberships include the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and JASON, the group of scientists who solve technical problems for the U.S. government; he served as JASON’s chair for six years. He is currently a professor at New York University, with appointments in the Stern School of Business, the Tandon School of Engineering, and the Department of Physics.

This article was published on September 8, 2023.

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