Trite clichés exist for a reason. Plus: climate canine cop!
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DEC 1, 2021

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Forget silver bullets. We need silver buckshot to tackle climate change.

Clichés, as trite as they are, exist for a good reason. They simplify complex topics.

“Silver bullet” is one we know well. It implies one solution can solve all of a given problem. It's thrown around a lot in our energy and climate change debate, but it's a bit of a misnomer for a problem so complex and vast.

The Biden administration (among others) wants us to do away with silver bullets. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has invoked the phrase “silver buckshot” instead to argue that we need to pursue a mix of energy sources and technologies, including renewables, carbon capture technologies, nuclear power and more.

In our last two editions, Cipher discussed why we need a lot more clean energy—and the challenges of building it out. This week, we’re looking at why we need to keep our clean energy options open (for now).

Buckshot is a collection of pellets inside a shotgun shell.

“As may be expected, buckshot earns its name from the original intent, to bring down deer-sized game,” according to a blog called Cheaper Than Dirt!, which is otherwise unrelated to the topic at hand. (Also, we should do away with gun metaphors, but we're working with what we've got.)

The metaphor we’re going for here is that we need to pursue a lot of technologies, not just one or two, to effectively tackle climate change. It seems like a simple enough thing to agree on, but it’s one of the most common—and intense—debates our society has.

Here's a simplified and truncated snapshot:

Some people, particularly some progressive politicians and activists, say wind and solar power can do the lion’s share of the work and thus are the closest things we have to a silver bullet for tackling climate change.

Many conservatives, wary of big government action on climate change, put all their eggs into the nuclear energy basket and say renewables aren’t up to the task in large quantities.

Corporate profit motives, emotional reaction to certain technologies and other factors all drive people to choose some zero-emission technologies over others.

But the culprit is carbon emissions, so solutions should be anything and everything that reduces them, regardless of the technology used.

The silver buckshot approach is backed by a pile of research. All show that—regardless of the ultimate energy source—the amount of zero-emissions electricity we need grows substantially, so we shouldn’t be so picky.

BloombergNEF has laid out three different pathways to a net-zero emissions energy system by 2050: mostly renewables, mostly fossil fuels with carbon capture tech installed and mostly nuclear power.

Princeton University posited five different pathways to a net-zero-emissions U.S. economy by 2050, relying to varying degrees on different resources and technologies.

Pursuing multiple pathways is a “risk management strategy,” says Jesse Jenkins, Princeton University professor and co-author of the study. “We want to keep all viable pathways open. If some end up getting closed off by constraints—society, policy or technology—we can pivot and still have viable paths to get to net zero,” he said.

Even within an electricity system dominated by renewables, research suggests a silver buckshot approach is best when it comes to balancing variable wind and solar energy with different types of storage technologies. Storage technologies could include things such as different battery materials and hydropower pumped up a hill for later use.

Electricity also doesn’t power everything in our economy. Other technologies, such as carbon capture and clean hydrogen, are critical to help cleaning up those parts of the economy we can’t easily electrify, like manufacturing and aviation.

That's why much of the Energy Department's work under President Biden has increasingly focused on these areas, as does a lot of organizations, including Breakthrough Energy, which supports Cipher.

Silver buckshot, as a metaphor, is not new. It goes as far back as at least 2006, when environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote about it.

The idea that nuclear or ‘clean coal’ or, for that matter, wind, will by itself solve our energy gap is nonsense, and it usually masks an ideological argument from one side or the other,” McKibben wrote then. “There are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.”

More recently, McKibben has become one of the most outspoken supporters of 100% renewable energy. He indicated to me in an email that he still generally believes in the buckshot approach, albeit with different technologies we weren’t aware of back then, like induction cooktops and e-bikes.

It's been at least 15 years since the term surfaced, and we may eventually reach a point when, in fact, silver buckshot is not the best approach.

“At some point, dominant strategies can emerge,” Jenkins said. “But as a matter of public policy choices, we should not assume complete dominance of any given technology.”

Amy’s Lunchtime Reads
and Hot Takes

YIMBY? Cape Cod welcomes first large U.S. offshore wind farm E&E News
My take: Finally, a positive story about siting and development! Dear developers: Reach out early, often and everywhere and find things you can do for the affected area that benefits them.

Energy-Efficient Isn't Enough, So Homes Go 'Net Zero' The New York Times
My take: It was great to see this story seamlessly incorporate solutions for all income levels, not just the wealthiest.

EXCLUSIVE: Merkel defends nuclear power exit despite climate challenges Reuters
My take: The outgoing German leader says natural gas is a better transition fuel than nuclear power. I understand Europeans’ concerns about nuclear power; it really sunk in after watching HBO’s “Chernobyl." But that was a completely different (and tragic) situation, and it should be the responsibility of leaders to rise above sentiment brought on by past events to confront today’s threats. Check out these two responses from my recent tweet about this.

Can 'the people' solve climate change? France decided to find out.Grist
My take: The answer is no (no more question headlines folks!), but this is a fascinating experiment and raises important points about the lack of actual representation in our democracies.

A coal plant fights to stay open. It could enrich ManchinE&E News
My take: Today in new words I learned: gob (noun, waste coal). Keep that in mind for your next Scrabble game. But seriously, this is a well reported story that should be getting more attention.

Lufthansa to Charge Customers to Flaunt Green Credentials Bloomberg
My take: I’m a firm believer that we need systemic action, not undue focus on our individual carbon footprints, to successfully tackle climate change. But I do think programs like this could help nudge us in the right direction

More of what I’m reading:
  • Nuclear-Fusion Startup Lands $1.8 Billion as Investors Chase Star Power The Wall Street Journal
  • Green Upheaval: The New Geopolitics of Energy Foreign Affairs
  • Most power lines are inefficient. This startup redesigns them to easily transmit more electricity.Fast Company
  • BP plans to turn Teesside into first green hydrogen hubThe Times
  • 300 companies chart path for CO2-free energy techE&E News
  • Why Illinois' paid $694 million to keep nuclear plants openCNBC
  • Rising sun: renewables to dominate new power capacity through 2026 - IEA Reuters
Buckshot around the world
Source: International Energy Agency. The U.S. and Sweden are based on 2020 data; India and Kenya 2019. The biofuel mixes in Sweden and Kenya also include waste.

Each country has their own unique energy mix made up of different resources and technologies—a dirtier buckshot, if you will.

That means their silver buckshot solutions will all be somewhat different as we transition to cleaner technologies.

In addition to the United States, we chose these three countries to show the breadth of different energy mixes.

Sweden historically doubled down on zero-emitting nuclear power, so that’ll be a big part of its future buckshot, too. India has ambitious renewable energy goals, so expect that bright blue sliver to expand significantly. Kenya’s mix shows the huge role biofuels and wood cooking play there. That’ll need to be significantly reduced in a cleaner world, both for public health and climate reasons.

Canine climate cop
My cat Santosha’s recent guest appearance on Cipher prompted others to share their energy-and-pet photos! Meet Duke, who has accompanied his owner Paul Brady on trips to hundreds of oil and gas wells across Michigan. Brady is a volunteer at Respect My Planet, an environmental nonprofit based there.
Each week, we feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email your ideas and photos to
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