Climate Research Lead @ Founders Pledge
2764 karmaJoined Apr 2018Working (6-15 years)


(Full disclosure: I sometimes work out of the same coworking space as Justus and Vegard and we occassionally have team lunches. Given that they were a potential grantee for some time (and indeed became a grantee for a small grant in 2023), I've avoided further socializing beyond those office contexts. They also don't know I am writing this.)

This is an exciting broadening of work!

I haven't always agreed with the underlying theory of change of the climate work, but I've consistently experienced the team of Future Matters as quite thoughtful about policy change and social movements and cultivating an expertise that is quite rare in EA and seems underprovided.

I think the idea of an energy descent is extremely far outside the expert consensus on the topic, as Robin discusses at length in his replies to that post.

This is nothing we need to worry about.

Hi Ulrik,

Thanks for the good exchange -- that all makes sense.

I am unsure whether we disagree on learning rates for SMRs, we are just in the process of building a comparative tool to clarify our expectations of the returns of different innovation advocacy bets and, IIRC, SMRs sit in the middle range there based on stuff like Mahotra and Schmidt (2020?, from memory) on design complexity and customization and how this shapes expectable learning rates.

We'll publish this later in the fall and then we'll see whether we disagree:).

Hi Ulrik,

thanks for your comment and for engaging!

I think there is a mix of (1) looking at things at (a) different time-scales, (b) and geographical levels (~ differences in perspective), (2) misunderstandings of what my view is here, so let me try to clarify:

(1) (a)
When I speak about social choice as the primary driver of techno-economic outcomes, I am taking a multi-decadal view on the level of the energy system at large, which is quite different from the perspective of a project manager and engineer in the short-term. It is certainly true that right now, as I discuss in the pod, it is easy and fast to build renewables and it is slow and difficult to build nuclear.

All I am saying is that the fact that this is so is the result of long processes of differential societal commitment, in the case of solar and wind it is the result of policy support since the 1970s to getting renewables cheap and, in the case of nuclear,  similarly long efforts by large constituencies to make nuclear expensive and hard to build (+ other factors, as we discussed here).  

It is also important to not conflate project delivery times with energy system transformation at the system level. At the same time as renewables are cheap and easy to add to the grid, France was much more faster and complete in decarbonizing the grid in the 1970s and 1980s with nuclear than has been achieved with renewables to date (as I also discuss in the pod, the circumstances of France in the 1970s are not replicable).

In this context, it is also important to point out that the value proposition of SMRs or any other clean firm power option does not lie in meeting the LCOE of solar but rather in providing an energy system function that is distinct from the one that solar is providing. If one wants to choose an adequate cost analogue it would be solar LCOE + cost of seasonal storage + transmission in most contexts, i.e. marginal solar can be cheap, with more expensive clean firm power options in terms of LCOE still being quite valuable.

For (1)(a)(b) you can observe all of the things you mention and what I say can still be true, i.e. that these data points are the result of long-term societal choices and what matters is the ease and speed of energy system transformation, not individual projects. What I would say is that, philanthropically speaking, shaping the long-run system level picture is causally more relevant.

I think your comment sometimes mixes arguments about SMRs and traditional nuclear and I think about them as quite distinct:

Large-scale nuclear: As I discuss in the pod we see a 5x difference in building time for reactors when we compare France in 1970s to Western countries today. All of this difference is the result of social choice, it is not that large-scale nuclear is a new technology. It is not all affectable social choice (i.e. we could not induce the conditions that triggered 1970s France), but the variance is clearly not inherently technical. If we had had a pro-nuclear environmental movement that got concerned about climate change in the 1990s, this could look very different.

SMRs: As I said on various occasions, I am not confident we will get  cheap SMRs, I think about it as a bet worth making. But for SMRs we should principally expect similar learning curves than for other modular technologies, that is the whole idea behind SMRs. They don't need to reach the LCOE of solar to be a valuable addition to the energy system as long as transmission + seasonal storage remain relevant barriers to a 100% intermittent renewable grid. And, here, at the same time as we have spent hundreds of billions on making renewables cheap, even in the US we still have a Nuclear Regulatory Commission that makes nuclear innovation harder than it should be. Given that the primary reason that renewables are cheap today are the efforts of jurisdictions actively anti-nuclear (Germany, California, (Denmark)) and that no country has made a bet on SMRs that is parallel to the bets that these jurisdictions have made on solar and wind, it seems quite plausible that the learning curves and cost reductions could have been induced for SMRs as well had they had similar support as renewables had.

Hi Arepo, thanks!

There's been a bunch of occasions where I wrote or spoke about how Terra Praxis has developed, including the Changing Landscape report and the 80k podcast, but I agree it would be good to have an updated website post.

The TLDR right now would be:

  • TP has grown significantly and we've made several grants following the initial grant.
  • Their work has been quite impactful, in particular they are leading a consortium on repowering coal with advanced heat sources as a high-impact bet I am excited about being made and that would probably not have happened without the incubation of TerraPraxis.
  • I am not sure this bet will succeed, but it addresses a key decarbonization challenge (emission from new/young coal plants unlikely to be prematurely retired) and the approach had very little attention before the work of TerraPraxis and some other FP grantees (in particular, Staffan Qvist, who wrote the first technical paper on the idea (before he was a grantee)).

What's the best elevator pitch for convincing people to give more for nuclear risk reduction?

You either need to bite the bullet on supporting global degrowth or you need to acknowledge that degrowth in rich countries doesn't do very much.

Yes, but degrowth only in rich countries doesn't really do much:

"Using the International Futures model, this article shows that negative growth and societal transformations in the Global North are possible without dramatically damaging long-term global socioeconomic development, though these interventions do not solve the global climate crisis, reducing future cumulative carbon emissions by 10.5% through 2100. "

Today in Nature Scientific Reports: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-023-42782-y

"On the other hand, a global negative growth scenario will significantly reduce future cumulative carbon emissions (45%) but also dramatically undermines the pursuit of global development goals, like the elimination of poverty. Even with global policies that significantly increase cash transfers to the poor and retired, dramatically improve income inequality, and eliminate military spending, the Global Negative Growth Big Push scenario leads to an increase of 15 percentage points in global extreme poverty by 2100."

Strongly agree.

I think it's important to not perceive this error as one of individual failures of rationality, but one that is predictably ideological and cultural.

A position of pro-technology except for AI is a fairly idiosyncratic one to hold as it doesn't map onto standard ideologies and political fault lines.

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