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.
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.”