off The Deep end
If you’ve ever heard anyone tell you that 100% renewable energy is possible and feasible, it’s almost certain that she or he got that idea from Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University who has been flogging it for years. Jacobson has been a tireless promoter of the meme that first the US, and then the entire world, could be easily and cheaply powered by what he calls “WWS” — wind, water, and solar power. And Jacobson has also been a tireless promoter of himself, too. He has a slick website with slick graphics. He goes on talk shows. He’s been a darling of the media.
Or he was until this past June, when a distinguished group of environmental scientists pointed out a major flaw (and a raft of minor ones) in his most recent paper on the subject. I should note that these debunkers include some of the top names in the field, led by Christopher Clack, and including climatologist Ken Caldiera and energy scientist Dan Kammen.
Jacobson’s response was to immediately go on the attack, branding the Clack paper “intentionally scientifically fraudulent with falsified data”. Let me pause here and say that kind of language is really, really unusual in the scientific community. Generally you only hear that kind of rhetoric from hard core climate deniers, creationists, and other off-the-deep-end types.
Today, Jacobson can be officially classified as off the deep end. In a federal lawsuit filed in DC district court, Jacobson has sued Clack and his co-authors, and also the journal that published both of them — the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS — for defamation of character, to the tune of $10 million.
It is hard to overstate how totally bonkers this lawsuit is. Beyond the obvious — Jacobson calls other people “scientifically fraudulent” and then sues them for defaming his character? — is the simple fact that scientific truth and credibility are not, and cannot be, decided in a court of law. In science, ideas are accepted or rejected on their own merits, and any process that undermines that merit-based approach — including a legal process — won’t change the mind of any principled scientist. “Don’t say I’m wrong or I’ll sue you” is precisely the opposite of the scientific method. If anyone is responsible for trashing Jacobson’s reputation as a scientist it is Jacobson himself, and this lawsuit clinches it.
1. The original paper by Jacobson et al. was published in PNAS in December 2015 and can be found here. and its supporting information is here. The centerpiece of Jacobson’s paper is a model of the US energy system: it shows how much power is produced by various sources at various times, and balances that against the total US energy demand at those same times.
2. The critique by Clack et al. was published in June 2017, also in PNAS, and can be found here, with supporting information here. The major flaw pointed out by Clack is that while Jacobson’s paper says that the hydroelectric generating capacity in the US is 87.5 GW — about 10% above where it is today — the actual amount generated by hydroelectric power in Jacobson’s model at times exceeded that by almost fifteen times: a whopping 1300 GW. (The total capacity of all generators in the US today of all types is about 1100 GW). Similarly, the amount of “flexible load” (that is, energy users that don’t mind if you cut off their power when you need to) is claimed to be 1000 GW, but the model uses nearly twice that much at times.
3. Beyond his nasty tweets at Clack, Jacobson et al. did respond in a more formal way in a letter to PNAS, where they stuck to their guns, claiming that their original paper contains not one error of any kind.
4. And Clack et al. in turn responded to Jacobson’s response here.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Even before this, Jacobson has had a reputation as a prickly and thin-skinned fellow who does not take criticism well; he regularly blocks anyone who criticizes him on twitter, a list that now contains dozens of names. And yes, I’m on that list too.
what does it all mean for 100% renewables?
The advantage of wind and solar is that they’re cheap and fast to build. The disadvantage is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, and civilization needs the power to be on 24/7. You can’t close the ER because it’s a windless night.
There are three solutions to the problem of intermittency. First is the “wind is always blowing somewhere” strategy: you vastly overbuild wind, on the theory that somewhere, enough of those wind farms will be producing enough to power the whole country. The problem with this strategy is that it’s hugely expensive: you’re building an absolutely enormous number of turbines to cover the low-wind days, in an enormous number of places, which means that most of the time you’re throwing away the excess energy they produce. Plus, there’s the extra cost of a lot of power lines that need to be built to transport all that energy from wherever-its-windy to where it’s needed.
The second solution is energy storage. Right now that’s hugely expensive too. The cheapest form of energy storage is Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES), which requires two nearby reservoirs of water at very different heights. When power is plentiful, water is pumped from the lower reservoir to the upper, storing its kinetic energy; when power is scarce, water flows back downhill, powering a turbine. So PHES requires a specific geography that’s not terribly common. And, although PHES is far cheaper than any battery, it’s still not widely used. The reason is that in nearly every case it’s cheaper to generate electricity on the fly than it is to store it and reuse it. The economic case for storage is weak, even when the storage is dirt cheap.
The third solution for intermittency is a large reserve of dispatchable power on the grid. (“Dispatchable” means power that can be turned on or off regardless of the weather.) This is the solution that Jacobson’s model uses, by putting a whole lot of dispatchable hydro power on the grid when the wind dies. In fact, there are about a dozen nations that have achieved nearly zero-carbon grids (ranging from rich countries like Sweden to poor ones like Zambia), and every one of them has achieved it by using dispatchable non-fossil power, primarily hydro and nuclear.
And it’s nuclear power that’s really the burr under Jacobson’s saddle. Adding nuclear to the mix lowers the overall cost of the zero-carbon grid, because it’s almost always available. That means less overbuilding of wind and solar, fewer powerlines, and less storage needs to be added. In fact, every energy modelling study (and there are dozens of such studies) that has allowed nuclear into the mix has found that the best cost-optimized solution includes a massive increase in solar, and a massive increase in wind, and a massive increase in nuclear. The cheapest fastest solution is a mix of pretty much every non-fossil generator we can build, as fast as we can build it.
So, is 100% RE possible? Yes, if cost is no object. Is it the best way forward? No, and it never has been, in spite of Jacobson’s relentless sales pitch. But VRE is (and will be) a valuable part of a mixed-source zero-carbon solution that includes nuclear, and also includes carbon capture and storage (CCS) if it can be made to work.
Jacobson’s lawsuit won’t derail RE, even though it may very well derail his own career.
See also my previous diaries in the series GETTING TO ZERO: our zero-carbon energy future.
Part 1: The size of the problem
Part 2. Is renewable energy economically viable?
Part 3: Why energy efficiency will not save us
Part 4: The hidden CO2 emissions from renewables
Part 5: The Deep Decarbonization Report
Part 6: Why everyone’s climate plan sucks