Debunking The Unscientific Fantasy Of 100% Renewables

James Conca JUN 26, 2017 @ 06:00 AMLast week, twenty-one prominent scientists issued a sharp critique to one of their own. Mark Jacobson of Stanford said America could easily become 100% renewable by mid-century, but refused to acknowledge sound scientific principles in his research and address major errors pointed out by the scientific community.

And then he played politics.

The critique is so unusual that the group of scientists only decided to issue it when Jacobson refused to correct obvious scientific errors even as he began to seriously influence public policy and political action.

Jacobson published a paper in 2015 that claimed we could get rid of all other energy sources except wind and solar, and a tiny bit of other renewables, by 2050, and that it would be easier and cheaper than any other alternative mix. The paper was a redo of one Jacobson wrote in 2009 and published in Scientific American, again without any real scientific peer-review.

Jacobson’s claim is at complete odds with serious analyses and assessments, including those performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the International Energy Agency, and most of academia. These other proposed energy mixes recognize the importance of energy diversity. They still contain huge amounts of renewables, but they also have significant amounts of nuclear, hydro and even some natural gas. There is a good reason why nuclear was unaffected by the last Polar Vrtex when everything else was shutting down.

It’s not that we could never get to 100% renewables, it’s that Jacobson states it’s just political will that’s lacking, not that the technologies, science and engineering are really difficult and challenging. The route to that goal actually matters as much as the goal. Bad assumptions and poor science will have serious repercussions that we will not have the luxury to fix later.

Jacobson’s paper has become the bible of alternative energy and is the most referenced paper on the subject used by policymakers and activist groups. And that is scary. Another ideology masquerading as science.

Jacobson has even formed a non-science advocacy group with celebrity board members like Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio and Van Jones, supported by weighty politicians like Bernie Sanders, that have embraced Jacobson’s ideological mix and push it blindly.

Which would be OK if it were correct. But it’s not.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the same journal as the original paper, the reader can go over the rebuttal by these twenty-one scientists, and the original paper by Jacobson, at their leisure. The details are not as important as the ideological issue and the break with the scientific method. However, a few of the obvious problems do underscore the seriousness of these errors and assumptions. Jacobson’s plan:

– assumes a nuclear war every 30 years or so (did we have a nuclear war that I missed?), absurdly and unethically tying war to nuclear power even though nuclear power has nothing to do with nuclear weapons; you can’t make weapons from commercial spent fuel

– assumes the rate that we can build renewable energy systems is ten times greater than we’ve ever done, with no regulatory issues that would slow renewable projects

– assumes that 15 million acres covered by wind and solar would have no environmental impacts or public concerns even though that much area would exceed all the roadways, building surfaces and human-covered land in existence today (was he not paying attention to off-shore wind in New England?)

– assumes that intermittency (wind stops blowing, sun sets) is not an important issue and can be dealt with easily with no baseload power, which hasn’t happened so far and is why we install so much natural gas alongside wind

– assumes energy storage with hydrogen and heat stored in rocks buried underground will be the best storage method, even though they have never been put in place in any practical way and large storage has been moving in other directions, e.g., vanadium flow batteries and pumped hydro storage.

– assumes cost is no problem and that costs will continue to go down for the next 50 years, even for steel, copper, cement and rare earth elements, unlikely in the extreme

– assumes that scaling technologies up from the lab to the field is trivial, contrary to every single technology we have ever developed

– assumes unlimited hydroelectric power as backup, with new installations equivalent to 600 Hoover Dams; this is more power than we produce from all sources today.

This last one is quite bizarre since most renewable advocates want to decrease hydro, not expand it fifteen-fold. And Jacobson doesn’t include this huge expansion in the energy mix itself, it’s just there to back-up the intermittency of wind and solar, even though he claims intermittency isn’t a problem.

The Department of Energy and the National Hydropower Association have an ambitious plan to expand hydro, but it’s for less than 10% of this amount. And that’s ambitious. Huge regulatory and public opposition to hydro are hampering any hydro expansion.

There is no possibility that America could install that much hydro, especially with Jacobson’s additional claim that it could be done with ‘zero increase in dam size, no annual increase in the use of water, and no new land use,’ simply by adding a lot more turbines to existing dams.

This is not physically possible and is laughable if it weren’t so serious. He doesn’t seem to understand how hydroelectric works. This error alone negates Jacobson’s entire plan.

McNary Hydroelectric Dam on the Columbia River along the Washington-Oregon border. Is it possible to increase hydro in America 1500% without increasing dam size, using more water or land, and without even using that power except as back-up to wind? Of course not.

Unfortunately, the paper has spawned a horde of state and federal policies which mandate goals that can’t be achieved with available technologies at reasonable prices. This has led to ‘wildly unrealistic expectations’ and ‘massive misallocation of resources,’ according to David Victor, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the coauthors of the critique. ‘That is both harmful to the economy, and creates the seeds of a [public] backlash.’

Especially against scientists.

The Scientific Peer-Review Process

Unknown to the public, scientists don’t have any decision-making power. We provide as much data as we can on subjects we’re experts in, but politicians, business people and non-scientists actually make the decisions, often ignoring us.

So it’s frightening when a scientist enters the political arena to push an agenda that is not backed-up by science, especially given the anti-science sentiment flooding America. It never ends well.