A study by Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford and 9 others, “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States” (Roadmap), has been very much in the news over the past few weeks. It was published just over two years ago, but a controversial article in response appeared only in the past few weeks. It is clear to me that much reported in the wider media on these two articles has been wrong.
The Roadmap was published in the journal, Energy & Environmental Science. It was covered by a large number of articles, including the CleanTechnica article, “State-By-State Plan To Bring US To 100% Renewables By 2050 Unveiled By Researchers.”
My thought on the article at the time was that it was not really a roadmap at all, so much as an elaborate academic exercise intended to provide one possible approach as a subject of discussion.
If I found fault with it, it was because I believed it was too restricted. I thought it failed to deal adequately with certain inputs that seemed very important, including problems that are not usually thought of as relating directly to climate change, but which should among the issues considered.
For example, the Roadmap to 100% renewables is almost entirely restricted to examining wind, water, and sunlight, just as its title suggests. This meant that it largely ignored the separate problems we have dealing with waste, especially from agriculture, food, and human waste, which we must deal with regardless of considerations about energy. These waste products can be treated in bio-digesters to generate biogas, which we can then use both to reduce energy demand for waste handling and to produce electricity.
The amount of energy that could be produced from bio-digesters is impressive. In October of 2013, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory issued a paper on this, “Biogas Potential in the United States,” which gave the maximum amount of biogas that could be produced as 40% of the amount of natural gas we consumed at the time. I would have expected the Roadmap to say something about this.
Evaluation for the Sake of Criticism
As the Roadmap approached its second year in publication, Christopher T. M. Clack et al. published their “Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar” (Evaluation). This article set out to show how the Roadmap was wrong for a number of reasons. My take on it is that it is embarrassing, but not for Jacobson et al. While it set out to debunk the Roadmap, I think it demonstrably debunked itself.
I would like to consider two quotes in the Evaluation. One is this:
“With all available technologies at our disposal, achieving an 80% reduction in GHG emissions from the electricity sector at reasonable costs is extremely challenging, even using a new continental-scale high-voltage transmission grid. Decarbonizing the last 20% of the electricity sector as well as decarbonizing the rest of the economy that is difficult to electrify (e.g., cement manufacture and aviation) are even more challenging.”
This quote appears in the section titled, “Faults with the Jacobson et al. Analyses.” I would point out that it is stated without citing any reference to a source. What puzzled me more about this statement, however, was the fact that it explicitly contradicted something I had just read in the same paper:
This statement, which appeared in the Evaluation’s section, “Abstract,” has two citations. (I restrain myself from asking a very rude question here.)
The Media Response
There have been a number of pieces published in the back-and-forth between Mark Jacobson and Christopher Clack. One article that appeared in the Energy Collective is “Energy Wonks Have a Meltdown Over the U.S. Going 100% Renewable. Why?” In it, we find this on the aftermath of the publication of the Evaluation:
“What followed was a storm of debate as energy wonks of all stripes weighed in on the merits of the PNAS analysis. Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University professor who was the lead author of the 2015 study, shot back with detailed rebuttals, in one calling his fellow researchers ‘fossil fuel and nuclear supporters.'”
While that is all extremely exciting to wonks, I suppose (including myself), the really important immediate effect of the publication of the Evaluation was what it was taken to mean in the media at large.
Scientific American published an article at one extreme of the discussion, “Landmark 100 Percent Renewable Energy Study Flawed, Say 21 Leading Experts.” It criticizes Jacobson for “dismissive and flippant responses” to “legitimate concerns” of some critics on a number of occasions. It praises Clack et al. for “rising above the political fray and rigorously critique Jacobson’s methods and assumptions based on engineering and scientific principles,” which is something I do not feel at all confident that they did. But importantly, it also said this:
“That doesn’t mean that decarbonization of the energy system is impossible.”
At the other extreme of the discussion, represented by many more articles than those like the one in Scientific American, were articles such as one in the National Review, whose title speaks clearly to its bias, “The Appalling Delusion of 100 Percent Renewables, Exposed.” The first paragraph of this article speaks clearly of what I can only see as its utter disdain for facts and truth:
“The idea that the U.S. economy can be run solely with renewable energy — a claim that leftist politicians, environmentalists, and climate activists have endlessly promoted — has always been a fool’s errand. And on Monday, the National Academy of Sciences published a blockbuster paper by an all-star group of American scientists that says exactly that.”
The contrast between the National Review and Scientific American is driven, I believe, by a contrast between the “politically incorrect” (which is easily as bad as the “politically correct”) and science. It is clear to me that renewable energy and climate change provide issues of real concern to neither conservatives nor libertarians. They are, however, issues for the tiny subset of people who call themselves conservatives or libertarians and pay the bills of the right-wing media and politicians.
A Cautionary Conclusion
The leaders in Washington don’t want objectivity.
They want uncritical Objectivism.
Conservatives should take heed. Reality will inevitably prevail, and both climate change and the disruptive possibilities for low-cost renewable energy are real. I do not think voters will not forgive fraud in this case, especially when they see what they will pay for the damage.