Mark Jacobson Has A Plan To Convert The World To 100% Renewable Energy. Is It Realistic?

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Mark Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University. He is also one of our heroes here at CleanTechnica because instead of just writing papers and giving speeches about how important it is for the world to stop burning fossil fuels, he and his colleagues actually did the hard work of creating a road map that details precisely what each of the 50 US states need to do to transition to 100% renewable energy.


If that wasn’t enough, he and his fellow scientists then created a similar renewable energy road map for 139 of the world’s countries. That was followed by a subsequent paper that broke the world into 20 regions and described how the countries in those regions can realize their clean energy goals.

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As creative and important as those road maps are, they  haven’t met with universal acceptance. By most estimates, there are oil, gas, and coal reserves still buried in the Earth that are worth a staggering $26 trillion dollars. A small group of fossil fuel companies say they own those reserves and they intend to extract every molecule, justifying their avarice with the canard that they are compelled to do so by the economic imperative to maximize shareholder value.

With so much money at stake, there is plenty available to buy politicians, scientists, and media sources who will help them delay, then delay some more the transition away from fossil fuels as long as possible, even if it means risking the Earth’s ability to support human life. The principle strategy they have devised is the “all of the above” argument. It goes something like this.

“Yeah, renewables have a place in the energy mix of the future, right alongside oil, gas, coal, and nuclear. While we are transitioning to renewables, we must continue to build new coal, gas, and nuclear powered generating stations, too, because they make electricity we can depend on. Renewables are inherently unreliable because, you know, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and sometimes rivers have less water available to make hydro power.”

The corollary to this fiction is the “government shouldn’t pick winners and losers in business.” What that argument really says is “government should continue giving us the outrageous public subsidies we have grown accustomed to over the past 100 years and not give any to renewable energy interests.”

The PNAS Controversy

Jacobson and his colleagues have seen their proposals attacked by a group of fellow scientists who published a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists in 2017. Below is the preamble to that paper. See if you can spot the code words and phrases that reveal their true agenda. (Hint: I have helpfully put them in italics to help you with your search.)

“Previous analyses have found that the most feasible route to a low-carbon energy future is one that adopts a diverse portfolio of technologies. In contrast, Jacobson et al. (2015) consider whether the future primary energy sources for the United States could be narrowed to almost exclusively wind, solar, and hydroelectric power and suggest that this can be done at “low-cost” in a way that supplies all power with a probability of loss of load “that exceeds electric-utility-industry standards for reliability.”

“We find that their analysis involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions. Their study does not provide credible evidence for rejecting the conclusions of previous analyses that point to the benefits of considering a broad portfolio of energy system options. A policy prescription that overpromises on the benefits of relying on a narrower portfolio of technologies options could be counterproductive, seriously impeding the move to a cost effective decarbonized energy system.”

Did you find the clues? That’s right. “Diverse portfolio of technologies” and “broad portfolio of energy system options” are code for “We must continue burning coal and natural gas and building nuclear power plants while we take timid, tentative steps toward adding a little tiny bit of renewable energy here and there to keep the tree huggers happy.”

The authors then train their big guns on Jacobson and his cohorts. “We evaluate [Jacobson’s] study and find significant shortcomings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.”

Is Jacobson’s Plan Realistic?

Recently, I came across an article in Interesting Engineering that addresses the conflict between Jacobson’s vision and the PNAS counterpoint. It summarized both and concluded that the transition to 100% renewables will be really, really hard, not so much because of the technical challenges involved but because of the extreme difficulty of getting political institutions to take the actions needed to make it happen. In the final analysis, it is not technology that will fail us, it is ourselves.

The author, Kashyap Vyas, did point out that there are carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and installing renewable energy systems. Factories create emissions when they are built and when they operate. Solar and wind farms take up valuable land that might have other productive uses. Dams for hydroelectric power do have a significant impact on the land that gets flooded as a result.

He concludes that Jacobson’s vision of a world that runs on 100% zero emissions energy is feasible but the road forward will be filled with obstacles, most of them the result of human activity.

“Switching to 100% clean energy sources as an alternative to fossil fuels and natural gas is a giant move and will have its own challenges and consequences. One of the greatest challenges we face is our own unwillingness to adopt the change.

“Shifting to 100% clean energy sources will require adopting solutions that many of us would resist. To make this possible, it is important to bring awareness within people all around about the benefits and future possibilities of such a change.”

That is precisely what CleanTechnica tries to do every day.

Mark Jacobson Responds

After reading the Interesting Engineering article, I reached out to Mark Jacobson for an update. He graciously responded within a few hours. “I like the fact that the author of this article was able to see that, despite how dire the authors of the critique of our 2015 PNAS paper made their criticisms appear, all that did was catalyze us to demonstrate under many more conditions and throughout the world that the main conclusion of our paper was correct,” he said.

“This conclusion was that it is possible to power countries, regions, and the world, for all energy purposes, with clean, renewable energy (without nuclear, fossil fuels with carbon capture, or biofuels) while matching power demand with supply and storage, at low cost. We ended up showing this for 20 world regions and under 3 vastly different storage situations in each region. Not only that, multiple other groups around the world have come to similar conclusions.”

And then there was this. “In the end, it was the egos of the critics and their inability to get facts straight that interfered with their clear judgment. For example, they insisted that a table of ours contained maximum values when it contained average values, and then used their own mistake to claim we made a huge modeling error, when it was their own carelessness that led to that erroneous conclusion.”

Subsequent to the publication of their critique in PNAS, several of the authors let their biases show. John Weyant, David Victor, and James Sweeney are now “serving as paid experts by the Trump Administration to fight against climate action,” Jacobson points out. They are listed as witnesses in the defense plans to call in the landmark climate legal action known as Juliana vs. United States.

“Two others, Ken Caldeira and Staffan Qvist, at different times over the past several years, have published opinions that the whole world could be powered by nuclear. Several others claim we need a mix of nuclear, CCS, and renewables. As such, it is my opinion that their motivation was to diminish the credibility of 100% renewables to push their own alternative plan,” Jacobson added.

PNAS And Colorado

The harm that flows from questionable articles like the PNAS paper is on display this week in Colorado, where governor Jared Polis has announced a major state initiative to transition its electrical supply to 100% renewables by 2040. Colorado’s largest utility company, Xcel Energy, has pledged carbon free electricity by 2050. But fossil fuel advocates are using the PNAS paper to attack Polis and his zero emissions plan.

In a story dated January 23 by Colorado Watchdog, Polis’ plan is attacked as being based on the “flawed” analysis that Jacobson and his colleagues relied on when preparing their various road maps. How does Watchdog know the analysis was flawed? Because the PNAS paper said so.

Watchdog quotes Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who says the Jacobson proposals are based on “magic thinking.” Dan Haley, head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, had this pithy analysis. “Rather than picking winners and losers, and trying to push people toward lower-paying jobs they may not want, it would be best to simply give energy resources the chance to compete, because we’re confident our Colorado-based oil and natural gas production is cleaner and better than anywhere.” Hopefully you picked up on the “picking winners and losers” mantra in his statement.

Haley also played the “rural vs. urban” card that did so much to propel Trump into office. If you are a fossil fuel advocate, it is better to pit one group against another rather than address the underlying issue, which is that we have pushed the environment to the breaking point and beyond.

The bona fides of  Colorado Watchdog is on display for all to see. This is the photo it chose to lead with for its hit piece on Jacobson and Governor Polis’ clean energy agenda. ‘Nuff said.


Renewables And The Green New Deal

CleanTechnica published an article by Mark Jacobson this week in which he explains why nuclear energy, carbon capture, and biofuels should not be included in the agenda of Green New Deal advocates. “All three technologies are opportunity costs. They raise costs to consumers and society, slow solutions to global warming and air pollution by increasing carbon and emissions relative to clean, renewables (thus are not zero carbon), and/or create risks that clean, renewables don’t have,” he writes. Remember what we said about “all of the above” arguments before? These three fall into that category.

To get a better understanding of Mark Jacobson and his renewable energy ideas, watch this video from last July. In it, he is cogent, rational, and persuasive. He makes it plain that when it comes to the transition to renewable energy, we’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there. It would help tremendously if we didn’t have to fight our way through so many blockers along the way. As cartoonist Walt Kelly taught us years ago, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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