A small handful of years ago, Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi and the team in Stanford released a study showing the electrical generation mix for 139 countries worldwide using wind, water, and solar (WWS), along with a few hangers-on. The usual suspects were up in arms immediately, as nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration were noticeably absent from the mix. 21 of them wrote a critique and fireworks ensued.
Well, expect more fireworks.
Jacobson and team have just released a new study covering 143 countries representing 99.7% of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. It’s an update and maintains the mix of technologies, omitting nuclear and CCS. Expect more pushback from people who don’t accept the empirical realities related to those technologies. My assessment of various aspects of the report will be broken down into three chunks of roughly equal size around specific subsets of the topic. The first covers the economics. The second covers interesting edge elements of storage and transmission, highlighting the inherently conservative approach the study takes in its projections. The third covers a couple of elements of the ongoing PR war over our necessary transformation away from fossil fuels and the inevitable dominance of renewables.
This study comes out after the UN IPCC 1.5 degree Celsius reports, and along with the GND, that means it reflects 2030 targets more explicitly, with at least 80% WWS by that point. Fossil fuel lobbyists continue to appear in droves at climate conferences globally, spreading delays. Certainly COP25 ended poorly, in large part due to their ongoing efforts to create uncertainty and doubt where there is none.
The approach I’ll take is to pull out specific quotes from the report and tear them apart a bit, providing context and what additional insights and color I’m able to. All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from the newly published study.
“WWS reduces end-use energy by 57.1%, aggregate private energy costs from $17.7 to $6.8 26 trillion/yr (61%), and aggregate social (private plus health plus climate) costs from $76.1 to $6.8 trillion/yr (91%) at a present value capital cost of ~$73 trillion. […] 38.3 percentage points are due to the efficiency of using WWS electricity over combustion; 12.1 percentage points are due to eliminating energy in the mining, transporting, and refining of fossil fuels; and 6.6 percentage points are due to end-use energy efficiency improvements and reduced energy use beyond those in BAU.”
This pulls together text from early in the report with text from later. Let’s start with the end-use energy reduction portion of this and one of CleanTechnica’s favorite diagrams, possibly the most repeated image that isn’t a Tesla, LLNL’s energy flows.
The important point that this graphic makes is that we throw away a lot of energy as we pull primary energy into our energy ecosystem, convert it to secondary forms of energy and then either use the entirety of the energy in energy services (lower right box) or rejected energy (upper right box). The majority of the rejected energy is from waste heat from combustion. Jacobson’s methodology is simply to eliminate the waste heat, limit the inefficiencies to the much smaller ones associated with renewable energy generation of electricity, transmission and use. He and his team have a transparent calculation for what total demand will be in 2050 based on this, and it’s much, much smaller than current total energy for our economies world wide.
The second point is that of course this will cost a lot less, 61% less for private energy generation and distribution annually. Renewable electricity is really cheap, which means that people and companies motivated by maximizing revenue and profits don’t necessarily like it, part of our systemic challenge in addressing climate change. His team’s calculation is that we’ll spend about $11 trillion less on energy every year due to this transition, and when we start talking trillions of dollars, we are actually talking about real money. Some countries such as Iceland, which have already done all the heavy lifting and which are showing us the way forward, have very little more that they need to spend. Massive countries with a lot of legacy fossil fuel generation still in place, such as the United States and China, will have to spend more, but also have massively larger economies to pay for it.
The social costs point is critical to understand for policy and politics. The comparison to make is between the black line at the top and the green line at the bottom of this chart, the total social costs by country under the business as usual and wind, water, solar model. This makes visual the 91% reduction in uncosted negative externalities. As does the IMF with its subsidy calculations, Jacobson and team tie in costing of negative externalities, which are much higher than most people realize. The IMF US calculations for the implicit annual subsidy of fossil fuels by not pricing negative externalities was more money than the US annual defense budget, $649 billion. Jacobson et al., calculate a reduction in negative externalities — not elimination — by about $69 trillion a year.
For context, global GDP is about $85 trillion annually. We are consuming human lives and the environment at a rate almost equal to the total acknowledged economy due to the use of fossil fuels.
The last point is that the transition over 30 years would cost money, of course, $73 trillion. And $73 trillion over 30 years is about $2.4 trillion per year, a long way under the savings on private energy alone and a drop in the bucket compared to the $76.1 trillion annual negative externalities. I’ve done less sophisticated calculations to cross-verify this a few times in the past decade, and the scale of the numbers are correct.
“Air heating and cooling will be performed with ground-, air-, or water-source electric heat pumps. Hot water will be generated with heat pumps, in some cases with an electric resistance element for low temperatures, and with solar hot water heaters. Cook stoves will be electric induction. Clothes dryers will all be electric. […] Electric arc furnaces, induction furnaces, dielectric heaters, and resistance heaters will provide high temperatures for industrial processes.”
The last point is into the electrification of everything. I’ve gone deep on residential, commercial and industrial provision of heating and cooling this year as well. In addition to assessing energy demands and options for a 100,000 square foot carbon neutral greenhouse in the Canadian Prairies and working out ground-sourced heat pump requirements, I’ve assessed residential savings with heat pumps compared to carbon-priced natural gas furnaces. I’m engaged with a team launching a data-first commercial building heat pump deployment organization in North America.
I’ve also looked at industrial heat requirements for concrete and more recently the Solvay Process and mining emissions for the two primary sources of sodium carbonate, a massive global industrial feedstock, as well as poking at steel manufacturing.
All necessary heat of every quality is easily achieved from electricity and the technologies it enables. The challenge here is that for industrial scale heat, it’s more expensive than burning very cheap coal or natural gas. Carbon pricing will increase the cost of this rapidly, and as electricity will be much cheaper, it’s likely that the operation cost curves will start converging rapidly in a WWS world with even minimal costs on carbon.
Once again, Jacobson and his team have done an excellent job showing that a 100% renewables, very low carbon electrical supply of all energy needs is easily achievable.