Mark Z. Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of its Atmosphere/Energy Program. He is also a frequent contributor to CleanTechnica. He and his team have published several research papers that describe how the transition to renewable energy can provide reliable electricity at lower cost while creating new jobs. That’s the technical and economic side of his analysis. The other component involves the social benefits that will flow from using clean renewable energy, namely healthier Americans who live longer.
Jacobson, together with researchers Anna-Katharina von Krauland, Stephen Coughlin, Frances Palmer, and Miles Smith, has recently published an updated study which builds on prior research to show switching to 100% renewable energy — what Jacobson describes as wind, water and solar — would virtually eliminate the electrical grid blackouts that have plagued many areas of the country in recent years, particularly in California and Texas. “Technically and economically, we have 95 percent of the technologies we need to transition everything today,” Jacobson tells the Washington Post.
What Is Wind, Water, Solar?
As a scientist, Jacobson and his colleagues are careful to define their terms. Here is the introduction to this latest study.
“We define clean, renewable energy as energy that…..emits zero health and climate affecting air pollutants when consumed and…..has a source that continuously replenishes the energy. We call energy sources that meet these criteria Wind-Water-Solar sources. WWS electricity generating technologies include wind — onshore and offshore wind turbines; water — tidal turbines, wave devices, geothermal electric power plants, and hydroelectric power plants; and solar — rooftop/utility solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar power plants. WWS heat generating technologies include solar thermal and geothermal heat plants.
“WWS electricity must be transported by alternating current, high voltage AC, and high voltage direct current transmission lines and AC distribution lines. WWS energy must also be stored in either electricity, heat, cold, or hydrogen storage media.
“Finally, a transition to WWS requires equipment for transportation, industry, and buildings that runs on electricity. Such equipment includes electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, heat pumps, induction cook tops, arc furnaces, resistance furnaces, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, and more.
“For this study, we consider only WWS energy since we believe that WWS technologies result in greater simultaneous reductions in air pollution, climate damage, and energy insecurity than do non-WWS technologies. We do not include fossil energy, bioenergy, non-hydrogen synthetic fuels, blue hydrogen, carbon capture, direct air capture, or nuclear energy, since each may result in a greater risk of air pollution, climate damage, and/or energy insecurity. The only hydrogen considered is green hydrogen [made] from WWS electricity.
“If we can solve all three problems at reasonable cost with WWS alone, we will not need miracle or controversial
technologies to help.”
The Texas Debacle
One year ago, Texas was hit with unusually frigid temperatures that led to widespread power outages. The state’s political leaders were quick to say it was all the fault of renewables because many wind turbines froze. They failed to mention, however, that the turbines froze because ERCOT, the state’s grid operator, has one primary goal — keeping the cost of electricity as low as possible. That emphasis on cheap meant there was no money available to make the turbines freeze-proof. They also failed to mention that many conventional generating stations failed due to a lack of methane gas after the diesel engines that pump it through the state’s gas pipelines failed to start because of low temperatures.
Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, who was not involved in the Jacobson study, tells the Washington Post, “If we got another storm this year like Uri in 2021, the grid would go down again. This is still a huge risk for us.”
“A lot of people’s understanding of renewable energy is extremely out of date,” Dessler adds. Last week, he surprised Joe Rogan by telling him during an interview that wind energy provides half of the electricity Texas consumes on some days. “Solar and wind are the cheapest energy sources available,” Dessler said. “People don’t seem to understand that, and they also don’t understand that we know how to make a reliable grid that’s mainly renewables.”
Renewable Energy — Doing More With Less
The Jacobson team found that energy demand actually decreased significantly by shifting to renewable resources. Why is that? Electric car owners know why. A gasoline engine is only about 30% efficient. That is, more than two thirds of the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline does nothing to move a car forward and is wasted. It’s like trying to air condition your home while leaving all the windows and doors open. You could do it, but why? The only reason people tolerate conventional cars is because government policies keep the price of gasoline unrealistically low. By contrast, more than 80% of the energy stored as electricity in the battery of an electric car is converted into forward motion.
Because devices powered by electricity are so much more efficient than their fossil fueled equivalents, the researchers found transitioning to those “electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, heat pumps, induction cook tops, arc furnaces, resistance furnaces, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, and more” mentioned in the introduction to the report would lower the demand for primary energy in the entire United States by around 57%. Per capita household annual energy costs would be about 63% less than in a “business as usual” scenario.
“Everything that we currently do using fossil fuels would be done using technology that is run through electricity,” says co-author Anna-Katharina von Krauland. “The amount of energy that’s needed to perform activities — basically to turn on the light or to fuel industrial processes — that would actually be decreased if you use more efficient energy supply.”
The team also found interconnecting electrical grids from different geographic regions can make the power system more reliable and reduce costs. Larger regions are more likely to have the wind blowing, the sun shining, or hydroelectric power running somewhere else, which may be able to help fill any supply gaps. ERCOT was set up and designed specifically to avoid any such interconnections for political reasons. That’s why, when freezing temperatures came to the state in 2021, the state could not import electricity from other states to help during the crisis. Former Texas governor Rick Perry thumped his chest and said Texans would rather die than be part of a regional power grid. The one question no study can answer is how any sentient person could possibly vote for such a moron.
“The intermittency of renewable energy declines as you look at larger and larger areas,” said Dessler. “If it’s not windy in Texas, it could be windy in Iowa. In that case, they could be overproducing power and they could be shipping some of their extra power to us. Pretty much across the board, we find that it would be less expensive, more reliable, and make better use of the energy if we were to expand on interconnection.”
The study found the costs per unit of energy in Texas could be 27% lower when interconnected with the Midwest grid rather than isolated as is currently the case. Kinda makes you proud to be a Texan, knowing you are paying more for electricity than you should because of slavish obedience to political ideology, doesn’t it? Freedom means overpaying for stuff, apparently.
Many people assume that for the renewable energy revolution to be complete, systems capable of storing electrical energy for long periods of time — days, weeks, and months — will be required. Not so, the researchers say. Instead, systems that can store energy for 4 hours can be connected to provide long term storage. “It’s wrong to think of renewables as unreliable because you don’t think about renewables by themselves,” Dessler said. “You think of them as part of a system. A stable grid that features a lot of renewables will also feature a firm dispatchable power that will pick up when the renewables go down.”
5 Million New Jobs
In addition to improving grid stability, the study found operating a clean, renewable grid could create almost 5 million long term, full time jobs not only in construction and manufacturing but also in ancillary businesses that support those activities. The systems would also produce cleaner air, which could reduce pollution-related deaths by 53,000 people per year and reduce pollution-related illnesses for millions of people in 2050.
“This is an incredibly important study,” said Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University and who is not involved in the research. “The fossil fuel industries continue to argue that renewables are a dangerous experiment, and that grid stability and reliability will continue to depend at least in part on fossil fuels. Here, Jacobson and his colleagues clearly show this is not the case at all.”
Andrew Dessler agrees. He says the findings of this study are “not controversial at all. Obviously, it will work just because there’s so much renewable energy available on the planet. Just from a physics standpoint, there’s no fundamental constraint here. The constraint is political. You’ve got to get people to get together and decide to do this, and that’s really what’s difficult.”
Mark Jacobson adds, “We do need a really rapid transition by 80 percent [of clean energy] by 2030 and 100 percent as soon as possible after that. It really requires a large scale effort among lots of people to solve this problem. It’s not one scientific study that is going to solve the problem.”
Thanks to fossil fuel stooges like Joe Manchin and every Republican in Congress, Americans will be denied the benefits of a fully functioning renewable energy system until all the campaign contributions from oil and gas companies dry up. Then and only then will the renewable energy transition be able to take place.
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