Is 100 percent renewables an unscientific fantasy?
If you think wind and solar alone will provide 100 percent of America’s energy needs then yes, it is a fantasy with no scientific basis.
The scientific community essentially agreed in June when 21 prominent scientists issued a sharp critique to Mark Jacobson of Stanford, who said America could easily become 100 percent wind and solar by mid-century. But he refused to acknowledge sound scientific principles in his research and refused to correct obvious scientific errors. And then he played politics.
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. Jacobson’s claim is at complete odds with serious analysis 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 mixes understand the importance of diversity and still contain huge amounts of renewables. But they also have significant amounts of nuclear, hydro and even some natural gas.
It’s not that we could never get close to 100 percent renewables, it’s that Jacobson states it’s just political will that’s lacking, not that the science and engineering are really difficult. The route to that goal actually matters as much as the goal.
Jacobson’s paper became the bible of alternative energy, the most referenced paper used by policymakers and activist groups. Jacobson 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. A few of the obvious problems is Jacobson 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.
▪ 15 million acres of wind and solar would have no environmental impacts, regulatory issues or public concerns even though it would exceed all roadways, building surfaces and human-covered land in existence today.
▪ 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.
▪ cost is no problem (really?).
▪ unlimited hydroelectric power as backup, with new installations equivalent to 500 Grand Coulee Dams, more power than we produce from all energy sources today.
This last one is quite bizarre since most renewable advocates want to decrease hydro, not expand it fifteen-fold. This much new hydro is also not physically possible and by itself negates this entire plan.
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 backlash.”
Especially against scientists.
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. No big deal, we’re used to it.
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.
Jacobson accused the scientists criticizing him of being shills for the industry. One doesn’t usually think of scientists from MIT, UCSD, Caltech, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley and several co-authors from his own Stanford, as shills but, hey, this is just weird on so many levels.
Jacobson’s ideology is also killing our largest source of low-carbon energy — nuclear. Every time a nuclear plant closes, natural gas takes its place, not renewables.
To pretend that’s OK, and still say you care about the planet, is really alternative facts at its worst.
Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation and a Science Contributor to Forbes on energy and environmental issues at forbes.com/sites/jamesconca.