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Richard Heinberg: Controversy Explodes over Renewable Energy

Alternative Energy

A heated debate in the pages of one of the country’s most renowned scientific journals has gained national attention. The debate is over whether a combination of wind, solar, and hydroelectricity could fully power the U.S. But both sides of the debate are completely missing half of the equation.

In a series of papers published over the last few years, Mark Jacobson of Stanford University (along with co-authors) has offered a series of transition plans for achieving a 100 percent wind-solar-hydro energy economy. These include comprehensive blueprints for the United States, for each individual state, and for the world as a whole. His message is clear: such a transition is not only possible, it’s affordable—cheaper, in fact, than maintaining the current fossil fueled system. There is no technical or economic barrier to an all-renewable future—only a political one, resulting from the enormous influence of fossil fuel companies on Congress and the White House. Jacobson’s plans have been touted by celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) and at least one prominent politician (Bernie Sanders).

However, during the past two years a group of scientists unconvinced by Jacobson’s arguments has labored to craft a critical review of his plans, and to get it published in the same journal that printed Jacobson’s own most-cited paper. They voice a concern that the growing popularity of Jacobson’s plans could lead to critical mistakes in policy making and investment choices. The lead author, Christopher Clack, and his 20 co-authors, attack Jacobson’s assumptions and highlight what they call serious modeling errors. Much of their criticism has to do with Jacobson’s ways of getting around solar and wind power’s most notorious drawback—its intermittency. Jacobson says we can deal with cloudy and windless days by storing energy in the forms of underground heat and hydrogen. Clack et al. point out that doing so on the scale Jacobson is proposing is unprecedented (therefore, we really don’t know if it can be done), and also argue that Jacobson made crucial errors in estimating how much storage would be needed and how much it would cost.

The stakes in this controversy are high enough that the New York Times and other mainstream media have reported on it. One pro-renewables scientist friend of mine despairs not just because of bad press about solar and wind power, but also because the reputation of science itself is taking a beating. If these renowned energy experts can’t agree on whether solar and wind power are capable of powering the future, then what are the implications for the credibility of climate science?

Jacobson and colleagues have published what can only be called a take-no-prisoners rebuttal to Clack et al. In it, they declare that, “The premise and all error claims by Clack et al. . . . about Jacobson et al. . . . are demonstrably false.” In a separate article, Jacobson has dismissed Clack and his co-authors as “nuclear and fossil fuel supporters,” though it’s clear that neither side in this debate is anti-renewables.

However, Clack et al. have issued their own line-by-line response to Jacobson’s line-by-line rebuttal, and it’s fairly devastating.

This is probably a good place to point out that David Fridley, staff scientist in the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, and I recently published a book, Our Renewable Future, exploring a hypothetical transition to a 100 percent wind-and-solar energy economy. While we don’t say so in the book, we were compelled to write it partly because of our misgivings about Mark Jacobson’s widely publicized plans. We did not attack those plans directly, as Clack et al. have done, but sought instead to provide a more nuanced and realistic view of what a transition to all-renewable energy would involve.

Our exploration of the subject revealed that source intermittency is indeed a serious problem, and solving it becomes more expensive and technically challenging as solar-wind generation approaches 100 percent of all electricity produced. A further challenge is that solar and wind yield electricity, but 80 percent of final energy is currently used in other forms—mostly as liquid and gaseous fuels. Therefore the energy transition will entail enormous changes in the ways we use energy, and some of those changes will be technically difficult and expensive.

US-final-energy-consumption-2012-800

Our core realization was that scale is the biggest transition hurdle. This has implications that both Jacobson et al., and Clack et al. largely ignore. Jacobson’s plan, for example, envisions building 100,000 times more hydrogen production capacity than exists today. And the plan’s assumed hydro expansion would require 100 times the flow of the Mississippi River. If, instead, the United States were to aim for an energy system, say, a tenth the size of its current one, then the transition would be far easier to fund and design.

When we start our transition planning by assuming that future Americans will use as much energy as we do now (or even more of it in the case of economic growth), then we have set up conditions that are nearly impossible to design for. And crucially, that conclusion still holds if we add nuclear power (which is expensive and risky) or fossil fuels (which are rapidly depleting) to the mix. The only realistic energy future that David Fridley and I were able to envision is one in which people in currently industrialized countries use far less energy per capita, use it much more efficiently, and use it when it’s available rather than demanding 24/7/365 energy services. That would mean not doing a lot of things we are currently doing (e.g., traveling in commercial aircraft), doing them on a much smaller scale (e.g., getting used to living in smaller spaces and buying fewer consumer products—and ones built to be endlessly repaired), or doing them very differently (e.g., constructing buildings and roads with local natural materials).

If powerdown—that is, focusing at least as much on the demand side of the energy equation as on the supply side—were combined with a deliberate and humanely guided policy of population decline, there would be abundant beneficial side effects. The climate change crisis would be far easier to tackle, as would ongoing loss of biodiversity and the depletion of resources such as fresh water, topsoil, and minerals.

Jacobson has not embraced a powerdown pathway, possibly because he assumes it would not appeal to film stars and politicians. Clack et al. do not discuss it either, mostly because their task at hand is simply to demolish Jacobson. But powerdown, the pathway about which it is seemingly not permissible for serious people to speak, is what we should all be talking about. That’s because it is the most realistic way to get to a sustainable, happy future.

 

richardheinberg.com



74 Comments on "Richard Heinberg: Controversy Explodes over Renewable Energy"

  1. kanon on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 4:38 pm 

    Davy: “How are we going to ramp up so much economic activity to transition and at the same time decline economically? This part of the fake green equation never adds up.”

    If we continue to serve the banking cartel and subject ourselves to their debt-money system there is no equation that will add up. The economy is hopelessly insolvent with federal, corporate, and personal debt as it is now. You are actually wondering how enough new debt can be generated to service the existing debt, but even QE has failed. The concept that we must generate economic activity to assure banking and corporate profits is simply false. It is really a dogma of corporate economic religion. The idea that the present economy can be made sustainable is equally false. The present debt and economic structure will either be abandoned or it will take us down with it.

  2. Davy on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 5:03 pm 

    “The present debt and economic structure will either be abandoned or it will take us down with it.”
    More like it will take us down because there are no alternatives unless you have some up your sleeve? You don’t really think we can migrate away from the mess we are in now do you? If so I would love to know your secrets.

  3. kanon on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 6:10 pm 

    Migrate away from the mess we are in? Unfortunately, there is no New World out there. I have no secrets, just the knowledge that political and social arrangements, such as debt, can be dramatically revised and have been many times. See http://greensformonetaryreform.org for a different monetary system. I don’t like calling environmental ideas a “fake green equation,” even if they are uneconomical in the present system. I doubt it made economic sense to build the pyramids, but that did not matter. The only way to get to there from here is to begin moving. I don’t spend time worrying about the “economy” because it will simply adjust to whatever people decide to do. Survival gear could become quite valuable, but then again gardening implements and bicycles could also increase in value.

  4. Davy on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 6:52 pm 

    There are consequences and payment due for violating the laws of nature. Debt is only a symptom of greater issues. We can lynch all the 1%er’s to free up riches but first me need to define who that is. The reality is everyone here is privileged relative to the billions on the edge of survival. Who amongst us must pay the ultimate price? This is the problem with race and class warfare. Where are the lines drawn?

    We are in a systematic bulge. We took our species and the planetary system out beyond stable and balanced. Those forces will correct. This is happening within our civilization only civilization usually just fail. In our case it will likely be spectacularly. If you think we can rid the system of debt and lynch a few bankers to find a new way then I think you are naïve. Maybe I am old and you are young and that is just how the generations differ.

    Economically there is no going back to something else except through the gauntlet of collapse of some sort. That collapse will not allow us the same economic activity nor the same population levels. So it will be a matter of if we are willing to pull the trigger on powerdown and let the chips fall as they may. We can engineer a collapse but we can’t save ourselves. We can look at it like the great scene in platoon when they were getting overrun and the commander called in air strikes on his position. We can either keep on keeping on or pull the trigger on something radically different and likely radically worse until balance is reached. It is coming either way. Do we manage best we can or take a chance? That is just my opinion of studying the economic and financial side of our overshoot equation.

  5. dave thompson on Sat, 22nd Jul 2017 7:36 pm 

    @ cloggie, Yea I saw You use the word paraphrase, wrong. And you put the wrong quote in quotations. EROEI and the exponential function are two totally different things. Not interchangeable explanations of the same thing. Now read my post and get back to us all on your renewable energy hopium. http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2017/07/furnaces-of-industry_14.html

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 1:29 am 

    A chemical engineer, once walked thru my spacious old
    1970’s house. He was impressed with it,
    and said “this is all a bunch of crystallized energy”.

    I like that phrase “crystallized energy” and
    It’s true, like the glass or that length of
    copper pipe. So if you don’t gots the
    energy, you don’t get all those materials.

  7. GregT on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 10:20 am 

    Now you’re just trolling Cloggie.

  8. GregT on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:11 am 

    “And please note that none of these high caliber figures tries to peddle the idiocy that you can’t have a “stand-alone” renewable energy base, without fossil fuel.”

    The Earth always had a ‘stand alone energy base’. It is commonly referred to as The Sun. Human beings are the only lifeform on the planet that has figured out ways to harness this energy by using up non-renewable resources in industrial processes powered by fossil fuel energy. Which, BTW, is stored ancient solar energy.

  9. Cloggie on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:13 am 

    Apart from the Bartlett stuff I’m dead serious.

  10. Cloggie on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:18 am 

    The Earth always had a ‘stand alone energy base’. It is commonly referred to as The Sun. Human beings are the only lifeform on the planet that has figured out ways to harness this energy by using up non-renewable resources in industrial processes powered by fossil fuel energy. Which, BTW, is stored ancient solar energy

    That’s an open door Greg.

    The “controversy” was about the possibility of a stand-alone renewable energy system.

    You are about the only person I know who constantly brings up this renewable=extension fossil baloney.

    Nobody does that.

    Should give you reason to pause and reflect about your assumptions or rather wishful thinking towards collapse of “evil industrial civilization”.

  11. GregT on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:41 am 

    Name one stand alone human manufactured energy system that does not require any inputs from fossil fuels Cloggie. The question has been brought forth to you on numerous occasions. You still have not answered it.

  12. GregT on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:45 am 

    And while you are researching that question, name one gadget that humans power with electricity that also does not require inputs from fossil fuels.

  13. boat on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:50 am 

    The entire conversion about a stand alone energy base is pointless since there is plenty of energy. If energy were to become scarce, who cares. The world doesn’t care how many humans are around. When I come back for another round at life, we’ll see how the energy/human statis stands.

  14. Cloggie on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 11:56 am 

    Name one stand alone human manufactured energy system that does not require any inputs from fossil fuels Cloggie.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6FxG3ll-lw

    Name me one human manufactured energy system that hasn’t been partly manufactured by renewable energy.

    And show my why we can’t continue to increase the share of renewable energy in the overall energy mix year by year, like is happening already in every European country and elsewhere.

    It doesn’t give a damn where energy is coming from. 1 kWh = 1 kWh.

    Jeez man, how many times have we been through this, its getting repetitive.

    But there is a psychological reason why you stubbornly keep insisting your thesis… because you WANT it to be true. You (and Davy and Heinberg) want to see industrial civilization torpedoed, so you all can go back to Chief Seattle’s green mode of living. Renewable energy, that is “fake green”. You don’t like neither fossil nor renewable energy and you hope that both go under. You rubbed your hands on the “news” of peak oil and now you are fighting tooth and nail the possibility that this f* industrial civilization could continue after all.

  15. GregT on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 1:04 pm 

    Very cool sawmill Cloggie, but still plenty of fossil fuel inputs required. You are being disingenuous.

    I have no desire to watch modern industrial society go away. The implications will be tragic. That being said, the consequences of modern industrialism will be far more devastating. Nature is going to take it’s course, and there isn’t a damn thing that we can do to stop her. We are not in control Cloggie.

  16. Cloggie on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 1:15 pm 

    Very cool sawmill Cloggie, but still plenty of fossil fuel inputs required. You are being disingenuous.

    ??? The mill was built in the 17th century, in a “world made by hand”. Perhaps some wood or peat was used to melt iron to produce the saw, but that’s about it.

    The mill was used to manufacture planks, to build ships and to create entities like the United States and Canada, to name a few. And to pump water away to create new land.

    No serious amounts of fossil fuel.

    But you didn’t address the point I made with continuously increased levels of renewable energy in our energy base. Or why this increase mysteriously would stop.

    It won’t.

  17. Davy on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 1:34 pm 

    “You are about the only person I know who constantly brings up this renewable=extension fossil baloney.”

    Clog, renewables are not stand alone until they are and they are not yet. There is no evidence that says they will be as in a due course in the real world. I might add a world with an uncertain future. I am not saying it can’t. the concept of stand-alone renewables is just a theoretical notion at this point. This isn’t just a technical point it is about cost and systematic conditionality. Even the technicals are not completely proven with scale. The world has to be transformed and it must produce that transformation. We are not there yet so the as-is where-is reality is renewables=extension of fossils.

  18. GregT on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 1:41 pm 

    “But you didn’t address the point I made with continuously increased levels of renewable energy in our energy base. Or why this increase mysteriously would stop.”

    That alternate energy is adding to our energy mix. Fossil fuel usage continues to grow. Alternate energy is not replacing fossil fuels. They are fossil fuels extenders.

  19. Davy on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 2:13 pm 

    “You (and Davy and Heinberg) want to see industrial civilization torpedoed, so you all can go back to Chief Seattle’s green mode of living”

    Clog there is no going back to that world. Maybe for a few who would survive a crash in some isolated location could there be a Chief Seattle world. We are stuck with what we have because we have change the world beyond a return. Renewable energy is fake green because it is dirty and energy intensive to produce. It is being used in a dirty fake green world of poor lifestyles and bad attitudes so it too is fake green in most cases. It can be made much greener with different attitudes and lifestyles but currently it is being adapted to traditional dirty lifestyles under the guise of green when the reality is it is dirty and fake green. There is nothing green about EVs that charge on grid power that has a significant fossil fuel mix. Renewable energy used in a wasteful way is not green. It is better than fossil fuel but it is still dirty.

    “You don’t like neither fossil nor renewable energy and you hope that both go under.”
    I don’t like them but I am realistic and realize we need both to survive now. I hope to see more renewable in the mix. I am not delusional to think renewables are going to be stand-alone powering a new energy paradigm. It may happen but we are nowhere near to the point that we can say we can do it. There are too many loose ends.

    “fighting tooth and nail the possibility that this f* industrial civilization could continue after all.”
    F*in hope this industrial civilization continues some more. I am not suicidal like some on this board. Yet, I want us to explore the possibility an energy transition is not possible and won’t happen for whatever reason. I also want to determine the impact of other dangers. Energy is only part of our problem.

  20. Makati1 on Sun, 23rd Jul 2017 6:20 pm 

    How much oil is left? Who cares? In the long run, it doesn’t matter.

    How many centuries will it take to replace FF with ‘renewables’? Forever, unless you count turning plants into muscle power, by eating them, as ‘renewable energy’.

    How soon until Mother Nature cancels our visa to live on her planet? THIS should be the number one concern, but most are too ignorant to see or accept that the end is likely to be in their lifetime.

    Continue the debate boys (and girls) while the last years slide away. I hope you are prepared. I am.

  21. Cloggie on Mon, 24th Jul 2017 1:38 am 

    That alternate energy is adding to our energy mix. Fossil fuel usage continues to grow. Alternate energy is not replacing fossil fuels. They are fossil fuels extenders.

    What did you expect with an oil price of $48?

    But wait, there is one exception, Europe:

    https://www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/synthesis/report/images/Figure204.5SOER20Synthesis.png

    Fossil fuel consumption is rapidly declining and renewable energy is rapidly on the increase.

    Why? Because it is deliberate government policy, supported by the vast majority of the population. Renewable energy IS replacing fossil fuel. Only in Europe, the only show in town when it comes to renewable energy.

    Or anything else for that matter.

    https://img.4plebs.org/boards/pol/image/1387/24/1387249155649.png

    Although naive Americans love to think they are the exceptionalist center of the universe. The reality is that they are committing suicide, or rather they are being murdered by their own “deep state”.

    Won’t be long until the old order is going to be restored, with Russia added to the mix. And eventually a part of a humiliated America.

    #AnglosphereExitStageLeft

  22. Cloggie on Mon, 24th Jul 2017 1:48 am 

    Here a better graph:

    http://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=comnat:COM_2015_0576_FIN.ENG.xhtml.02003.jpg

    Greenhouse gases EU:
    1990 index = 100
    2014 index = 77

    Real GDP increase in same period: 46%

    Source: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52015DC0576

  23. boat on Mon, 24th Jul 2017 2:32 am 

    clog,

    Germans and Europeans comprise most of the Republican party. Trump is their beloved leader. As you can tell the clan is militaristic, racist leaning, climate change ignorant along with a history of killing economies. If there was a great order restored like you say it would collaspe quickly.

  24. Cloggie on Mon, 24th Jul 2017 2:57 am 

    boat, you fail to understand the existence of a deep state in the US that is ruling over you, not these “racist leaning” heartland folks, although they successfully revolted in November 2016, but are still facing an uphill battle against century old political and financial power structures in Washington and New York.

    Most Americans, including you, haven’t the faintest clue who is pulling the strings in your country. And no, it ain’t the Confederate flag wavers.

    Germans and Europeans comprise most of the Republican party.

    Yeah, we love ’em and we want these “racist leaning” folks back and at some point they won’t resist and volunteer to “come home”, in a spiritual sense, because they will have no other place to go.

    Greater Europe is the only chance European-America has to continue to exist as, well, European-America.

    Not only 1945 is going to be reversed, but even to a limited extent 1776, where we are going to have an arrangement between Paris-Berlin-Moscow and the heartland where the heartland can do what it wants… except teaming up with China.

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