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An academic battle over the US energy future isn’t just theoretical


It’s been called Sayre’s Law: The idea that the viciousness of battles in academia is in inverse proportion to the importance of the issue at the center of the fight.

That’s not the case, however, with the conflict that is raging over the issuance of two papers by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) in the United States. It speaks to the question that many advanced countries are facing as several trends merge and, in some cases, collide: How much of a country’s power needs can be supplied by intermittent renewable sources of energy given trends in lower costs of generation, the pace of technological change in storage and the costs of adaptation? And what are the costs to get there?

What began the dispute is a paper published by the PNAS in February, led by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and the director of the school’s Atmosphere/Energy program. The paper builds on earlier work by Jacobson.

It conclusion is that by 2050-2055, the US can produce all its electricity needs with WWS — wind, water and solar — as its base fuels, use no fossil fuels or nuclear power. That shift would get there in part by heavy reliance on storage solutions that now are mostly in their infancy.

These include phase change materials, or PCM, which produce kinetic energy when they change their phase, i.e., melt or freeze. Underground thermal energy storage, or UTES, is not geothermal energy, which exists now. Rather, it is a utilization of properties in the Earth’s geology in which excess energy provided by WWS — produced when more energy is produced by the blowing wind or the shining sun than the grid needs — can be stored in various geological formations. The Jacobson vision also includes electricity demand management. It does not call for a significant role for batteries, which cuts against conventional thinking.

The response came earlier this month in another PNAS paper from a team of authors headed by Christopher Clack, a physicist and mathematician with the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. This is not a person unconcerned with climate change. In the opening paragraphs, Clack and his colleagues cite an earlier report Clack had co-authored claiming an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions was possible by larger-scale adoption of WWS and other steps.

So what’s 20 percentage points difference among groups who are all essentially in agreement on the need to reduce CO2 emissions? The answer: Plenty. And it’s playing out on Twitter, of course, with Jacobson’s Twitter feed responding to somebody else by calling them a “climate denier,” long-time wind critic Robert Bryce blasting the report in a piece published by the Manhattan Institute, and actor Mark Ruffalo — who tweets so much it’s hard to figure out how he ever has time to learn his lines — getting into the fray as well.

Clack’s criticisms of the Jacobson paper are numerous. First, he levels about the most-pointed criticism that one academic can direct at another, next to plagiarism: Your research is bad. One section of the Clark group’s review of Jacobson’s work is entitled “Insufficient Power System Modeling.” Another is called “Inadequate Scrutiny of Input Climate Model.”

But it’s some of Jacobson’s assumption that come into the heaviest Clack criticism. For example, Clack and his team claim Jacobson is assuming an investment buildout of facilities that will be 16 times that of Germany, which has had its sweeping Energwiende renewables shift — now controversial and troubled, criticized for soaring German electricity prices and a counter-intuitive burning of more coal, among other things — in place for several years. Even if that were accomplished, the Clack paper says the Jacobson paper assumes a cost of capital available to investment in such a buildout that is unlikely to be obtained.

As far as the storage technologies that are such an important part of the Jacobson vision, “neither technology has reached the level of technological maturity to be confidently used as the main underpinning technology.” There also is criticism of the assumption that hydrogen can be turned into a significant energy carrier, another key part of the Jacobson study.

Jacobson has fought back, beyond Twitter. He responded in an academic fashion through this letter (paywall-protected), criticizing many of the numerical assumptions on the Clack critique. A shorter less-academic critique, not behind a paywall, criticizes any suggested use of nuclear energy endorsed by Clack, though what the Clack report says about nukes is hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s just that the Clack team doesn’t see such an emission-free, non-intermittent source completely disappearing.

One criticism by Clack is essentially an argument that the Jacobson paper isn’t playing in the real world. “[The] authors do not consider emissions for the fossil-based power systems associated with construction and permitting delays for offshore wind farms or the transmission infrastructure … which have already been a challenge in the development of US offshore wind resources,” the Clack report writes. “The 100% WWS system envisions more than 150,000 5-MW turbines permitted and built offshore without delays.” Bryce has written extensively about these local battles, using the term Big Wind. (He has a piece on it as recently as early May).

The renewables industry has made tremendous strides in recent years. But academic treatises often do run into the reality on the ground, where economics and local politics can thwart an energy vision that also is driven by a political agenda. Germany is finding that out.


13 Comments on "An academic battle over the US energy future isn’t just theoretical"

  1. sunweb on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 6:29 am 

    Jacobson’s first paper proposed:

    Starting in 2012 for 50% of the world’s energy we would need:

    2111112 wind machines a year for 18 years

    which is over 578 machines a day for 18 years

    which is over 24 each hour, each day, 7 days a week for 18 years
    (Note that is for only 50% of the energy needs.)

    In an email discussion with the second author he proposed that since we do it with cars; we can do it with “renewables”. So all the mining, processing, manufacturing, transporting, installing, two or three times a year maintenance. This is green? This is sustainable? This is renewable? This is business as usual as usual.

  2. deadlykillerbeaz on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 6:50 am 

    Who are these jugheads?

    They don’t know Jack.

    Wind turbines need synthetic gear oil in the gear boxes. 1000 gallons per large wind turbine. The gear oil needs to be changed once each year.

    200,000 large wind turbines would need two hundred million gallons of gear oil each year.

    Times 25 years to operate,

    25×200,000,000=5,000,000,000 gallons of high grade synthetic gear oil.

    5,000,000,000/42=119,047,619.048 barrels of oil to keep the wind turbines well-oiled machines over a 25 year time period. After 25 years, they’ll be worn out and obsolete. You’ll need new wind turbines.

    You have to change the oil, the turbines stop if the gears screech. Exxon-Mobil will still be in business providing brand new gear oil for the wind industry. They are not going to close up shop, the wind turbine industry will call. The reality will remain a fact.

    Wind turbines need oil, can’t be avoided. They just won’t go without oil. No matter how much the wind blows between the ears of the erudite fossilized brain trusts, wind turbines will consume oil, a lot, not a little.

    The idea that fossil fuels won’t be needed to survive is just plain nuts, nothing inside their empty heads.

  3. Davy on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 6:57 am 

    It is not green. Greens today are fake. Real greens don’t drive, don’t use A/C, and eat strictly local. That is a short list of “real green”. In fact they use very little electricity if any. Have you ever tried to live without electricity? I did “real green” for 40 days and it was quite an experience. My family treated me as if I was mentally ill. I did that back in 2003 when I turned into a radical doomer. There is a degree of mental illness in any extremism and that is why I have moderated. The reality is I was right back then just not right per the status quo.

    Yes, sunweb, your point is dirty and it is BAU. Techno optimism is a farce and it points to human failure of exceptionalism of modernism. It will eventually fail because until humans embrace the wisdom of “less” and “no” we will never have resilience and sustainability. More with less is not a long term strategy on a finite planet. Substitution eventually can’t substitute. Markets eventually cycle. Civilizations have always ended and most every species will eventually go extinct.

    The key to the modern paradigm of renewables and green is scale. Can we buy ourselves some time and how much? I have invested in renewables and plan on more investment. I am trying to be less “fake green”. My goal in life is to be completely green but life is preventing this. Everything from family to markets make it extremely difficult to be a “real” green. Fake greens make it hard to be green. How do they do this? They do this by offering a pathway to feel “fake” green instead of embracing the cold harsh reality of “real” green. We should be supporting and elevating “real” green like we do stupid cultural icons. Instead we promote stupidity and act fake green.

    The key point will always be scale and time. When you look at macro trends it looks bleak unless you inject fake news or manipulate the data. Let’s hope we can extend normality in the respect of delaying widespread pain and suffering that is surely ahead. I cannot be a part of the pretend and that is why I am here every day throwing cold water on the optimist and the extremist with agendas. All we really have left that is sacred is the truth. When we dirty the truth we are ruining what is left of our lives.

  4. Jef on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 7:35 am 

    I propose we build more big heads only this time we put pinwheel beanies on them that generate electricity.

  5. Sissyfuss on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 8:59 am 

    As far as the gear oil being non green you aren’t burning it and like our motor oil today it can be cleaned and recycled for use again as wind turbine gear oil. Back me on this, Clogblogger.

  6. Theedrich on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 10:57 am 

    We are approaching Tainterdoom.  Non-theoretically.  Politicians, with their imaginary “solutions,” are merely responding to the quasi-religious demands of the herd for heaven on earth.  Most of the visitors on this site recognize that insanity of this type eventually becomes its own reward.

    In fact, the no-exit BAU-route which homo sapiens is currently following is the real reason that, in recent years, so many astronomers and astrophysicists have almost science-fictionally called for emigrating to, and terraforming, the planet Mars — while we still have time and money.  It might perhaps seem a better proposition if we tried planting a colony on Antarctica.  But in any case, no god, and certainly no politician, is going to defeat the Law of Diminishing Returns or stop the “growth”-driven ruination of the biosphere.  Because to do so might involve “racism.”  Planeticide is much better.

  7. Cloggie on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 11:35 am 

    Of course Sissyfuss is right. The idea that our renewable energy future is going to fail because we are going to run out of a few oil drops necessary to smear the gears, is insane. Besides there are always ways to produce oil from numerous alternative sources, including biomass or coal or gas or even from air:

  8. Hubert on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 11:37 am 

    This idiot country is done.

  9. Hubert on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 11:38 am 

    The only way you can solve the energy crisis is through population reduction. There is no other way.

  10. Jerome Purtzer on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 11:47 am 

    You’d be surprised how much you can do without. Let’s see, hair dryer, trash compactor, dishwasher, garage door opener, electric hot water heater, microwave oven, stove, large screen TV, stereo, computer, video games, lava lamp, disposal, electric lighting, cell phones etc.,all the necessities of modern life. Like John Michael Greer has said-if you turn it all off you’d be surprised, after the initial shock, how much life there is out there.

  11. GregT on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 12:09 pm 

    “The idea that our renewable energy future is going to fail because we are going to run out of a few oil drops necessary to smear the gears, is insane.”

    Our? As mentioned numerous times before Cloggie, over here in this part of the world our electricity is already 100% from hydro. As close to renewable as it gets, but still not renewable. Besides, we’re facing a liquid fuels crisis, not an electric power generation crisis. They are not the same things.

  12. Alice Friedemann on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 12:32 pm 

    I have a critique of the paper as well, at the bottom most of the main major and minor criticiisms. But the bulk of it is about the fact that the PNAS Clark paper TOTALLY MISSED the real, best reasons why the Jacobson & Delucchi scheme is NUTS!

    Here is one section:

    Renewable contraptions cannot outlast finite fossil fuels, because they are utterly dependent on fossil fuels from birth to death to mine, crush, and smelt the ore, deliver the ore to a blast furnace, fabricate 8,000 wind turbine parts at hundreds of manufacturing plants all over the world, and deliver the parts to the assembly plant. For each turbine, dozens of trucks are needed to prepare the wind turbine site so that dozens of cement trucks can pour tons of concrete and steel rebar for the platform, deliver pieces of the huge parts of the turbine, and diesel powered cranes to lift the parts hundreds of feet into the air.

    In their 2011 paper, the J & D 100% renewable system would be accomplished with 3.8 million 5-MW wind turbines (50% of power), 49,000 solar thermal plants (20%), 40,000 solar PV plants (14%), 1.7 billion rooftop PV systems (6%), 5350 geothermal plants (4%), 900 hydroelectric power plants (4%), and marine hydrokinetic devices (2%). Their 2015 paper has somewhat different but equally unrealistic numbers.

    It is questionable whether there’s enough material on earth to build all these contraptions and continue to do so every 20 years (wind) to 30 years (solar). Fossil fuels will grow more and more scarce, which means cement, steel, rare (earth) metals, and so on will decline as well. Keep in mind that a 2 MW turbine uses 1,671 tons of material: 1300 tons concrete, 295 tons steel, 48 tons iron, 24 tons fiberglass, 4 tons copper, .4 tons neodymium, .065 tons dysprosium (Guezuraga 2012, USGS 2011). The enormous demand for materials would likely drive prices up, and the use of recycled metals cannot be assumed, since downcycling degrades steel, perhaps to less strength than required.

    The PNAS authors propose grid-scale batteries, but the only kind of battery for which there are enough materials on earth are Sodium-sulfur NaS batteries (Barnhart 2013). To store just one day of U.S. electricity generation (and at least 6 to 8 weeks would be needed to cope with the seasonal nature of wind and solar), you would need a 923 square mile, 450 million ton, $40.77 trillion dollar NaS battery that needs replacement every 15 years (DOE/EPRI 2013). Lead-acid: $8.3 trillion, 271.5 square miles, 15.8 million tons. Li-ion $11.9 trillion, 345 square miles, 74 million tons.

    There are dozens of reasons why wind power will not outlast fossil fuels (Friedemann 2015b), including the scale required, the need to increase installation rates 37-fold in 13 years (Radford 2016), population increasing faster than wind turbines to provide for their needs can be built, wind is seasonal – very little in the entire U.S. in the summer, no commercial wind year round in the South East, a national grid, no commercial energy storage at utility scale in sight, plus a financial crisis or war will likely break the supply chains as companies go out of business.

    Okay, drum roll. The biggest problem is that electricity does not matter. This is a liquid transportation fuels crisis. Trucks can’t run on electricity ( ).

    The Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks that run on diesel because it is so energy dense. This is why diesel engines are far more powerful than steam, gasoline, electric, battery-driven or any other motive power on earth (Smil 2010). Billions of trucks and equipment worth trillions of dollars are required to keep the supply chains going over tens of millions of miles of roads, rail, and waterways that every person and business on earth depends on. Equally if not more important are off-road mining, agriculture, construction, logging, and other trucks. They not only need to travel on rough ground, but meanwhile push, lift, dig and perform other tasks far from the electric grid or non-oil distribution system.

    Trucks must eventually be electrified, because biomass doesn’t scale up and has negative or break-even energy return, coal and natural gas are finite, and hydrogen /hydrogen fuel cells are dependent on a non-existent distribution system and far from commercial. In my book, I show why trucks can’t run on electricity, as well as why a 100% renewable grid is impossible.

  13. Davy on Wed, 28th Jun 2017 1:28 pm 

    I think some places will take this renewable transformation further than others. Some areas in sweet spots may achieve remarkable results. Yet, globally I see no reason to believe any different than Alice. There are critical elements of our modern civilization that will not work with renewables. Some of these are mechanical and some systematic. Some reasons are because we have the wrong “stuff” going on now. In a parallel universe maybe with a different combination of the right “stuff” at the right time, with people with the right attitude, and not in overshoot, then, yes, it could be done.

    We have violated too many rules and disregarded too many natural laws. We are no longer in scale and balanced to our planetary system nor our own civilization. This is not to say there is not huge strides that can be made to extend life. We can do many things but just not save ourselves as we are now. Something will give and this will be dramatic and decisive. Sometimes there are not happy ending but it can also be said the worst does not have to happen.

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