The Fuzzy Math Of Renewable Energy -- Part II

In the progressive project to remake humanity and civilization, nothing counts but good intentions, and the details will all be worked out by the experts, using the infinite credit card.  And thus we get $1 trillion or so of annual "anti-poverty" spending that never makes a dent in poverty. As hard as that one is to top, nothing can top the delusional thinking on the subject of renewable energy, particularly the idea that it will be easy and costless to transition over a few years to a world where fossil fuels have been banished and yet we still have all the electricity we want and need.

The current renewable energy fad among progressive politicians goes by the name "80 by 50."  This is the idea that, by 2050, we shall have reduced our emissions of CO2, and thus our use of fossil fuels, by 80%.  President Obama set that goal for the United States in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, and in 2015 he urged the country to double the rate of "decarbonization" of the economy, and to “keep the United States on the pathway to achieve deep economy-wide reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”  Most everybody who's anybody on the progressive side is on board with "80 by 50."  Mayor Bill de Blasio has adopted it for New York City, joining officials in other cities that include Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., among others.  I haven't found Hillary explicitly uttering the words "80 by 50," but her rhetoric is full of the "millions of good, high-paying green energy jobs" that she is going to "create."  (Do you remember Obama also promising those?  Where are they?)

In several recent posts, I have pointed out that as intermittent renewables become a bigger and bigger part of the supply of electricity, the electrical system becomes far more expensive and also a far more difficult engineering problem to run constantly and efficiently.  In this post from August, I reported on a demonstration project from South Korea where they set out to have enough wind and solar power to provide all or nearly all of the electricity for some 97 families.  But they needed lots of extra wind and solar capacity (to account for low wind and dim sunlight conditions), plus massive amounts of storage, plus full fossil fuel back (just in case), and by the time they were done they had spent some $128,000 per family for the system -- and still only managed to get about 40% of the electricity from wind and solar.

But if you're a good progressive on a mission to "save the planet," you don't need zillions of engineers and real-world demonstration projects.  Instead, you turn to those really, really smart guys with the best credentials from the best institutions.  Like for Obamacare, you turn to Zeke Emanuel and Jonathan Gruber; and for government "stimulus" policy, you turn to Paul Krugman and Olivier Blanchard.  So who's the guy for renewable energy?  And the answer is, the go-to guy is Mark Jacobson of Stanford University.

Jacobson is really the perfect illustration of how dumb the seemingly "smart" are.  He has BA, BS and MS degrees from Stanford, another BS and a Ph.D. from UCLA, and makes his living as a Professor of "Civil and Environmental Engineering" at Stanford.  His big thing is writing papers on how an advanced economy -- like the United States -- can convert over to a pure-renewables system, without any noticeable costs.  Indeed, he says the pure renewable system will be cheaper.  Here is his big April 2016 paper giving his "roadmap" for how the U.S. can get all its power from what he calls "WWS" (water, wind and solar) by 2050.  No nuclear either!  There are endless charts, graphs, formulas, calculations.  It sure looks like this guy is smart and has thought of everything!  Is it any wonder that the likes of Sanders and de Blasio (and probably Clinton as well) lap up everything he says?

It's funny how easy it is to apply just a little critical thinking to something so seemingly complex.  For example, at page 33-34, he has a chart showing costs of power from different sources for 2013 and 2050.  There are no details on where he gets these 2050 costs, other than this very general text:

[T]he drop in [the WWS] costs over time is due primarily to technology improvements. WWS costs are expected to decline also due to less expensive manufacturing and streamlined project deployment from increased economies of scale. 

Great!  And thus, according to this chart, wind and solar power will be considerably cheaper in 2050 than things like coal and natural gas are today.  But then, here are a couple of other things from Jacobson.  First, the all-renewable electricity system is expected to require 5800 gigawatts of capacity.  Our current system has only about [1000] gigawatts of capacity.  The difference is to deal with the fact that solar and wind don't operate at full capacity all the time.  Six times the capacity and the cost will be less?  Perhaps you are getting a little skeptical.  And then there's a chart on pages 46-49 that projects additional jobs to be had in construction and operation of power facilities from this conversion to renewables.  He does net out job losses in the fossil fuel industries.  And the result is 2.6 million additional net jobs in the U.S., and 23.7 million additional net jobs worldwide.  Oh, and Jacobson regards this as a good thing.  Anyway, just for the U.S., 2.6 million additional "jobs," which is approximately in the same range as all jobs in the fossil fuel industry today -- and it will cost less???  You are starting to get a picture of a guy who has no clue what he is talking about.

But how about the problem of intermittency?  What happens on calm nights when wind and solar don't work?  We get one short half page at page 32.  Here is the key paragraph:

Wind and solar time-series are derived from 3-D GATOR-GCMOM global model simulations that accounted for extreme events and competition among wind turbines for kinetic energy and the feedback of extracted solar radiation to roof and surface temperatures. Solutions are obtained by prioritizing storage for excess heat (in soil and water) and electricity (in ice, water, phase-change material tied to CSP, pumped hydro, and hydrogen), using hydropower only as a last resort, and using demand response to shave periods of excess demand over supply. Additional simulations show that grid reliability is maintained even without demand response by increasing electricity generation, but at a slightly higher cost.   

Hey, he has a "model"!  He's done "simulations."  It's all no problem.  Trust me!  All I know is, here in New York City during the Christmas season, we use a lot of power from about 5 to 8 PM -- and at those hours at that time of year, the sun has gone down.  Sometimes the wind is calm as well.  What's the plan?  10 million Teslas of batteries?  No answer to that here.

Another issue you might think of is, how much of the U.S. will need to be covered with wind turbines and solar cells to get to that 5800 gigawatts of capacity?  In a chart on page 10, Jacobson has a figure of about .68% of land area to be devoted to onshore wind turbines, and another .42% to be devoted to offshore, and about .18% to solar.  That may sound like not much, but it's actually quite a lot.  But Jacobson provides little detail on how he got these estimates.  Meanwhile, over at the Manhattan Institute, Robert Bryce does his own independent calculations, with plenty of backup on how many wind and solar facilities you can fit in a given amount of land, and comes up with dramatically higher numbers: almost 10% of the land area of the continental U.S., the size of Texas plus West Virginia.

And we haven't even started talking about storage capacity yet!  Believe me, the basic characteristic of the progressive is inability to do simple addition and multiplication.

UPDATE, October 14, 2016:  A commenter pointed out a typo as to the number of gigawatts capacity in the current U.S. electrical system.  It is approximately 1000, not 1.  Now corrected.