Have you heard of a guy named Mark Jacobson? He's the trendy Stanford professor who has written a couple of big pieces claiming that having the United States get 100% of its energy from nothing but wind, water and solar power by 2050 is no problem at all. In fact (according to Jacobson) it's "low cost." For example, here's a link to one of his big pieces, a 2015 opus titled "Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes." This was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hey, there's some serious "peer review" going on there!
Jacobson is also the "brains" behind an enviro organization pushing 100% renewable energy called the "Solutions Project." (Slogan: "Together, we can make renewable energy a reality for everyone – 100% for 100%.") Celebrities with their names and pictures on the organization's website include Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo. California Governor Jerry Brown is full in for Jacobson's program. This is big time stuff.
Actually, you need to have only the tiniest hint of bullshit radar to know that this guy is full of it. It takes about ten minutes with one of Jacobson's papers to realize that his pronouncements are pure fantasy, made without any serious consideration of the engineering problems of making electricity work 24/7/365 with almost entirely intermittent sources, let alone any serious consideration of the cost of what he is proposing.
Yet for the first several years after Jacobson started publishing his nonsense, it seemed like the whole world was giving him a pass. I guess that so many people just want to believe so badly that all critical thinking gets suspended. The first hint I saw of a crack in the dam came back in March, when a publication called Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews published a piece by B.P. Heard, et al., called "Burden of Proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems." I covered that piece in a post in April titled "Finally, Some Critical Thinking On The Subject Of The Feasibility Of Renewables." The underlying article was not focused solely on Jacobson, but reviewed some 24 studies that had claimed, to one degree or another, to demonstrate the feasibility of 100% renewable electricity systems. But the review was particularly critical of Jacobson, finding that his pieces "did not apply simulation processes to their own, different proposed systems, nor did they address the uncertainties, challenges and limitations articulated in their supporting references or related critiques. . . ."
Well, now it seems like this particular dam may have just burst. Steven Hayward at Powerline reports on a new article out in none other than PNAS specifically focusing on Jacobson's work and finding it, let us say, deficient. (Or, to quote Hayward's pithy summary of the new piece, "Jacobson is full of crap.") The title of the new PNAS piece is "Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar," and the authors are Christopher T.M. Clack with a long list of co-authors.
You can get a clue as to where Clack, et al., are going by reading their abstract. Excerpt:
[W]e point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
Ouch! But actually, those are the polite words in the piece. For example, what are some of those "inadequately supported assumptions" to be found in Jacobson? Here's one that I particularly enjoy:
The system in [Jacobson's piece linked above] assumes the availability of multiweek energy storage systems that are not yet proven at scale and deploys them at a capacity twice that of the entire United States’ generating and storage capacity today.
Multi week energy storage for the entire United States? How much would that cost, pray tell? Needless to say, Jacobson does not attempt such a calculation, nor does the Clack, et al., critique. But the intrepid Manhattan Contrarian did take a look in this October 2016 post at an energy storage system for New York City that our genius Mayor Bill de Blasio is buying to provide a big 30 seconds of backup power for the City. The cost is $14.4 million. Multiplying by 120 (to get an hour) and then by 24 (to get a day), I calculated the cost of energy storage for one day's electricity for New York City to be around $41.5 billion. So how about multi week? Two weeks' worth would be 14 times the $41.5 billion, or $581 billion. Since New York City is around 2.5% of the population of the U.S., you can multiply by around 40 to get the full cost for multi week storage for the country. That would be around $23 trillion -- far more than a full year's GDP for the whole country. But don't worry -- Jacobson has a new system ("underground thermal energy storage") that hasn't been invented yet, let alone tried at scale, that he thinks can do the job for less. No problem!
And how about one more random assumption from Jacobson:
The [Jacobson] study . . . also makes unsupported assumptions about widespread adoption of hydrogen as an energy carrier, including the conversion of the aviation and steel industries to hydrogen and the ability to store in hydrogen an amount of energy equivalent to more than 1 month of current US electricity consumption.
All airplanes to run on hydrogen? Millions of tons of enormously volatile and explosive hydrogen (i.e., the HIndenberg) stored all over the place? No problem there either!
As Hayward notes in conclusion, "Jacobson is regarded as a joke by most of his Stanford colleagues." Likely true. It's about time a few of them spoke up. But now, is there any hope of making any progress with California's politicians and celebrities?