Can We Power Our Civilization on Water, Wind and Air?

Stanford’s Mark Jacobson certainly thinks so. He’s developed a road map for all 50 of the United States and 139 countries accounting for 95% of CO2 emissions. It leads to 80% adoption of carbon free emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2050.


It’s being analyzed and dissected by many who have featured in the climate conversation. Here’s a debate involving Jacobson, Ken Caldeira, Michael Shellenberger and a woman whose name I couldn’t catch (Help from readers?). Update: Commenter Harold W. writes “The fourth panelist was Dale Bryk, director of programs at the National Resources Defense Council.” It’s quite interesting.

Jacobson’s plan has some heroic assumptions, such as battery powered aircraft, mass adoption of electric heat pumps etc., and of course immediate and widespread installation of lots of solar and wind.

Most of the objections I’ve read or heard are about Jacobson’s pruning of nuclear and biofuels from the portfolio of available sources of energy. However as a thought experiment Jacobson’s roadmap is interesting.

I don’t object too much to his technology assumptions. Some of his ideas may happen, some will not, some he hasn’t considered may replace them. I don’t object to his relying on wind, air and water–if it comes down to it, we may supplement his plan with carbon free fuels he didn’t include. No big deal.

I do have two objections that I haven’t really seen raised elsewhere. First, his roadmap isn’t costed. He shows lots of formulae showing that operating the new energy system will provide more benefits than costs–and I don’t really question them. Getting pollution out of the system will save a lot of lives and lives are worth money. There are no fuel costs associated with wind, air and water.

But building out the system will require a lot of money. $30 trillion, by my back of the envelope calculations, and my calculations don’t include additional transmission lines required due to the distributed nature of his system. I think he should have put a price tag on it, if he really wanted it to be taken seriously.

We could afford $30 trillion over 34 years. But we wouldn’t like paying it at the time.

My second objection is more philosophical. The level of effort this would take would eclipse the effort put into fighting World War II. A lot of other worthy projects would suffer as a result. Do we want to concentrate the planet’s energies into this?

I would vote no for one simple reason: We are moving rather quickly in the direction of something similar to what Jacobson proposes already. Left alone, we will probably get where Jacobson wants us to be in 50-75 years, albeit we will probably not give up on nukes or ethanol, and we may even hang on to a lot of our natural gas plants.

Telesocoping the timeframe for this energy transition is one reason for its high costs. It is only worth it if you believe the outlier predictions for climate change impacts. If atmospheric sensitivity is as low as recent papers suggest, rather than as high as some activists want us all to believe, we have time to let the market move and for market signals to refine the portfolio of energy sources, rather than dictating them in 2016, essentially the starting point for some fuels. Scenarios based on Representative Concentration Pathways are horribly flawed–saying we must act because of what they suggest is close to madness.

Once again, I think Bjorn Lomborg pointed the way back when he wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist. Spend money on research now and wait for clear winners before committing to such an expensive overhaul of our energy system.


12 responses to “Can We Power Our Civilization on Water, Wind and Air?

  1. The fourth panelist was Dale Bryk, director of programs at the National Resources Defense Council.

    Jacobson’s comments were discussed at A Chemist in Langley and Atomic Insights.

  2. Thanks, Harold–you saved me again.

  3. If the most extreme climate imperialists have their way, and the Earth is depopulated of humans as they call for, then yes. If we want a world where humans are prosperous, healthy and progressive, then no. Wind and solar are unworkable technologies for large scale applications.

  4. Jacobson has taken to writing science fiction based on massively unrealistic assumptions in pursuit of a goal based on religion.

    Zero burning of fossil fuels will not happen anytime in the foreseeable future and attempts to describe such scenarios are counterproductive. At a minimum, there will always be short term gaps that will have to be met by some sort of “backup” or “peaking” power; in most places fossil fuels provide the only practical source for that.

    What is needed is realistic modelling that starts with what can actually be done technically and asks what might be achieved within a reasonable cost. My guess is that the result will lie somewhere between what the renewable energy skeptics expect and what the cheerleaders hope for. Such results would provide useful information for decision making.

  5. Until an advocate for 100% renewable can show me how to run a steel mill on renewables, this thought experiment is worth very little. That folks use this work to justify claims that it can be done is a sad commentary.

  6. One of Jacobson’s best known gaffes is padding the carbon footprint of nuclear energy with the smoke and soot from future nuclear wars.

    • These types of accounting “gaffes” seem to turn up surprisingly frequently in renewable proposals. One starts to get the feeling that without said “gaffes”, the sums simply don’t add up.

      • I’ll add that while it seems okay to judge the advantages of renewables on proposed future breakthroughs and the disadvantages of nuclear on proposed future disadvantages, then why is the future of nuclear not judged on todays experimental technology? It’s way ahead of batteries which don’t exist.

        In addition to “gaffes”, it seems we also need to add “accidental oversights”.

  7. Tom, Doug Cotton has splintered into yet another fragmentary faux personality….

  8. In the debate, Mark Jacobson and Dale Bryk seem pretty lame compared to Michael Shellenberger who was very effective and compelling. Ken Caldeira was just not very memorable.

  9. Mark Jacobson has just won an award for a paper entitled: “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes”. Gee, where would our industry and policy makers be without Jacobson finding “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s