The Coming Energy Transition

How we deal with climate change will either speed up or slow down the energy transition that began more or less in the 1970s, which saw both the OPEC embargo and the arrival at market of photovoltaic solar arrays.

In 1974 the EPA mandated the conversion of many power generating plants to coal, the better to conserve precious oil. That is not their current policy. They now intend to get coal out of the generating market, and they look ready to succeed.

A key to saving tens of millions of lives is helping the developing world leapfrog one step on the energy ladder, just as they did with telecommunications. If they electrify without coal, lives are saved. But they must electrify, or lives are lost to dung fires indoors.

If we adopt the ideas of Marc Jacobson, we will spend upwards of $30 trillion converting the worlds’ power to sun, wind, water and air–but it will still leave the developing world short of the energy they need. That $30 trillion is in part because of the artificial deadline imposed by Mr. Jacobson, inspired no doubt by the hyperventilations of climate activists.

A saner approach would save almost half of that amount, with the quick replacement of coal with natural gas while we follow China’s lead and France’s example and move towards nuclear–hopefully safer, newer nuclear, but nuclear nonetheless.

Solar could be left to develop at its natural rate, which would see it contribute about 30% of electricity generation in developed countries by 2050. It still requires modest subsidies, but those subsidies are well spent–nothing like the subsidies Venezuela and Iran put on petroleum for their citizens.

We have undergone several energy transformations, from wood to coal, coal to oil, oil to the strange portfolio we have today. The only thing they all have in common is they take time.

If we have the time, the natural path I describe above will be cheaper, more effective and less painful.

If we don’t have the time we should quit messing around, put nuclear up in a forced march and take the financial hit that involves. It would be $23 trillion, still less than Jacobson’s approach, but it’s expensive, even if spread out over 30 years.

Those saying we don’t have time have yet to convince me–there are times it looks as though they are seeking to convince each other.

But I could be convinced. If the climate establishment could successfully answer the questions involved in Recognition, Attribution, Mitigation and Adaptation, I would come on board.

But they can’t even tell me what the sensitivity of the atmosphere is to a doubling of CO2 concentrations.

After almost 30 years of the climate debate, you would think we would be a bit further ahead.

When did this fight really start?


19 responses to “The Coming Energy Transition

  1. Tom, Jacobsen is a kook and offers nothing deserving of serious discussion. A Chemist in Langley has deconstructed him quite well, if I recall. You drop an assertion with no evidence at all that implies coal is killing a lot of people. Please at least try to back it up. Since, as you and other excellent analysts have documented over and over, there is no reason to believe the alarmists, why should we keep taking their policy ideas seriously?

    • I agree. Jacobson is a crackpot. He’s bringing all the worst aspects of the alarmist climate Scientists to energy policy. He’s developing a reputation for avoiding critics and blocking people on Twitter. Reading the “renewables” series of threads at Science of Doom bares no resemblance to any of his writings or video appearances. He’s promoting half-baked notions of using hydrogen for storage and cryogenic airplanes.

    • Well, like I said recently about Jacobson, my biggest beef is that his plan doesn’t come with a price tag. How can you run a cost/benefit analysis if you don’t have a cost?

  2. Tom,

    “Solar could be left to develop at its natural rate, which would see it contribute about 30% of electricity generation in developed countries by 2050.”

    I don’t see how that works. In many places that would mean installing solar capacity at 200% of average demand. So are you going to shut down all the nuclear power plants when the sun is shining? And what do you do during the weeks when the sun does not shine at all?

    They is a place for solar in locations, such as the southwest U.S., where it is reasonably reliable and correlates well with demand. But even in such locations I am not convinced that it can be useful for more than 15% of total production.

  3. Hiya Mike,

    Well, that’s why they actually run the race–we’ll certainly see. If it’s one, two , three you’re right. If it’s one, two, four, I am. So far, I like what I see.

    • Tom,

      I scratched my head over “If it’s one, two , three you’re right. If it’s one, two, four, I am.” My best guess at cracking the code is that you are talking about exponential growth vs. linear growth? But that leaves me wondering why, when I said nothing about growth rates.

      Solar may be growing exponentially now and may continue growing exponentially for some time into the future, at least if the very large subsidies are maintained. But solar will stop growing exponentially long before it gets to 30% of generation, for two reasons. The lesser reason is that the subsidies will become unsustainable. The greater reason is that solar will start to hit fundamental limits on what the grid can handle, after which the cost will rise steeply.

    • Hiya, Mike

      Yeah, you cracked the code. Sorry if I seemed cryptic.

      NREL says the grid as it is today can handle up to 30% solar.

      The subsidies will stop–maybe in five or ten years. That should be enough time for the baby to stand on its own.

      • Tom,

        “NREL says the grid as it is today can handle up to 30% solar.”
        Do you have a reference for that?

        The NREL “Renewable Electricity Futures Study” ( seems to have just 20% solar, most of that is concentrated solar not PV, and the grid upgrades appear to be massive. But it is hard to tell (the “executive summary” is 55 pages). And they include very little nuclear and not room for much more. And the cost appears to be very high.

        I am not inclined to trust NREL any more than I trust Jacobson. It is not like NREL does not have a horse in the race.

      • Hi Mike

        I don’t have a link, but it’s from a Western Regional study they did back in 2010.

  4. Tom, this post has a lot to ponder. I wish you had linked to your prior RAMA post to make an analysis more efficient. As to your closing question, I think the conflict goes back to the never ending struggle between reactionary climate imperialism who oppose progress and those who want a progressive commonwealth of human prosperity and progress. The climate consensus fights human progress tooth and nail. I’m fact, it has been well documented that fringe elements of the climate consensus openly hope for depopulation and destruction of humanity.

    • Hiya hunter

      I was in a hurry yesterday and so didn’t link to previous posts. Just curious, if you use the search function on this site, does it bring them up?

      • Tom,
        Yes your search function is…functional. I was just being a slug.
        But your ROMA concept is a decent framework. Don’t hide the light under bushels and all of that. I disagree with the default assumption that we are doomed to severe climate outcomes due to CO2 increases that is implied in ROMA, but at least you have a rational framework that can examine things- a refreshing distinction in this fubar of an issue..

      • I’ve mentioned that I managed a comedy club back in the early 80s. I’ve never mentioned the name of the club… Fubar’s…

  5. Here is an excellent summary of a well considered skeptical take on things. by Turbulent Eddie over at Lucia’s Blackboard:
    “The objections I have to the popular narrative about climate change is not that warming is not likely – warming appears likely. The objections I have are that:
    The extent of warming is less than the low end IPCC projections from AR4.
    Temperature change is not climate change.
    Presumed harms from temperature change are exaggerated.
    Potential benefits from temperature change are ignored.
    Rates of total RF increase and RF increase from CO2 are already decelerating.
    RF is an indirect function of population as are numerous other issues – therefore reducing population ( which is already baked in the cake ) is more logical than changing energy sources.
    I believe all of these points are valid, but arguing, incorrectly, that CO2 is not radiatively active or the CO2 cant cause warming, is a distraction from these other faults of CO2 activism.”
    Turbulent Eddie (Comment #143596)

    Very clear and reasonable, I believe.

  6. Don’t forget there’s a limit to gas resources. I realize there’s a tendency to think it is going to be cheap and plentiful for decades, but that’s a bit naive. For example, South America doesn’t have that much natural gas. Neither does subsaharan Africa. Europe, of course, is in a self imposed straight jacket, it has a low resource base and politicians opposed to modern technology. It’s a special case, a continent driving towards self destruction.

    The eventual solution for poor countries would be improved governance, less corruption, a better economy. This is unachiavable (I’m observing closely as Venezuela is destroyed by kleptocommunists, already saw Stalinists destroy Cuba, and lived or worked in enough 3rd world sites I know them from the inside). I repeat: it’s unachiavable.

    They will reproduce, and create waves of invaders we will have to fight tooth and nail to repel. It’s doable but it will be grim. The invasion, unfortunately, is aided and abetted by quislings and kumbaya communists who will eventually ignite serious conflicts and wars. What comes isn’t pretty at all.

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