On Funding Sources and Free Fuel

A few days ago Stanford University put out a press release by Rob Jordan of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment on how a “Stanford study shows how to power California with wind, water and sun” (h/t to WUWT and Henri de Carbonel). The gist of the study is that it finds “it is technically and economically feasible to convert California’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one powered by clean, renewable energy.” If you want to read the full study, the authors have made a pre-print available without a pay wall here.

Rather than debate the details of the study -- which we are effectively doing online already in a variety of outlets across the political spectrum -- I'd like to focus on two statements made in this press release. The first is the following:

“The study concludes that, while a wind, water and sunlight conversion may result in initial capital cost increases, such as the cost of building renewable energy power plants, these costs would be more than made up for over time by the elimination of fuel costs. The overall switch would reduce California’s end-use power demand by about 44 percent and stabilize energy prices, since fuel costs would be zero, according to the study.”

According to this definition of “fuel costs,” all fuel costs are zero. Sure, the photons in sunlight don't cost us anything to make, nor does the wind, and either does tidal energy or geothermal heat. What costs money is the access, extraction, processing, and distribution of this “fuel.” But it doesn't cost us anything to make coal, oil, natural gas, or uranium either. Technically, those “fuel costs” are zero as well using Stanford's definition.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics assures us there is no such thing as a free lunch. And this law has never, ever been disproven. The same will apply to “wind, water and sunlight.” The “fuel costs” for these energy technologies are indeed zero, but so are the fuel costs for fossil fuels. It costs money to access, extract, process, and distribute fossil fuels, no different than the undeniable fact it costs money to access, extract, process, and distribute the energy from wind, water, and sunlight.

Marketing renewable energies as having zero fuel costs reminds me of claims that socialized medicine provides “free health care.” Sure it does, because we all know a magical genie pays for the costs of socialized medicine, rather than all the taxpayers. Again, there is no free lunch -- and renewable energy is no exception.

In addition, stable energy prices are not necessarily a desirable goal. The trump card is cheap energy prices. After that, and only after that, comes the goal of stability. What would a business rather have? High, but stable, energy prices? or lower, but volatile, energy prices? Thus the preference for energy pricing is as follows (from most to least desirable): (1) low, stable pricing; (2) low, volatile pricing; (3) high, stable pricing; and (4) high, volatile pricing. I'm not getting sold on someone advocating my lifestyle would be better if my cost of living went up to some higher, but stable, plateau. Life is volatile, get used to it and learn to embrace it as the volatility is a measure of activity in the system -- and this activity fuels innovation and optimization. Stability far too often fuels complacency and inefficiency.

The second statement I'd like to discuss in this Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment press release, and which also appears in the source study, is the following:

“The study’s authors are developing similar plans for all U.S. states. They took no funding from any interest group, company or government agency for this study.”

Interesting claim. “No funding from any interest group, company or government agency” was used for this study?

Under the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment FAQ webpage I see the following:

“How is the Stanford Woods Institute funded? We receive funding from Stanford University, foundations, government grants and individual donors.”

So none of these government grants -- including to Stanford University itself -- come from government agencies? And none of these foundations or individual donors could be reasonably construed as acting directly or indirectly on behalf of any interest groups or companies? Nonsense.

Just look at the authorship affiliations on the paper: Stanford University; University of California at Davis; Cornell University; Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, Inc.; K2B Digital; and H.M. Gunn Senior High School in Palo Alto.

The universities in this list have all taken public (aka, government agency) funds for various capital and operating expenses, perhaps even some forms of government support that built the infrastructure that these researchers used for their work and/or to support their work in a variety of direct and/or indirect ways, never mind the private sector support to these schools. Nobody operates in a vacuum within a post-secondary institution. H.M. Gunn Senior High School is also a public high school, which means it receives funding from government agencies, and since the author from this school used his professional affiliation on the paper in question, government funds routed through this school supported the study.

K2B Digital appears to be a “consulting firm that creates cross-platform content strategies for organizations with a special focus on environmental and cause-related initiatives.” That's a company, is it not? And since it is listed in the author affiliations, it surely provided either direct or in-kind financial support for the study?

According to David Blackmon's article in Forbes a couple years back, Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, Inc. “is funded by the Park Foundation,” and certainly this is an interest group if there ever was one. According to Blackmon, “The [Park] Foundation’s penchant for attacking the natural gas industry was noted by E&E News earlier this year. In short, Park is behind nearly every anti-natural gas initiative to date.”

Good science is good science, and that is what we should be discussing when such work is published. Nitpicking over affiliations and funding sources is generally unproductive, but it's a game the environmental activists have mastered. Witness all the calls for fossil fuel divestment in universities and colleges, and howls of protest when an “undesirable” business interest funds a study or an institute in academia. Of course, all this overlooks the basic fact that the energy sector itself is the largest industry on the planet. Since the fossil fuel industry presently supplies energy at lower cost than the so-called green energy sector, one could easily conclude that the green energy sector is a potentially larger vested financial interest than the fossil fuel energy sector ever has been or could be. In summary, it is all about the money, and not much else.

In an ideal scientific world we look past the affiliations and funding sources to just debate the science itself, which is what we should be doing for this Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment study. The study authors should be encouraged to publish more work in the literature -- even if some of us may disagree with their utopian conclusions, as should those on the other side of the debate. But when the study promoters make claims that don't seem to mesh with reality, then they need to be rebutted as well.