Stanford Professor’s Plan to Save the World
Let’s start off by making it clear that everything in this article is my opinion. The professor in question, Mark Jacobson, has previously sued critics for $10 million. There is justice (in my opinion) because the lawsuit was dismissed and Jacobson was ordered to pay his critics’ attorney fees.
Professor Jacobson advocated a radical plan for powering the U.S. with renewable energy. The professor’s critics were not right-wing climate deniers, but fellow advocates for renewable energy. One of his critics, Christopher Clack, is the founder of an organization called Vibrant Clean Energy.
According to a 2015 article by Jacobson and coauthors, the U.S. could be powered by wind, solar, hydro, and other minor energy sources. This would be accomplished 80 to 85% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. He also claimed that such a transition would be cost-effective. This is not just optimistic, but in my opinion, totally disconnected from reality.
The goal of 100% elimination of CO2 emissions makes no sense, not even for true believers in global warming. About half of the CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels is reabsorbed by the Earth. To stop increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere a 50% reduction of CO2 emissions is enough.
Climate change a.k.a. global warming is junk science. But because it is a treasure chest for academics and political activists, it is promoted as sound science.
CO2 is plant food. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has provided great benefits, greening the deserts and increasing agricultural productivity. Solid evidence that CO2 is creating global warming does not exist. Neither is it clear that global warming would be harmful. Finally, the Chinese and Indians are the big emitters of CO2, and they aren’t going to stop.
Professor Jacobson built a showcase solar house, presumably to demonstrate the practicality of his ideas. His house can be seen here. There are solar panels, batteries, and Tesla battery-powered cars.
One little problem is that the house is still connected to the electric grid. Clearly when the solar fails due to clouds, and the batteries run flat, the electric company steps in. The operators of the electric grid must maintain infrastructure – generating plants and distribution lines – sufficient to keep every solar house running when the sun and batteries fail. Given the massive subsidies that usually apply to rooftop solar homes, the homeowners don’t pay their fair share for that infrastructure. Non-solar electric customers subsidize the solar homes. Residential rooftop solar is essentially a symbol that makes no sense economically or environmentally.
Jacobson is the founder of The Solutions Project. He does not appear to be currently involved with the organization, perhaps because he is white and male, or at least appears to be that. The big money that flows into climate alarmism is demonstrated by the fact that the Bezos Earth Fund gave The Solutions Project an unrestricted grant for $43 million.
The Solutions Project is committed to justice as described on their website:
“In 2019, The Solutions Project doubled down on our commitment to feminine leadership and the diversity it nurtures with a pioneering 100% Commitment to Justice. We pledged that by 2020, we’d invest 95 percent of our resources in innovative frontline leadership of color, with at least 80 percent going to organizations led by women. Research consistently links greater diversity of leadership to more successful results, and when it comes to curbing climate change, success is the only option.”
Wind and solar are intermittent and unpredictable. Even the sunniest U.S. cities have 50 cloudy days a year. The sun has a propensity to set every night, turning off the electricity. The consequence is that wind and solar don’t replace the traditional generating plants that run on nuclear, coal, or natural gas. Those plants must remain, fully staffed, warmed up, and ready to run when wind and solar fail. Batteries don’t change that, because, at most, batteries hold enough electricity for a few hours.
The proper cost comparison is between the cost of the wind and solar electricity versus the cost of running the fuel-based plants. The marginal cost of running an existing natural gas or coal plant is around $15 per megawatt-hour, the cost of the fuel. But wind or solar electricity, exclusive of subsidies, costs about $80 a megawatt-hour, or 5 times more. That cost is based on the construction cost spread over the life of the plant. If the percentage of power from wind and solar increases, the stated goal of the greens, then the cost escalates beyond $80 per megawatt-hour.
The reason why the cost escalates when wind or solar becomes a significant part of the energy mix is that overproduction of wind or solar energy starts to happen at midday for solar and when wind is strong for wind. When that happens, either excess energy must be thrown away or temporarily stored in batteries. Either alternative is expensive and wasteful. At that point, the cost of the renewable electricity goes to $100 or $150 per megawatt-hour. On the margin, renewable electricity can be 10 times as expensive compared to what we have currently.
Jacobson has also published a 200-page paper outlining a plan to power the entire world 80% with renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The paper reminds me of a maxim from another Stanford professor, Paul Ehrlich:
“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.”
Jacobson uses computer modeling to support his claims. It is not necessary to refute Jacobson’s flights of imagination point by point because his fellow advocates of renewable energy have already done that.
In order to reach Jacobson’s goals, besides littering the landscape with an incredible quantity of solar and wind installations, it would be necessary to have enough electricity storage to keep electricity flowing when wind and solar fail. The problem is that, although there are many methods of storing electricity, none of them are very good. Batteries are very efficient but enormously expensive. Lithium-ion batteries, the dominant battery technology, wear out within about 5 years and must be replaced. Pumped storage, a reversible hydroelectric plant that stores energy by pumping water to a higher reservoir, has high capital costs and requires mountains and large reservoirs. Storing energy as heat in hot rocks or in melted chemical salts is very inefficient unless coupled with concentrated solar power - solar power concentrated with mirrors. But concentrated solar power is very expensive compared to the dominant photovoltaic technology. Hydrogen can be manufactured by the electrolysis of water and then converted back to electricity by turbines or fuel cells. Hydrogen is hard to store, and the hydrogen cycle probably wastes 70% of the energy.
The magnitude of the energy storage required is massively beyond anything that is practical.
If it were necessary to greatly reduce CO2 emissions, nuclear is a solution that could be made to work. Nuclear is generally ignored for political reasons because it was the object of past scare campaigns.
Advocating impractical, radical solutions for imaginary problems is not necessarily a negative for career success. Mark Jacobson not only has a new house and two Tesla cars, but he is also director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy program. He travels and grants interviews. He is featured in many YouTube videos.
Norman Rogers is the author of the book Dumb Energy.