An academic battle over the US energy future isn’t just theoretical
It’s been called Sayre’s Law: The idea that the viciousness of battles in academia is in inverse proportion to the importance of the issue at the center of the fight.
That’s not the case, however, with the conflict that is raging over the issuance of two papers by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) in the United States. It speaks to the question that many advanced countries are facing as several trends merge and, in some cases, collide: How much of a country’s power needs can be supplied by intermittent renewable sources of energy given trends in lower costs of generation, the pace of technological change in storage and the costs of adaptation? And what are the costs to get there?
What began the dispute is a paper published by the PNAS in February, led by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and the director of the school’s Atmosphere/Energy program. The paper builds on earlier work by Jacobson.
It conclusion is that by 2050-2055, the US can produce all its electricity needs with WWS — wind, water and solar — as its base fuels, use no fossil fuels or nuclear power. That shift would get there in part by heavy reliance on storage solutions that now are mostly in their infancy.
These include phase change materials, or PCM, which produce kinetic energy when they change their phase, i.e., melt or freeze. Underground thermal energy storage, or UTES, is not geothermal energy, which exists now. Rather, it is a utilization of properties in the Earth’s geology in which excess energy provided by WWS — produced when more energy is produced by the blowing wind or the shining sun than the grid needs — can be stored in various geological formations. The Jacobson vision also includes electricity demand management. It does not call for a significant role for batteries, which cuts against conventional thinking.
The response came earlier this month in another PNAS paper from a team of authors headed by Christopher Clack, a physicist and mathematician with the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. This is not a person unconcerned with climate change. In the opening paragraphs, Clack and his colleagues cite an earlier report Clack had co-authored claiming an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions was possible by larger-scale adoption of WWS and other steps.
So what’s 20 percentage points difference among groups who are all essentially in agreement on the need to reduce CO2 emissions? The answer: Plenty. And it’s playing out on Twitter, of course, with Jacobson’s Twitter feed responding to somebody else by calling them a “climate denier,” long-time wind critic Robert Bryce blasting the report in a piece published by the Manhattan Institute, and actor Mark Ruffalo — who tweets so much it’s hard to figure out how he ever has time to learn his lines — getting into the fray as well.
Clack’s criticisms of the Jacobson paper are numerous. First, he levels about the most-pointed criticism that one academic can direct at another, next to plagiarism: Your research is bad. One section of the Clark group’s review of Jacobson’s work is entitled “Insufficient Power System Modeling.” Another is called “Inadequate Scrutiny of Input Climate Model.”
But it’s some of Jacobson’s assumption that come into the heaviest Clack criticism. For example, Clack and his team claim Jacobson is assuming an investment buildout of facilities that will be 16 times that of Germany, which has had its sweeping Energwiende renewables shift — now controversial and troubled, criticized for soaring German electricity prices and a counter-intuitive burning of more coal, among other things — in place for several years. Even if that were accomplished, the Clack paper says the Jacobson paper assumes a cost of capital available to investment in such a buildout that is unlikely to be obtained.
As far as the storage technologies that are such an important part of the Jacobson vision, “neither technology has reached the level of technological maturity to be confidently used as the main underpinning technology.” There also is criticism of the assumption that hydrogen can be turned into a significant energy carrier, another key part of the Jacobson study.
Jacobson has fought back, beyond Twitter. He responded in an academic fashion through this letter (paywall-protected), criticizing many of the numerical assumptions on the Clack critique. A shorter less-academic critique, not behind a paywall, criticizes any suggested use of nuclear energy endorsed by Clack, though what the Clack report says about nukes is hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s just that the Clack team doesn’t see such an emission-free, non-intermittent source completely disappearing.
One criticism by Clack is essentially an argument that the Jacobson paper isn’t playing in the real world. “[The] authors do not consider emissions for the fossil-based power systems associated with construction and permitting delays for offshore wind farms or the transmission infrastructure … which have already been a challenge in the development of US offshore wind resources,” the Clack report writes. “The 100% WWS system envisions more than 150,000 5-MW turbines permitted and built offshore without delays.” Bryce has written extensively about these local battles, using the term Big Wind. (He has a piece on it as recently as early May).
The renewables industry has made tremendous strides in recent years. But academic treatises often do run into the reality on the ground, where economics and local politics can thwart an energy vision that also is driven by a political agenda. Germany is finding that out.