How far can wind, water and solar take us?

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The Danish island of Samsø is entirely powered by renewable energy. (Ph: VisitSamsø)
The Danish island of Samsø is entirely powered by renewable energy. (Photo: VisitSamsø)

Solving climate change means replacing our energy system: the climate change problem is largely a zero carbon global energy development problem.

But changing the world’s energy system is easier said than done: economics, global politics, domestic politics, technology, and our personal energy use have to align to make change possible. Each factor influences the next, and time is limited. For example: China is close to exceeding the 2°C target already if all existing and planned coal-fired power plants are run for their operating lifetimes. They need inexpensive energy to make our stuff for us, as well as to modernize China, where the Chinese people only have a third of the per capita emissions of Americans.

What we build now, and the energy we demand now, determines our future, and every nation is dependent on the actions of others to succeed in the overall goal of staying within the 2°C limit.

What are our options to replace fossil fuels? James Hansen, former director of NASA’s climate research, believes nuclear power is the best source to replace coal for China, the nation with the largest demand. Mark Jacobson, professor of engineering at Stanford, has drafted plans for the entire world relying on a combination of renewables: wind, hydropower, and solar. Jacobson has also mapped out a plan for the US to be entirely powered by renewables by 2050. Britain’s national energy discussion, led by David MacKay, professor of physics at Cambridge, envisions building a mix of sources, including both nuclear and renewables.

Saul Griffith, engineer and inventor, concisely summarizes the world’s energy demands on the website for the Long Now seminars. His conclusion: we need not only a massive program to build a new energy supply, but a rapid drop in our personal energy use. (Scroll down this page for the text.) Video highlight here. British climate scientist Kevin Anderson concurs with Griffith: behavior change is crucial to the 2°C target. In his own behavior change, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus has quit flying.

Below, Erin Wong takes a look at Mark Jacobson’s proposals, which would be a new step forward to a very different looking America, and the reactions to them.

Two updates to the story while it was in production: Jacobson’s proposals gained the public spotlight as part of the Solutions Project, promoted by anti-fracking leaders including Mark Ruffalo. One of the strongest arguments for fracking, assuming it is done safely, is that natural gas emits less CO2 than coal, and replacing America’s (and China’s) coal electric power with a plentiful supply of natural gas is a first step to deeper emissions cuts. But a new report described in National Geographic finds that this may not be the case, and that natural gas emissions, when all factors are included, are about the same as coal: “Switching from coal to natural gas for power generation won’t do much to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and might even raise them slightly, in part because it will discourage the use of carbon-free renewable energy.”

This new report strengthens Jacobson’s case; so do two economic reports that shifting to clean energy systems will essentially cost zero, when the health benefits are factored in.

• • •

Fighting climate change is no longer a question of if we can, but when and how we will. A collaborative study by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College recently took a poll of American support for a carbon tax, and found that an encouraging 60-percent were in favor if the revenue was used to develop renewable energy. As sustainability rises on the American agenda, public interest in clean energy solutions grows.

Mark Jacobson, a climate scientist at Stanford University, and a team of his colleagues published two major plans for a full transition from fossil fuels. A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030, released in 2009, claimed that the entire planet could be powered with hydropower, wind, and solar energy in just two decades. This February, Jacobson’s team released a second paper that devises strategies for the United States, showing the way for each the 50 states to be fossil fuel free by 2050. The plans for the US have been built into an interactive website, the Solutions Project, showing the proposal for each state on a map. The actor Mark Ruffalo, an anti-fracking activist, is a supporter of the Solutions Project program, with the premise that a rapid path to renewables could replace gas generation, removing the need for fracking new wells across the country.

The two papers contained ambitious goals and controversial analysis, which ignited strong reactions of both praise and criticism. The aftermath of Jacobson’s papers shows the underlying challenge of the evolving climate debate: how we generate energy, and how much demand renewables can fulfill.
For New York State, Jacobson’s 2014 plan incorporates seven different methods of harvesting power from natural resources: the traditional solar photovoltaic, onshore wind, and hydroelectric sources, and the relatively new methods of offshore wind, wave devices, geothermal capture, and tidal turbines. Wind is the greatest projected contributor, slated to produce 50-percent of the energy for the state with the majority of the turbines located offshore.


The Solutions Project is implementation of Mark Jacobson's WWS Roadmap
The Solutions Project  presents Mark Jacobson’s 100% renewable energy plan for the US.

Since its release, Jacobson’s latest proposal has been used to support the claim that the US can achieve carbon neutrality without nuclear energy or fracking for natural gas to use as a lower emission ‘bridge fuel’ while new systems are built. The anti-fracking community applauded the plan, because they believe it proves that the US does not need fracking to transition from coal. Others saw it purely as a defensive tactic against fracking and nuclear power. Even those who advocate for renewables questioned the plan’s technical assumptions and its social feasibility.

Edward Dodge of the Methane Project published one critique via the Energy Collective. Dodge points out that much of the technology that Jacobson’s New York plan relies on, such as battery-operated or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and offshore wind farms, does not have the market to be produced on the large scale called for in Jacobson’s plan. Dodge also notes that the capacities of the windmill and solar PV panel models used by Jacobson vastly underestimate the massive economic and land costs of the plan. Essentially, Dodge claims that the plan does not have time for common practice to catch up with its ambition.

[pullquote align=”left”]How much time and social commitment do we need to transition to renewables?[/pullquote]

In 2012, however, Science Daily featured a study by the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College that projected the costs of renewables in 2030 to be roughly 50 percent of their price today. Already we’ve begun to see the market for renewable energy take massive steps towards price parity and adoption, if not at the breakneck speed of Jacobson’s plan.

Dodge did not choose to criticize the plan because he doesn’t believe in the development of solar and wind energy. He did so because he sees it as “being hailed for political purposes by those with an agenda opposing drilling for natural gas,” and believes that its analysis lacks technical credibility. Yet, both Jacobson’s paper and Dodge’s criticism have value for sustainable progress if criticism is applied constructively.

[pullquote align=”right”]If France uses nuclear safely and sustainably, why can’t we?[/pullquote]In another critique, Rod Adams, founder of the dissolved company Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., defends nuclear power against Jacobson’s renewable energy vision. Adams points to the power infrequencies of solar and wind power plants, barriers to renewable energy storage, and the fact that France transitioned from 5 to 80 percent nuclear in just 20 years, which could be a model for the US to go fossil free. If France uses nuclear safely and sustainably, why can’t we?

Charles Frank of the Brookings Institution recently made another case for nuclear by using a cost-benefit analysis to compare the carbon offset of nuclear and renewables, accounting for the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Pricing the carbon ton at $50, Frank calculated that nuclear power plants, which run at 90 percent of capacity, would replace more than $400,000-worth of carbon emissions per megawatt (MW) of capacity. Because wind and solar are only effective during periods of breeze and daylight, they only run at 25- and 15- percent capacity, saving only $107,000 and $69,500-worth of carbon emissions per MW, respectively. The considerable cost of disposing of nuclear waste is not included in Frank’s conclusions, but he does weigh in the upfront capital costs and makes a compelling economic argument for nuclear energy, backing up Adams’s claims against all renewable plan. [New reactor designs, such as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), can limit the production of waste, and consume existing nuclear waste as fuel.]

As a pro-nuclear advocate, Adams disagrees with covering our country in sprawling renewable energy farms instead of building many fewer, smaller nuclear plants to produce the same amount of power. It is important to note that both strategies can work and neither is the ‘right’ way.

Don Duggan-Haas made an interesting point in his online interactive presentation on Marcellus Shale: controversial issues tend to pit sides against one another, but we must recognize that each of us has limitations to our own worldviews and everyone has something to lose from change. There are trade-offs to any solutions, yet Duggan-Haas begs us to look at the greater issue from a systems perspective. We might think that fracking or nuclear power will lead to environmental destruction, but in the bigger picture, every low carbon source of energy has its own importance in fighting climate change. All that is required for a perfect balance is a fast transition away from carbon output. Most likely, we will end up with everything in the energy mix.

Jacobson chose to respond to two critiques, one by Ted Trainer, a lecturer of the University of New South Wales and author of several academic pieces against an all-renewable energy system, and one by Nathaniel Gilbraith, a doctoral student in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and several of his colleagues.

[pullquote align=”left”]Can renewables adequately power an energy-intensive consumer economy? Or should the economy change, too?[/pullquote] Trainer’s critique questions Jacobson’s solutions for the world to handle the variability of a renewable-based system, and the 2009 plan’s quantitative analysis of investment costs. Like Adams, Trainer argues that periods of over-supply, dumping, and calm that come with weather fluctuations cannot be avoided with the proposed methods of weather forecasting and demand-response management, and he questions the plan’s options of hydrogen and electric storage. Trainer insists that there should be a discussion of the cost of a back up system, and believes that, “Renewables can enable a satisfactory quality of life for all, but not in energy-intensive, consumer-capitalist societies.”

In Jacobson’s rebuttal, Jacobson and his co-author, Mark Delucchi, cited his Monte Carlo approach to portfolio planning which concluded that “up to >99.8% of delivered electricity could be produced carbon-free with WWS [wind, water, and solar] resources over multiple years.” The gap would be addressed by “demand–response measures, storage beyond CSP [concentrated solar power], electric vehicle charging and management, and increases in wind and solar capacities beyond the inflexible power demand.” Surprisingly, Jacobson even suggests natural gas as a reasonable backup, if only in the immediate future. Jacobson and Delucchi also explain that they would not be using a conventional electricity system, but a “large-scale all-renewables” system, or an international ‘supergrid,’ not contained to one nation or continent.

Trainer, Jacobson, and Delucchi’s exchange tells us that there are often disagreements about what would theoretically work. To let academics, engineers, or politicians lead the conversation into an unending discussion of hypothetical optimization is to slow the development of actionable plans. No plan is without fault, and the next step is to move forward with one plan and be prepared to deal with its externalities.

Gilbraith’s critique calls attention to the New York plan’s social feasibility. Energy decisions, in the state of New York and elsewhere, are made “within a landscape of interested parties, governing bodies, laws, and cultural norms,” Gilbraith concludes, and all of these various groups and interests are unlikely to agree on the single goal of carbon neutrality. Jacobson and his team defended their original claims, but did not fully address the social and political challenges of implementing an all-renewable plan.

[pullquote align=”right”]Because of the urgency imposed on us by emissions, there will be consequences to choosing any plan, and to no plan at all.[/pullquote] On the other hand, Gilbraith and Jacobson’s other critics failed to note the societal difficulties that will arise if America doesn’t decide on a way forward. Despite the shortfalls of Jacobson’s vision, it does not take an engineer to know that inaction is unacceptable. We continue to argue because the thought of choosing a strategy that isn’t perfect is terrifying, but what we have to realize is that there will be consequences to every plan we choose.

A slide presentation by Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of Otherlab, suggests that no easy global transition from fossil fuels will keep us within a safe range of global warming. (Full video here.) His study theoretically kept energy below 450 ppm by 2033 using an estimated fuel mix based on the world’s abundant natural resources.

According to the study (already outdated by six years of underinvestment), if we are to remain under 450ppm, the global community would need to create 100 meters square of solar cells and 50 meters square of solar thermal mirrors every second, twelve 3-megawatt wind turbines every hour, three 100-megawatt steam turbines every day, and one 3-gigawatt nuclear plant every week for the next 25 years. For reference, Griffith notes that General Motors produces one car every two minutes. Not to mention that we’ll have to build all this renewable energy infrastructure while developing biofuels and simultaneously terminating deforestation. [The IEA’s “Roadmap for Solar” report shows that the world installed about 36GW of solar cells in 2013, at a rate which would reach 0.72TW in 20 years, which would fall far short of the 2TW Griffith’s plan calls for. But production rates are increasing. The IEA plan is even more ambitious, and calls for 4.6TW of solar PV by 2050.]

Saul Griffith's Longnow Presentation in January projected our global fuel mix in 2033, and the daunting task of converting to renewable energy that lies ahead of us.
Saul Griffith’s Long Now Presentation  (2009) projected our global fuel mix in 2033, and the daunting task of converting to renewable energy that lies ahead of us. To make this goal in (now) less than 19 years would require a frenzy of building equivalent to the war effort in World War Two, but it would give us a chance at holding to the 2°C limit.

We are also looking at a $48 trillion price tag on our path to meeting the world’s energy supply in 2035. Earlier this summer, the International Energy Agency released a study that calculated what we must spend between now and 2035 in order to meet our future energy demands. The study calls for a steady rise in global investment for renewable energy and energy efficiency to more than $2 trillion a year to account for the explosive growth in our energy needs.

To meet civilization’s skyrocketing demands with renewable energy will require worldwide support for sustainable development. Despite the seemingly gargantuan task ahead, if all of our efforts were united and directed towards carbon neutrality, it would not be impossible for our world to create these renewable energy systems. Griffith’s and the IEA’s takeaways, however, do draw somewhat pessimistic conclusions about the feasibility of Jacobson’s plan. Without nuclear, the amount of wind, water, solar, and geothermal systems increases tremendously. Cutting out fossil fuels from our energy mix will cause the total cost of powering the world to soar.

Unprecedented political will and global unity aside, we have to address the limits of what it is possible for the human race to create in the next few decades, and look realistically at how much we are willing to spend to make it happen.

But there is reason for us to hope. Wind power, for example, has become the cheapest source of energy in Denmark, due to cost just 5 euro cents a kilowatt hour in 2016, according to the Danish Energy Association. By 2020, 50 percent of the nation’s power will come from wind. If New York, the US, and other nations of the world can rally to follow world leaders of Denmark and those countries that have already taken significant strides towards carbon neutrality, if we choose a united course of action and turn criticisms to collaboration, then can we succeed in curbing our damage to the atmosphere. Will we decide to build 11.5 terawatts of renewable energy and spend almost fifty trillion dollars to cut our fossil fuel dependency?

In an interview with the Smithsonian, Griffith said, “I am optimistic that the world’s energy problems can be solved, because I know that they can be solved. I’m not optimistic that we will solve them, because people are people.”

And he is right. We are unpredictable. But now, more than ever, is the time to have faith in our abilities, and share confidence in one another to develop and implement the solutions to offset climate change. Any progress is also disruption in our dynamic world. The best plans are constantly evaluated and modified to meet the unpredictable demands and constraints of the world. Technological lock-in is one of the reasons we are so dependent on fossil fuels today—it’s difficult to stray from the status quo, but will be even harder to do so in fifty years. Rather than remain divided as a movement, we have to remember our common ground and move forward. We have the means, we have the will, and we have more than enough ways how. What we do not have is time. More than ever, we need action, and we need to work together.