Forbes has recently published a commentary by Dr. Marshall Shepard titled How Weather And An ‘Interstate of Renewable Energy’ Could Save The Climate By 2030. Dr. Shepard is a past president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).
The basis for his article was the same NOAA study that we discussed here a couple of weeks ago under the title Another day, another model “proving” capabilities of weather-dependent power.
Here is a key quote from his article.
The new study, “Future Cost-Competitive Electricity Systems and Their Impact on US CO2 Emissions,” is very provocative. A word of caution is appropriate here. In science, one study should not dictate policy. This study will require replication, evaluation, and scrutiny. Irrespective of your viewpoint on a topic, “one-study syndrome” as Andy Revkin notes, is dangerous. I am never a fan of hanging too much on one study and almost never write about them. I prefer to write from a body of literature. However I wanted to expose this paper because it will likely start and end a lot of conversations.
Later in his article, Shepard seeks a second opinion.
Stanford expert Mark Jacobson, who was not involved in the study, wrote an editorial to Nature Climate Change saying,
This study pushes the envelope…….It shows that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil-fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost than a fossil fuel-based grid – even before storage is considered
I posted a quick comment on Shepard’s article at Forbes. Below is a refined version of that comment.
Aside: I initially thought I was pressed for time to catch the Northeast Regional train to DC, but the 1/2″ of ice on my driveway convinced me to stay home and wait for the warmer weather predicted for this afternoon. Though there is only one train per day, my fuel-efficient car was always my backup plan. The meeting I’m attending, the 12th annual Platts Nuclear Energy Conference, doesn’t start until tomorrow morning. End Aside.
Dr. Shephard, you are right to be skeptical. Revkin is also right to advocate that people avoid the “one study” syndrome. It’s also worthwhile to seek confirmation or disagreement from outside of a small group of outliers with an agenda.
Mark Z. Jacobson might not have been directly involved with the NOAA study, but he is a well known proponent of what he calls a WWS (wind, water, sun) power system. He has been heavily promoting his prescription with the help of the PR staff at his employer, the Precourt Institute of Energy at Stanford University, since 2009, when his work was published in a breathless Scientific American article.
His word is not exactly independent confirmation of the validity of NOAA’s incredible claim that it is possible to transform the U.S. electrical power grid to a mostly renewable grid using a new network of HVDC transmission lines in just 14 years. Even if it was possible with an all-out, all-hands-on-deck effort, the cost would be hugely unaffordable.
Building transmission lines is a challenging enterprise because there are numerous interests and entities involved along every potential path.
I grew up listening to the after-work, dinner-table chat of a career electrical engineer who spent the last half of his 35 year career planning and executing a 500 kV transmission corridor that he liked to call “coal by wire.” That project, which took about 15-20 years from start to finish built just one big line stretching from coal fired power stations located in rural Georgia down the Florida peninsula to the megalopolis in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Planning the project was difficult, even with eminent domain and an existing corridor along the Florida Turnpike for much of the path.
I’ve reviewed the NOAA weatherman’s proposal for the grid. I’ve investigated his assumptions and modeling parameters. He severely underestimates the cost per mile for HVDC lines based on recently completed North American projects. He neglects to account for the fact that supplying electricity is not an “hourly” task, but a task where seconds and minutes matter. Electricity flows have to be steady and consistent in frequency and voltage, otherwise many sensitive pieces of equipment and appliances will be damaged.
He ignores many costs, forgets about the time delays associated with public hearings, and assumes away hard technical challenges like spanning mountains, crossing rivers, routing around or through towns and getting past wide interstate highways.
Because his models have “garbage” inputs, they result in garbage outputs that would be dangerous to accept as resembling reality.
I agree that Dr. MacDonald’s paper should start a lot of conversations, but woe be unto all of us if it ends any conversations as the final word accepted by any decision makers with the power to move money or pass laws.