On October 9, 2013, David Letterman interviewed Mark Z. Jacobson, a leading proponent of a 100% renewable energy future. He described Jacobson as a man with a plan that should make us all more optimistic; that plan describes a world that has a completely changed energy supply system that does not threaten us with catastrophic climate change.
However, it is worth noting that even Letterman was a more than a little skeptical about Jacobson’s proposed power systems. Letterman based his skepticism on his experience of installing solar panels, wind turbines and ground source geothermal HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) at his home. Even though David Letterman is a wealthy television star, he complained about the initial cost of the systems that he installed, the fact that the government subsidy was not enough, and the fact that the power company only wanted to pay him the wholesale price for any electricity that he pushed into the grid.
Jacobson’s responses to Letterman were necessarily at a very high level due to time constraints, but even his written works provide fewer details than would be required to implement his concepts.
Mark Z. Jacobson has been pushing his vision of a power system where “wind, water, and sunshine (WWS)” provide 100% of society’s energy needs for quite some time. In October of 2009, just prior to the Copenhagen meeting that was supposed to set new national CO2 targets, Scientific American made his vision the cover story for the issue. The sales pitch is seductive; according to Jacobson, a few key policy mandates would make his utopia happen in an impressively short period of time — with major progress being initiated by 2020 and the transition completed by 2030 — at a cost that he describes as comparable to the costs associated with business as usual.
The paper describing Jacobson’s WWS dream for the state of New York, titled Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight included contributions from the following roster of authors in addition to Jacobson: Robert W. Howarth, Mark A. Delucchi, Stan R. Scobie, Jannette M. Barth, Michael J. Dvorak, Megan Klevze, Hind Katkhuda, Brian Miranda, Navid A. Chowdhury, Rick Jones, Larsen Plano, Anthony R. Ingraffea. For brevity and clarity, I am going to refer to the paper as if Jacobson was the sole author, but I acknowledge that he is just the leader of the team.
Like many of his other works, the paper lays out a vision (which Jacobson refers to as a “plan”) that rests on a number of simplifying assumptions.
It is a lengthy paper — 15 single space pages, not including references — so a point-by-point identification and rebuttal of each of the oversimplifications is beyond the scope of what I want to attempt with this post. However, there are a few items not mentioned in some of the already existing rebuttals (example – Galbraith, et al Comments on Jacobson et al.’s proposal for a wind, water, and solar energy future for New York State) that are worth discussion.
Aside: Just in case Professor Jacobson decides to pay a visit and comment here, I want to make it clear that I have taken the time to read the full paper and at least a few of the referenced works. End Aside.
As Jacobson and his co-authors make clear, a primary major motivation for advocating a shift from our current energy supply system to WWS is avoiding the problems of air pollution and global climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. On this point, we have something in common; I like to breathe clean air and I worry about the long term effects of continuing to dump more than 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.
In addition to a number of energy security and human prosperity-related concerns that I have about continuing to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, reducing air pollution and mitigating the risks of climate change are two of the reasons that I strongly favor increasing the role of nuclear energy. Atomic fission is, after all, clean enough to use inside sealed submarines full of air-breathing life forms. I can provide personal testimony about that characteristic.
Unfortunately, Jacobson considers nuclear energy to be in the same category of natural gas, oil, and coal as obsolete power sources that should be replaced as quickly as possible. In his paper discussing his WWS proposal for New York, Jacobson pointed to a 2011 paper titled Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials as a source for his reasons for not including nuclear energy in his proposal for a future energy system.
Jacobson’s 2011 paper does not appear to be freely available; its publisher would like curious people to pay $19 per copy. However, in February 2010, Jacobson published an opinion piece on CNN.com that summarizes his objections to nuclear energy.
According to Jacobson, nuclear energy has the following insurmountable challenges:
- It is not carbon-free because fossil fuels are used in the life cycle of construction, fuel supply and decommissioning. (Apparently, Jacobson considers that the fossil fuels used in the life cycle of manufacturing, construction, maintenance and decommissioning of wind and solar collection systems are less significant, despite the increased material investment required for those massive collector of low density power.)
- It is too slow, requiring 10 to 19 years to build.
Aside: Cape Wind, which some claim will be the first off-shore wind farm in the US, has been in serious development for 12 years. So far, construction has not begun, despite enormous efforts by the state and federal government to provide support for the project. End Aside.
- Too many currently non-nuclear countries would need reactors even if nuclear supplied just 5% of the world’s energy needs.
- More reactors imply more enrichment and fuel recycling. Jacobson thinks that means too much “weapons grade material”, even though materials produced by recycling used commercial nuclear fuel are not suitable for producing weapons.
- Nuclear proponents overstate nuclear energy’s reliability advantage over WWS. According to Jacobson, building enough transmission lines and over building WWS capacity can compensate for unreliability and can provide the opportunity to use temporary excess power supply to produce hydrogen, electricity or heat that can be stored for later use.
- Any dollars used to develop nuclear energy are not available to use for his favored energy sources and any time spent developing nuclear energy could be better spent building wind turbines and solar collection systems.
Of course, I disagree with just about every point that Jacobson makes about nuclear energy. It is particularly absurd for someone has proposed a power system in which the state of New York would receive 40% of its total energy supply from 12,700 off-shore wind turbines — by 2030 — to complain that nuclear energy development takes too long and costs too much or that nuclear energy proponents have been known to underestimate costs and schedules. There are plenty of examples around the world that demonstrate that offshore wind is especially challenging to site, to connect to grids, to construct and to maintain.
In contrast, history shows that it is reasonable for a country as large as France to shift its electricity grid from 5% to 80% nuclear in just 20 years and that, even in a country with as many diverse influences as the United States, it is physically possible to build well over 100 new nuclear plants in just two decades. Current progress in China and the UAE are demonstrating that the laws of physics have not been repealed; rapid progress in nuclear energy is still possible given political support.
Jacobson’s economic calculations beg many questions. Buried in the details of his paper (2/3 of the way down on page 594), Jacobson reveals that his assumed average capital cost of his WWS systems is $2.1 million per MW of capacity. He also states that his models show that meeting just 64% of New York’s 2010 average power demand of 94 GWe will require an installed capacity of 271 GWe of unreliable WWS systems. As far as I can tell, this section of the paper is talking about the power generation system costs, not the cost of transmitting, distributing, or storing the power.
Taking his cost per unit of generation capacity as reasonably accurate — even though no one knows how much wind turbines installed off of the Long Island coast will cost, since there is not a single wind turbine operating off of any US coastline — Jacobson’s plan requires the near term expenditure of $570 billion dollars. Jacobson claims that this investment will be recovered in just 16 years from the savings in air pollution-related costs alone.
That remarkable statement is based on some rather creative math. First, Jacobson determines, based on a number of published model results, that approximately 4,000 New Yorkers die earlier each year than they would have due to the effects of air pollution. He assigns a monetary value to each of those early deaths of $7.7 million. Here is a quote explaining the basis for that value:
The value of life is determined by economists based on what people are willing to pay to avoid health risks as determined by how much employers pay their workers to take additional risks.
By multiplying each of the 4,000 annual early deaths from air pollution by $7.7 million per person, Jacobson asserts that air pollution related costs of New York’s current energy system is $31 billion per year. Sadly, the paper does not explain how many of those valuable people might be dying as a result of air pollution that drifted into the state from other places, how his WWS power system will work to keep aircraft flying, how his power systems are going to eliminate sources of air pollution that are not related to producing energy, or why the early death of from air pollution of someone who is most likely to already be in ill-health should be valued at $7.7 million dollars in the first place.
In short, Jacobson’s vision is almost dangerously incomplete. It will not result in progress towards a goal, but in continuation of the status quo. No one is going to start building wind turbines off of the coast of Long Island in the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that people who oppose the use of nuclear energy in New York will point to Jacobson’s academic papers as proof that a 100% renewable future can be achieved. They will assert that it can be achieved quickly enough to allow them to demand near-term action to shut down operating, ultra-low emission nuclear plants like Indian Point, Pilgrim, Vermont Yankee, and Seabrook and replace their output with natural gas.
Of course, Jacobson might point to his paper to prove that he does not like natural gas either, but his professed negativity towards gas will mean little. Natural gas is the default fuel when nuclear plants are forced off of the grid; natural gas suppliers are the victors when antinuclear activists win. I remain convinced that gas suppliers understand that relationship; their increased sales must not be considered to be “unintended consequences” of well-meaning actions.
Aside: While researching this piece, I discovered that CounterPunch had published an article in June 2012 titled Indian Point: Still America’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Plant? that credited Mark Jacobson with being a co-founder of Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), a group seeking the immediate closure of Indian Point. I wonder if the IPSEC co-founder is the same Mark Jacobson as the one who writes about WWS energy supply systems?
Critique of ‘A path to sustainable energy by 2030 by Barry Brook