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Credibility of Influential Paper On '100% Renewables' Challenged by Peer-Reviewed Critique

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President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
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  • Jul 6, 2017

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It is neither desirable nor feasible to power modern society by narrowing choices to wind, water and solar.

A pernicious myth was forcefully attacked in June when the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper titled Evaluation of A Proposal for Reliable Low-Cost Grid Power with 100% Wind, Water, and Solar.

The abstract of the new paper, which was developed during the past year by Christopher Clack and a team of 20 co-authors, includes the following clear challenge:

“We find that their analysis involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions…A policy prescription that overpromises on the benefits of relying on a narrower portfolio of technologies options could be counterproductive, seriously impeding the move to a cost effective decarbonized energy system.”

The target of the takedown was the influential work Low-Cost Solution to the Grid Reliability Problem with 100% Penetration of Intermittent Wind, Water, and Solar for All Purposes, authorship of which was led by Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, a fellow at Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy.

That report claims via modeling that 100% of the energy – not just the electricity – needed by the United States could be reliably provided at a reasonably low cost by a mixture of wind, water and solar energy.

One of many examples of the implausible and wildly unrealistic assumptions that allow Jacobson’s model to produce what might appear to be a feasible grid power supply mix relates to hydropower.

Jacobson and his co-authors claim that their hypothetical system does not require any new reservoir or dam construction.

Clack and his co-authors found that there are times in which Jacobson’s modeled system shows a total hydroelectric contribution of 1,300 GW. According to the Energy Information Administration, the total hydroelectric capacity in the U.S. is 80 GW.

In a rebuttal, Jacobson states that his model assumes that U. S. hydropower capacity – which he calls “peak instantaneous discharge rate” – can be increased by adding turbines to existing facilities. He wrote that his assumption was “a solution not previously considered.”

He appears to be unaware of the numerous reasons why hydropower engineers have never published a document mentioning the notion of adding enough turbines to increase capacity by 1,500%.

Aside: It is amusing to note that Jacobson’s rebuttal on EcoWatch was under a headline, 4 Reasons Nuclear and Fossil Fuel Supporters Criticizing 100% Renewable Energy Plan Are Wrong, that provides a clear example of his habit of labeling anyone who questions his work. End Aside.

100% Renewables Movement Thought Leadership

Though Jacobson’s 100% renewable energy system model might seem absurd “by inspection” to people like Atomic Insights readers whose feet are firmly planted in a world where chemistry, physics, cost accounting, regulations and thermodynamics rule, Jacobson’s work has been influencing energy system decisions since well before November 2009.

That was when a version of his proposal, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables, was the cover story of Scientific American.

Jacobson’s proposal clearly and forcefully opposes any contributions by nuclear energy, even that which is already being cleanly produced by existing facilities.

His work is one of the few available straws grasped by people who claim that climate change is a dire threat that must be immediately addressed while investing just as much time, energy and passion in opposing nuclear energy.

It has been referenced by such luminaries as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Amory Lovins, Al Gore, Bill McKibben and Mark Ruffalo. Jacobson’s papers and appearances have also received publicity support from the Stanford public affairs office.

The asserted possibility of an energy system powered completely by non-nuclear renewables has resulted in a number of entities, including major corporations, municipalities, certain crunchy states and even entire countries to declare that they plan to go 100% renewable sometime in the near- to mid-term future.

Jacobson has been invited to participate in well-attended energy policy debates and has even provided testimony to Congress.
He and his associates have produced and publicized roadmaps showing power mixes that purport to transition the U.S. and 139 other countries around the world to a 100% renewable energy system.

According to his posted Stanford biography, “In 2016, he re- ceived a Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for ‘outstanding scientific excellence and originality’ in his paper on a solution to the U.S. grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of wind, water, and solar power for all purposes.”

His position as a professor at one of the most respected universities in the world has given his work a mesmerizing sheen of credibility.

Importance of Formal Takedown

Though Jacobson’s work has received numerous challenges, he has stubbornly defended his findings. He and his supporters have often characterized challengers as shills for interests that support technologies that are left out of his model.

They have taken refuge in the fact that Jacobson’s work was published in a “peer-reviewed journal” while that of many challengers has not always been subjected to that process.

Without a formal, peer-reviewed challenge from a source with equivalent credentials, Jacobson’s work has been allowed to stand as a reasonably valid alternative approach to addressing future energy supply needs.

that is why it is newsworthy to note that there is now a difficult-to-dismiss evaluation of Jacobson’s work showing that his 100% renewable solution isn’t credible. It cannot be claimed as an achievable goal, no matter how much “will” there is to accomplish it.

No one should be taken seriously if they lean on “Jacobson said so” to prove that they can campaign against CO2 emissions and also campaign against nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy remains the only emission free power source that has proven it can power a country and such energy-intensive, off-grid loads as aircraft carriers, icebreakers and submarines.

Chris Mooney of the Washington Post was perhaps the first reporter in the mainstream news to realize that Clack’s paper represented a new phase in the rhetorical battle over our energy future. On June 19, he wrote,

“The debate is crucial because, while it’s great to talk about wind and solar in theory, the reality is that the electrons that they gen- erate have to be sent through wires and transmission stations to satisfy needs at particular places and at particular times—or else, we’ll have to come up with a way of storing electricity on a large scale, which remains a mostly unsolved problem right now”

Mooney has been joined by Eduardo Porter at the New York Times. His work has been picked up by the Chicago Tribune. A host of energy and environmental publications have been ablaze with stories on the “bitter scientific debate” and my energy-focused Twitter feed continues to discuss the event, even though a couple of weeks and a long holiday weekend in the U.S. have passed.

Aside: I’ve noticed via some of the accounts that I follow on Twitter that Jacobson is still engaged and vigorously defending his work. I haven’t seen what he has been writing because I’m a member of the large and growing “blocked by Jacobson” club on Twitter. End Aside.

The appearance of the new paper in this increasingly pointed debate comes at an auspicious time; the Department of Energy is due to release a report studying grid reliability challenges posed by variable renewable energy sources soon. That report was supposed to be released during the same week as the “bitter scientific debate” erupted, but it is now expected to be publicly available sometime in July.

Aside: I added the air quotes in the above because this discussion is not just about science; there are vast economic, environmental and technological issues involved. Few vested participants will give up their positions easily; the debate will, and probably should, increase in intensity over the next few years. End Aside.

A peer-reviewed work by a group of highly qualified and credentialed experts that factually reinforces what the DOE is likely to conclude will help to move the energy policy discussion to a more productive plane.

Perhaps we can return to energy policies that recognize real world constraints and ignore wild notions based on a computer model that is rife with “errors, inappropriate methods, and im- plausible assumptions.”

Note: A version of the above was first published in the June 23, 2017 edition of Fuel Cycle Week. It is republished here with permission.

The post Credibility of Influential Paper On ‘100% Renewables’ Challenged by Peer-Reviewed Critique appeared first on Atomic Insights.

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Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Jul 6, 2017

As long as you don’t have to suffer the consequences it is easy to argue for 100 % renewables.
Soon Germany will need to “throw the towel into the ring”.
For my country, Denmark, it is a little different.
It is a little country with good neighbors having hydro and nuclear.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 6, 2017

The debate about Jacobson’s work regarding 100% renewable being feasible, demonstrates how far behind USA became.

In major European countries, such as France and Germany, reaching 100% renewable simply isn’t a point. German simulation studies showed long ago that such would be feasible, even favorable to the economy.

Few years ago French scientific govt institute ADEME reported that for the 2050 situation 80% renewable would be the cheapest solution and that 100% renewable would cost only 3%-4% more.
One can also play with their simulation studies:

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 7, 2017

Bas, given that renewables have been successful in thirty years for 60+ years, maybe some major European countries are too far ahead with their imaginations, while another major European country (France) nailed it long ago.

You go play with your simulation studies, those of us serious about climate change have work to do.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 7, 2017

France realized that nuclear is the wrong path and is now reducing nuclear faster than the Germans did! And, of course also expanding renewable greatly!

Due to the mass market for e.g. PV-solar modules and wind turbines the German Energiewende created in the first decade of this century, the costs of those decreased greatly. E.g. in 2003 guaranteed FiT for PV-solar was 70cnt/KWh, now its 7cnt/KWh.

So (unsubsidized) solar and wind became only recently competitive, and still only in selected markets with favorable circumstances. As they price decrease continue during next decade, solar and wind will wipe out competition from classic power plants (nuclear and fossil).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 8, 2017

For decades, scientists have been pleading with us to reduce our emission of pollutants from burning fossil fuels; instead anti-nuclear activists (often funded by fossil fuel companies) have told us to eliminate use of nuclear power.

As an environmental scientist with a paralyzing fear of all things nuclear, Jacobson has a serious problem: he knows that air pollution from fossil fuel burning kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, and that biomass burning is just as bad.

So he must either get psycho-therapy for his radio-phobia, or pretend to believe in the implausible wind-water-sun energy fantasy. Apparently, he did not like the psycho-therapy idea. Too bad, since the added guilt from all the additional (needless) air pollution deaths (and emissions of CO2) his anti-nuclear activism has/will cause will likely further weaken his tenuous grip on sanity.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 8, 2017

Yes, governmental political institutions can find whatever results they are tasked with finding. The US National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL, who’s mission is to promote renewable energy) also published many studies predicting that the grid is viable with such-and-such mix of renewable and dispatchable sources.

Unsurprisingly, the press releases about the NREL studies never the mention the bad news that is always buried in the reports. They never talk about what sort of government policies are required to realize the scenarios in the studies, including the need for ever stronger interventions. Low penetration renewables is the low hanging fruit. Pushing the grid past 30% wind, or 20% solar gets really expensive; such a grid creates the perfect application for fossil gas. Even though the average cost might be affordable, the marginal cost will be expensive; and all new power plant projects will be evaluated on a marginal basis. That’s why there are still no grids which are 100%, or even 70% powered by solar or wind.

So go fix the Hawaiian problem first. They still burn oil (and coal) for electricity, and are finding that getting past 25% solar is hard.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 9, 2017

Perhaps those EU analysts also assumed 15X increase in hydroelectric power in the fine print, pace Jacobson.

What ADEME does admittedly do is conjure 24 hours or more of storage production at 20 to 40 GW, when so far the existing storage capacity that can run 24 hours in the GW range is zero, to the nearest GW in France.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jul 9, 2017


Here is my debunk of Jacobson’s 100% WWS fantasy.

My debunk has 2 alternatives, each with large quantities of nuclear energy.

He presented his study in Paris and anything 100% was lapped up by the RE aficionados, who have not a clue regarding energy systems analysis.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 10, 2017

Hulot, France’s environment minister, just announced that France could close up to 17 nuclear reactors by 2025

So apparently France takes the research results of its govt institute ADEME serious (read my comment below regarding those results).

Seems France is really preparing to follow Germany with its Energiewende asap!

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 10, 2017

”’… grid past 30% wind … gets really expensive …”? That was. Those times are gradually fading away….
This spring, Germany tendered 1280MW offshore wind in the North-Sea, and contracted with two bidders/utilities (Dong and EnBW) for the whole sale electricity price in Germany (last year on average €29/MWh)…
The utilities have to constrict, operate and decommission for that price. No subsidies.

No economic viable alternative considering climate change
UK’s new nuclear (Hinkley C) is contracted for €115/MWh to be inflation corrected until 2062.*) Despite the major subsidies such as:
– loan guarantees. Value €14/MWh;
– liability limitations (accident, waste, decommission). Value €15/MWh.
*) Completion date of Hinkley C is now delayedtowards 2027.
Estimated costs increased further towards £20.3bn.

I estimate that it will end above the EU accountants calculation of £24bn (=for the 3.3GW NPP, with a completion date in 2030.
Many years after the completion of the German wind farms…

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 10, 2017

Read the Jacobson study more accurate. It doesn’t need to be hydro. Other options are a.o. Power-to-Gas => storage in deep earth cavities => Gas-to-Power.
Overall efficiency estimated 40%.

When the unmanned PtG plants only run during over-production they buy for av. 1cnt/KWh. The resulting electricity in long periods without wind & solar will then cost 2.5cnt/KWh + equipment costs (PtG and GtP plants are unmanned) = 4cnt/KWh.

France has a lot of hydro and its utilities can buy in a.o. Germany in periods of power shortage (as last autumn when ~20 reactors were off-line due to the fraud with the nuclear certificates).

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 10, 2017

The salient Jacobson study, as shown in figure 4, indicates hydro exactly as I indicated.

Your usual unreferenced storage hand waiving doesn’t interest me. If you want to reference an actual journal published PtG study on costs, which would not make ridiculous plant cost assumptions then please do so.

Same goes for a *journal published* study of 100% RE in France. Similarly don’t bother with any more glorified arithmetic ‘simulators’, that begin, ‘first assume storage’

French hydro runs at an annual CF of ~32% against 25GW installed. Most alpine fed hydro runs heavy in the spring, and dry in the summer/fall. So no, France does not *always* have a lot of hydro.

When Germany arrives at, say, double France’s gCO2/kwh instead of ten times worse and obtains reasonably affordable electricity, then get back to me about your storage plans.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jul 11, 2017

This summer again more than 20 nuclear power plants have been offline in france due to lack of water as it seems….

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 11, 2017

It are not just political oriented scientific institution conclusions.

The new French president, Macron, is indeed moving towards major reductions of nuclear as announced by his minister:”France could close ‘up to 17’ nuclear power plants by 2025“.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 11, 2017

Curious. At this moment, French generation is as follows:

o nuclear share is 69% (39 GW), peaking at 78% for the day.
o 10% fossil
o 5 GW exports.

Looking back 4 weeks, nuclear share was 68 to 80% over the day. Certainly with 58 reactors some will usually be offline, but it appears from a quick inspection France has all the nuclear it needs.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Jul 12, 2017

Most developed EU countries now follow similar policy as proposed by Jacobson.*)
So it seems to me more likely that he is right.
*) Germany, France, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium.
Though less explicit even NL and Sweden.

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