A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid

A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid

Scientists are engaged in an increasingly bitter and personal feud over how much power the United States can get from renewable sources, with a large group of researchers taking aim at a popular recent paper that claimed the country could move beyond fossil fuels entirely by 2055.

In 2015, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and his colleagues argued that between 2050 and 2055, the United States could be entirely powered by “clean” energy sources and “no natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed.”

That would be a massive shift from the current power makeup, as in 2016, the United States got only 6.5 percent of its electricity from hydropower, 5.6 percent from wind and 0.9 percent from solar. Nonetheless, the paper excited proponents of renewable energy, and has been embraced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, celebrity backers such actor Mark Ruffalo and many environmental groups.

But Jacobson’s idea was always contentious. And now, no fewer than 21 researchers have published a study in the influential Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (which also published Jacobson’s original study in 2015) arguing that the work “used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.” …

The original article:

Mark Z Jacobson et al., Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100\% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes, 112 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 15060–15065 (2015)

This study addresses the greatest concern facing the large-scale integration of wind, water, and solar (WWS) into a power grid: the high cost of avoiding load loss caused by WWS variability and uncertainty. It uses a new grid integration model and finds low-cost, no-load-loss, nonunique solutions to this problem on electrification of all US energy sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) while accounting for wind and solar time series data from a 3D global weather model that simulates extreme events and competition among wind turbines for available kinetic energy. Solutions are obtained by prioritizing storage for heat (in soil and water); cold (in ice and water); and electricity (in phase-change materials, pumped hydro, hydropower, and hydrogen), and using demand response. No natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed. The resulting 2050–2055 US electricity social cost for a full system is much less than for fossil fuels. These results hold for many conditions, suggesting that low-cost, reliable 100% WWS systems should work many places worldwide.

The criticism of the original article:

Christopher T. M Clack et al., Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017)

A number of analyses, meta-analyses, and assessments, including those performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the International Energy Agency, have concluded that deployment of a diverse portfolio of clean energy technologies makes a transition to a low-carbon-emission energy system both more feasible and less costly than other pathways. In contrast, Jacobson et al. [Jacobson MZ, Delucchi MA, Cameron MA, Frew BA (2015) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112(49):15060–15065] argue that it is feasible to provide “low-cost solutions to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of WWS [wind, water and solar power] across all energy sectors in the continental United States between 2050 and 2055”, with only electricity and hydrogen as energy carriers. In this paper, we evaluate that study and find significant shortcomings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.

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