100% Renewable Energy Plan: Junk Science at Its Best

FractivistsK.J. Rodgers
Crownsville, Maryland  

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A new retort to a 100% renewable energy plan exposes all of the flaws with the assumptions the author made to prevent ill-advised legislation.

Politicians, like all actors, thrive to be center stage and maintain their celebrity status on key issues. They’ll disregard the facts with abandon to secure an audience and hype up pretty much any situation. Opportunism is their stock-in-trade. Any topic can be hijacked with complete disregard for the truth at any time and faster than a speeding bullet. Successful activist groups grasp this better than most and exploit politicos and other actors at will. Such has been the case several times with fracking and most recently with Mark Jacobson’s ridiculous renewables plan.

Fractivists, of course, love studies — any studies — purporting to show natural gas development in a poor light. When they find anything whatsoever, they run with it to favorite politicos in hopes the latter will seize the demagoguery initiative and start spreading the misinformation as widely as possible.

One of my favorite examples is the “study” Brian Schwartz of the Post Carbon Institute released claiming fracking causes asthma. It’s pure fractivist junk science, but Food and Water Watch, of course, seized on it to create a petition urging Maryland Senator Joan Conway to ban fracking. Thankfully, Sen. Conway refused the bait and supported fracking in Maryland (although we eventually lost this battle anyway, I’m sad to say, due to such tactics).

50 States 50 Plans with Mark RuffaloBack in 2015, another report was hailed by environmentalist groups. The “50 States 50 Plans” report authored by  Mark Jacobson, the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford, claimed the United States could, for all purposes, be at 100 percent renewable energy by 2055. The plan was even touted by Mark Ruffalo on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (an unfunny comedy show is the first place to look for serious science discussion, of course). The study, in short, claims there is a step-by-step process for each state to wean off all fossil fuels – a Jan Matthys version of the “Keep it in the Ground” movement.

Like all of these junk science studies, it was riddled with so much information, that 21 researchers from across academia published a retort of the 50/50 plan in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The abstract of this retort describes the Jacobson plan as:

“work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions”

Inadequately supported assumptions is surely an appropriate characterization, if not a sugar coated one. I never thought I would agree with a Berkeley professor on anything, but Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, says this about the plan from Jacobson and friends:

“They do bizarre things. They treat U.S. hydropower as an entirely fungible resource. Like the amount [of power] coming from a river in Washington state is available in Georgia, instantaneously.”

A great article at The Reason Foundation list the myriad faulty assumptions employed by Jacobson. They range from thermal energy storage systems that will be deployed in nearly every community to the total of 2,604 GW of storage charging capacity, which is more the double the capacity of all power plants in the country. The article also identifies the ridiculous mandates the Jacobson plan implies. It would require installation of:

“…335,000 onshore wind turbines; 154,000 offshore wind turbines; 75 million residential photovoltaic systems; 2.75 commercial photovoltaic systems; 46,000 utility-scale photovoltaic facilities; 3,600 concentrated solar power facilities with onsite heat storage; and an extensive array of underground thermal storage facilities.”

100% RenewablesThese scholars’ biggest fear? According to David Victor, an energy policy researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and coauthor of the critique, it is that Jacobson’s plan. left unchallenged, would drive legislation mandating policies that cannot be implemented with available technologies and resources. He should understand this more than most living in California where closed-door meetings with sue-happy special interest groups also close the door to any rational alternatives to their impractical ideology.

Jacobson stands by his paper and thinks the 21 researchers who challenged his fact-less wild-assed assumptions are just advocates of nuclear, fossil fuels, or carbon sequestration. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work,” he protests. But, isn’t peer review always a good thing? If Jacobson truly believed the 50/50 plan was the right path forward, he should welcome it, shouldn’t he? This would seem to me to be the best way to improve the plan if I were the author.

These lackadaisical ideological studies are creating more problems than they can solve, so they are naturally hailed as proof in the political spectrum. My Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, is the kind of politician who operates in just this fashion. He is opposed to fracking. His climate policies are backed by the Sierra Club and he was “honored” as a Climate Champion by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Both groups are well known to us as charlatans. Relying upon junks science such as the Jacobson plan, he introduced a Healthy Climate and Family Security Act in 2015 that would have imposed a carbon cap and trade program to be added to the Internal Revenue Code for only crude oil refineries, petroleum importers, coal mines, coal importers, and natural gas suppliers or processors.

This is just one example of many demonstrating how misinformation gets internalized by the political system. Perhaps, if more regulation is what the politicians believe will help, they should be regulating themselves and setting standards to ensure research isn’t used to set policy until it’s been peer reviewed by others of appropriate skepticism. It seems Jacobson’s plan never got that kind of attention — until now.

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