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Attack on Mark Jacobson's 100% Renewable Energy Plan Is Misguided

Energy
Attack on Mark Jacobson's 100% Renewable Energy Plan Is Misguided

The last week has seen a flood of stories on clean energy's prospects—stories that make your head spin with their conflicting tales of renewable energy's prospects of ending our dangerous addiction to fossil fuel power from coal and gas.


A renewables transition will "happen without Trump" because of market forces—or can't do the job and is shaping up as "likely very costly." (Both from the same day's New York Times). Cities, states and businesses are filling in the leadership vacuum created by the Trump administration—or they are falling far short. Wind is making it impossible for fossil fuels to compete in Texas power markets—or Texas will continue to be the biggest carbon emitting state of all because wind is too unreliable. (Both from Bloomberg).

And all of these perspectives are coming from scientists and analysts who are pro-clean energy and favor strong action to protect the climate—this is not a fight ginned up by ExxonMobil, Peabody Coal or climate denialists from the Heartland Institute.

So what's the argument? Where do we stand on the ability of clean, renewable energy sources to eliminate the risk to the climate posed by continuing reliance on coal, oil and natural gas?

That depends on the question you ask. If you look at where we are today, our current emission rates are far too high. If continued unchecked, they will rapidly destabilize the weather and increase climate risks to catastrophic levels. (Mathematicians call this the function). If you look at the progress we are making, the future looks brighter, but still quite scary. The commitments governments made at the Paris climate agreement, and the trends for deployment of clean energy vs. fossil fuels, all show future emissions declining, but not declining enough to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (This question, "How fast are we progressing?" is what mathematicians call the first derivative). But if you compare the pace of progress this year with that pace five years ago, you can see that decarbonization is accelerating. Not only are we cutting emissions, we are cutting them faster with each passing year. If we continue to accelerate that progress long enough, then we can look forward to eliminating fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions and stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (Mathematicians call this measure of acceleration "the second derivative").

Let's apply these three measurements to the most heated of this week's controversies, the attack by a group of prominent climate and energy scientists on journal articles by Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson which argued that wind, solar and hydro could enable the U.S. to eliminate all fossil fuels and nuclear energy from its electricity mix, without any significant increase in costs.

I'm not going to get into the debate about whether Jacobson's article met scientific standards or was too speculative—I'm not qualified. But the media coverage of the debate has missed the point. Jacobson described a scenario in which we get 100 percent of our power from renewables by 2055 with technologies he thinks will be available by that date. Jacobson's critics disagree—but the lead contributor to their article, Christopher Clack previously published his own trail-breaking journal article saying that we can cut carbon emissions by 80 percent with renewables by 2030. Clack's article argued that this would require connecting different regions of the U.S. with transmission lines—a technology clearly available today. We would need 60 percent wind and solar to do this—hydro, nuclear and natural gas would make up the rest.

So both sides of this media-hyped debate agree that, using today's renewable technology plus transmission, we can cut utility sector carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030. (President Obama's much criticized Clean Power Plan, now suspended by the Trump Administration, by comparison, envisaged cutting utility emissions by only 32 percent by 2030).

So what Clack and Jacobson disagree about is what happens between 2030 and 2055. How likely is it that new storage technologies will enable us, at no cost, to get rid of the last 20 percent of those emissions—25 or 40 years from now! Even with all of my respect for the scientists on both sides, they can't possibly know the answer to that question. Only 15 years ago, solar power cost about $0.37 kwh. No one anticipated the precipitous drop in costs that followed. Today that same solar power costs a tenth as much so predicting how much electricity storage will cost in 2055 (and storage, plus long distance transmission, is the key to enabling renewable power to meet 100 percent of our needs) is simply not possible.

If, in the next 15 years, battery or other storage costs drop as fast as solar did for the last 15, Jacobson's vision is clearly viable. The second derivative can get us there—but today we are only at 10 percent wind and solar. We have a long way to go.

And we know is that racing ahead to install as much solar and wind as the grid can handle will drive the costs of renewables down even further—and lower utility bills. Both Clack and Jacobson agree that getting 60 percent renewable reliance is feasible and cheaper. So it's premature to ask "will we need some remaining natural gas or nuclear or can we go 100 percent renewable?" And we are making money—as well as cutting carbon—every step of the way.

How much of a difference would such an acceleration of renewable energy in the utility sector make to the climate? Well, cutting utility sector emissions by 80 percent would fulfill the entire Obama Administration Paris pledge (the first derivative). But it would also require doubling the speed at which we have cut utility emissions in the past decade (the second derivative).

How do we make sure that happens? That's the important question—not what do we do about the last 20 percent of those emissions when we get to 2030. We can be reasonably certain every guess we make about that today will prove wrong—however carefully peer reviewed.

So this is the wrong argument to be having. Fortunately, the stakeholders who are the target of the fight—policy makers—are asking the right question and coming up with the right answer. At its Miami convention this week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously agreed to a resolution, initiated by the Sierra Club, calling for 100 percent renewable power not by 2055—but by 2035. All of America's largest cities just got on board the renewables express—its second derivative just got a boost.

That's leadership.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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