Response to Forbes: Stop Inaccuracies—100% Renewable Energy Is Possible

This is a response to James Conca's article in Forbes on June 26, "Debunking the Unscientific Fantasy of 100% Renewables."

Conca's article describes a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Chris Clack and coauthors on June 19, criticizing a paper colleagues and I authored in the same journal in 2015. Our original paper showed that the U.S. can transition to 100% clean, renewable energy in all energy sectors without coal, nuclear power or biofuels. In this response, I show that Conca was negligent by not reporting on our response in PNAS and by seriously misrepresenting facts.

Conca's article starts with two misrepresentations. First, Conca points to the Clack critique in PNAS but nowhere does he mention that PNAS published our response to Clack equally and simultaneously. In fact, PNAS gave us the last words by not allowing Clack to respond to us. Our main conclusion, which PNAS published, was "The premise and all error claims by Clack et al. about Jacobson et al. are demonstrably false. We reaffirm Jacobson et al.'s conclusions." Conca did not report this.

Second, Conca states in the first sentence that "twenty-one prominent scientists issued a sharp critique," but fails to point out that Clack and coauthors' own disclosure published in their paper indicates that only three out of 21 coauthors performed any type of research for the article. The remaining 18 did no research whatsoever, merely contributing to writing the paper. Of the three authors who did perform research, one has admitted publicly, "I am not an energy expert" (see 15 minutes and 32 seconds into this UCLA debate. In the meantime, our 100% clean, renewable energy peer-reviewed papers have collectively had more than 85 researcher-coauthors and more than 35 anonymous peer reviewers.

Third, as pointed out in our published response, there were zero mathematical modeling errors in our underlying model as claimed by Clack. This clarifies an inaccurate quote Conca attributes to me, "…there is not a single error in our paper." Not only did Conca never interview me to obtain such a quote, but the misquote is wrong on its face, since we acknowledge in our PNAS response (which Conca does not cite) our failure to be clear in our paper about one particular assumption and our neglect of one cost. However, while we were not clear in our original paper, there was no underlying model error, contradicting Clack's major contention in his paper.

Specifically, in one instance, Clack falsely claimed we had a model error because he believed that a number in a table of ours was a maximum value when, in fact, the text clearly indicated that the number was an annual average number that varied in time, not a maximum number. Nowhere in the text was the word "maximum" used to describe that number. Thus, Clack made up out of thin air the claim that the number was a maximum. Clack and all coauthors were informed their claim was an error through a document sent to him by us through PNAS prior to publication of their article but still refused to correct it. One must wonder what the motivation is of authors who are informed of an error yet refuse to correct it.

Conca's article repeats another one of Clack's false claims. Namely, the claim that our goal of using 100% clean, renewable energy will increase costs if we exclude nuclear power and coal with carbon capture, stating that our doing so is "at complete odds with serious analyses and assessments, including those performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the International Energy Agency and most of academia."

However, as stated in our PNAS-published response to Clack that Conca negligently fails to cite, the IPCC says the exact opposite: "Without support from governments, investments in new nuclear power plants are currently generally not economically attractive within liberalized markets, ..." Further, unlike in our studies, neither the IPCC, NOAA, NREL, nor the IEA has ever performed or reviewed a cost analysis of grid stability with near 100% clean, renewable energy so could not possibly have come to the conclusion claimed by Conca.

Conca, then makes a misleading and irrelevant statement. He says that we "assume a nuclear war every 30 years or so." The PNAS study he is criticizing says nothing of the sort. He fails to tell readers he is referring to a completely different paper that I wrote from 2009 that estimated the upper-limit risk of nuclear war from nuclear weapons proliferation. However, just like he negligently failed to report our response published in PNAS, Conca failed to report the lower-limit risk of nuclear war as stated in the 2009 paper, zero nuclear wars. Why would he report only the upper-limit of a risk rather than both the upper and lower-limit risks?

Conca then claims we assumed 15 million acres covered by wind and solar, which is wrong, but even if it were correct, he doesn't realize this is only 0.66% of U.S. land area to replace all fossil fuels. He forgets that the 1.7 million active and 2.3 million inactive oil and gas wells alone in the U.S. plus the 20,000 new ones each year occupy more than 1% of U.S. land area for the roads, well pads, and storage facilities.

Conca then falsely claims we proposed to add new hydroelectric installations equivalent to 600 Hoover dams when our paper clearly calls for zero new dams. We propose only to increase the hydropower maximum discharge rate by adding turbines without increasing the annual hydropower energy output (thus no change in the annual amount of water in any reservoir). The concept of adding turbines to the outside of existing hydropower dams to increase the maximum discharge rate while keeping annual hydropower energy constant was a new idea that works. The legitimate question is, what is the maximum discharge rate that is practical relative to other options by 2050, not whether it is possible to increase the discharge rate.

Regardless, an alternate solution to increasing the hydropower discharge rate is to increase the discharge rate of concentrated solar power (CSP) and/or adding batteries. Both methods results in low-cost solutions as illustrated for the United States and Canada here. These results contradict Clack's premise that our nation's energy can't run 100% on wind, water and solar power alone at low cost.

Conca further criticizes underground storage in rocks, but it is inexpensive (less than 1/300th the cost per unit energy stored than batteries) and a form of district heat. Sixty percent of Denmark's heat is from district heating.

In sum, debate about our energy future can be constructive and is certainly encouraged. But inaccurate statements about scientific work and amplifications of those inaccuracies help no one. Had Conca read our PNAS response at all, he would not have made the errors he did. However, my colleagues and I are always seeking to improve our methods and calculations. Our goals are to better the quality of life of everyone by determining the best ways to provide clean, renewable, and reliable energy while creating jobs and improving people's health and reducing costs. Hopefully others share these goals, regardless of political party affiliation.

Show Comments ()
An aerial view of of the Power County wind farm in Power County, Idaho. U.S. Department of Energy / Flickr

Who’s Behind a Letter Asking Congress to End the Wind Production Tax Credit?

By Dave Anderson

A new letter asking Congress to end the wind production tax credit has ties to the Institute for Energy Research, a group that has received funding from the fossil fuel and utility industry and is a close ally of the Trump administration.

The Energy and Policy Institute downloaded a pdf of the letter from WindAction.org, an anti-wind website run by the New Hampshire-based Lisa Linowes. A look at the "Document Properties" seemed to identify "Chris Warren" as the "Author" of the file:

Keep reading... Show less

Victory! Monsanto Shill Michael Dourson Withdraws After Public Outcry

The Center for Food Safety heralded reports that Michael Dourson, President Trump's controversial nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Wednesday withdrew his nomination after senators raised concerns over his past work and conflicts of interest.

"Dourson is a long-time pesticide industry shill, with a history of manipulating scientific research to benefit corporate special interests. He was a dangerous, irresponsible choice to oversee chemical safety at the EPA," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director a Center for Food Safety.

Keep reading... Show less
Cap Sciences / Flickr

Electronic Waste Study Finds $65 Billion in Raw Materials Discarded in Just One Year

The amount of electronic waste around the world grew to a record 45 million tons in 2016, according to a United Nations-backed study released on Wednesday.

To put that in perspective, the weight of last year's e-waste was equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel Towers, according to the study by the UN university, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association. The amount of e-waste—defined as anything with a plug or a battery—rose by eight percent since 2014, the time of the last assessment.

Keep reading... Show less
An important fishing port of the French Atlantic Island Ile d'Oleron is Port La Cotinière. Robert Schüller / Flickr

Fishing Limits Set Too High Again by Council of the EU

As their annual end-to-the-year meeting closed on Dec. 13, the 28 fisheries ministers who sit on the Council of the European Union again set some fishing limits for Atlantic Ocean and North Sea stocks higher than scientists had advised and higher than the European Commission had proposed. Council deliberations went through the night and officials have not yet made all the details available on how 2018 fishing limits were calculated.

As in previous years, participants in the Council meeting announced that good progress had been made towards achieving the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) deadline to end overfishing by 2020. We can only hope the figures bear out this optimism when a full analysis comparing the decisions to scientific advice is completed.

Keep reading... Show less
Screenshot / White House Video

President Just Signed Bill That Says Climate Change a National Security Risk, But Does He Know That?

By Angela Ledford Anderson

President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law Tuesday. The act would require the Pentagon to do a report on how military installations and overseas staff may be vulnerable to climate change over the next 20 years.

Keep reading... Show less

'The Wrong Mine in the Wrong Place': Former Republican EPA Administrators Blast Alaska Mining Project

By Taryn Kiekow Heimer

An U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator under every Republican presidential administration since the EPA was created, except the Ford administration, whose administrator is deceased, have joined forces to make a statement in opposition to the Pebble Mine proposed in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Their statement appeared Tuesday as a full-page ad in the Washington Post.

Keep reading... Show less
2017 Toyota Prius Prime Premium. motortrend.com

Toyota Urged to Reject Tainted 'Partnership' Claimed by Destructive EPA Chief

The Environmental Working Group is urging Toyota to reject a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because EPA chief Scott Pruitt's plan to "evaluate management practices" is cover for his real agenda of destroying the agency's ability to do its job.

In a letter sent Wednesday to James Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, EWG President Ken Cook wrote that helping Pruitt "manage EPA into the ground" would betray the ideals of quality, effectiveness and efficiency represented by the vaunted "Toyota Way" and the company's reputation for and commitment to environmental responsibility.

Keep reading... Show less
A storm cell dumps rain in rural western Illinios. Tom Gill / Flickr

Extreme Storms to Multiply, Intensify Across U.S., New Simulations Suggest

By Tim Radford

For the U.S., harder rain is on the way: America's summer thunderstorms are about to get stormier. Later this century, the notorious mesoscale convective storms of middle America will not just darken skies—they will also dump as much as 80 percent more water on the farms, highways and cities of the 48 contiguous states.

Mesoscale thunderstorms cover an area of around 100 kilometers (approximately 62 miles): these have been on the increase, both in frequency and intensity, in the last 35 years and new research suggests that, as the world warms, their frequency could triple.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!