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Note to National Review: A 100% Renewable Future Is Alive and Well

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This is a response to Robert Bryce's article in National Review on June 24, "Appalling Delusion of 100% Renewables Exposed: National Academy of Science Refutes Mark Jacobson's Dream That Our Economy Can Run Exclusively on 'Green' Energy."

Bryce'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. This response demonstrates that Bryce was negligent by not reporting our simultaneously published response in PNAS and by inaccurately reporting the facts.


First, PNAS did not "refute" our article as Bryce's title claims. To the contrary, PNAS published our response to Clack equally and simultaneously, giving 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."

Second, Bryce lauds the fact that the Clack et al. article had 21 coauthors. However, Clack and coauthors' own disclosure as published in the author contribution section of their paper indicates that only 3 out of 21 coauthors performed any type of research for the article. The remaining 18 merely contributed to writing the paper with admittedly no research contribution. Of the 3 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. On the other hand, our 100% clean, renewable energy peer-reviewed papers have collectively had over 85 researcher-coauthors and over 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. 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 before it is printed yet refuse to correct it.

In a second case, referred to by Bryce, Clack claimed we made a model error by mistakenly increasing the maximum discharge rate of hydroelectric power from reservoirs by a factor of 10. However, Clack was told in writing 16 months earlier and a second time just before publication of his article that we intentionally increased the maximum discharge rate without increasing the annual hydropower energy output (thus no change in the amount of water in any reservoir). Despite Clack being told the full truth twice and all co-authors, once, all refused to acknowledge this information, going so far as to pretend they were not aware of it by publishing in their PNAS paper, "…we hope there is another explanation…" although all were informed before publication that there was. Why would 21 authors diligently cross-checking an article do this – namely claim, "we hope there is another explanation" when all had been informed of one?

Our only mistakes were not to be clear in our original paper that we assumed an increase in the hydropower discharge rate while holding annual energy constant and to not account for the cost of the additional turbines, which we subsequently calculated as ~3% of the total energy cost. However, omissions in writing the article are not errors in the underlying model as Clack claimed. Further, 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 feasible by 2050 among all U.S. dams, 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 at low cost.

Bryce further criticizes underground storage in rocks, but the storage itself 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 using water rather than rocks. Underground rocks are a less-expensive substitute for water tanks.

Finally, Bryce continues to misstate the land requirements of wind. He quotes Clack as stating our wind turbine proposal would require 500,000 square kilometers without realizing that Clack's number relies entirely on a single number from a Department of Energy study that makes no sense because (1) the author of the study admits he includes land for future project expansion and double counts land where projects overlap and (2) it suggests only one 3-megawatt turbine every one square kilometers, which would be a waste of windy land. When data from 12 actual European and Australian wind farms with multi-megawatt turbines that have been analyzed in detail as part of an ongoing research project by Peter Enevoldsen of Aarhus University and co-workers, are used, the aggregate area required is less than one-third of what Bryce claims. Bryce further forgets that 31% of our wind turbines are offshore so use zero land.

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 Bryce read our PNAS response at all, he would not have made the errors he did. Nevertheless, 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.

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Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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