The idea that the U.S. economy can be run solely with renewable energy — a claim that leftist politicians, environmentalists, and climate activists have endlessly promoted — has always been a fool’s errand. And on Monday, the National Academy of Sciences published a blockbuster paper by an all-star group of American scientists that says exactly that.
The paper, by Chris Clack, formerly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado Boulder, and 20 other top scientists, appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It decimates the work of Mark Jacobson, the Stanford engineering professor whose wildly exaggerated claims about the economic and technical viability of a 100 percent renewable-energy system has made him a celebrity (he appeared on David Letterman’s show in 2013) and the hero of Sierra Clubbers, Bernie Sanders, and Hollywood movie stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio.
In their scathing takedown of Jacobson, Clack and his co-authors — who include Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, former EPA Science Advisory Board chairman Granger Morgan, and Jane Long of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — concluded that Jacobson’s 2015 paper contained “numerous shortcomings and errors.” The paper used “invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.” Those errors “render it unreliable as a guide about the likely cost, technical reliability, or feasibility of a 100 percent wind, solar, and hydroelectric power system.”
Among the biggest errors — and one that should force the Academy to withdraw Jacobson’s 2015 paper — is that Jacobson and Delucchi overstated by roughly a factor of ten the ability of the United States to increase its hydropower output. Furthermore, the paper ignores two key issues: electricity storage and land use. Jacobson claimed that the U.S. can store energy underground or store it in the form of hydrogen. Clack and his co-authors wrote that “there are no electric storage systems available today that can affordably and dependably store the vast amounts of energy needed over weeks to reliably satisfy demand using expanded wind and solar power generation alone.”
Clack et al. correct the record by pointing out that Jacobson’s scheme would require “nearly 500,000 square kilometers, which is roughly 6 percent of the continental United States, and more than 1,500 square meters of land for wind turbines for each American.” In other words, Clack found that Jacobson understated the amount of land needed for his all-renewable dystopia by a factor of 15. But even that understates the amount of territory needed. Jacobson’s plan requires nearly 2.5 terawatts (2.5 trillion watts) of wind-energy capacity, with the majority of that amount onshore. The Department of Energy has repeatedly stated that the footprint of wind energy, known as its capacity density, is 3 watts per square meter. And so 2.5 trillion watts divided by 3 watts per square meter equals 833 billion square meters (or 833,000 square kilometers): That’s a territory nearly twice the size of California.
The idea of using two California-size pieces of territory — and covering them with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines — is absurd on its face.
The idea of using two California-size pieces of territory — and covering them with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines — is absurd on its face. And yet, Jacobson’s 100 percent renewable scenario has become energy gospel among left-leaning politicians. For instance, in January, New York governor Andrew Cuomo touted his renewable-energy goals and declared that his state was not going to stop “until we reach 100 percent renewable because that’s what a sustainable New York is really all about.”
In February, 54 Massachusetts lawmakers — representing more than a quarter of the members of the state legislature — signed on to a bill that would require the Bay State to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. The bill (S. 1849) says that the goal is to “ultimately eliminate our use of fossil fuels and other polluting and dangerous forms of energy.”
In April, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), and Cory Booker (D., N.J.) introduced the 100 by ’50 Act, which calls on the United States to be completely free of fossil fuels by 2050. The bill, available here, is a laundry list of terrible ideas, including a “carbon duty” on any foreign-made goods that are made by energy-intensive industries. And as is standard with all-renewable promoters, the bill doesn’t contain a single mention of the word “nuclear” even though some of the world’s highest-profile climate scientists, including James Hansen, have said nuclear must be included in any effort to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. The 100 by ’50 legislation was — of course — endorsed by a who’s who of all-renewable cultists, including actor Mark Ruffalo; Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club; and May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org.
Jacobson’s response to the Clack paper (and to the ensuing Twitter storm attacking his work) would have made Captain Queeg proud. He has claimed, among other things, that his paper contains no errors; that Clack and the other authors are simply shilling for the nuclear and hydrocarbon sectors; and that the Department of Energy’s capacity data on wind energy (3 watts per square meter) is wrong and that, instead, the figure should be 9 watts per square meter.
The late David J. C. MacKay, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge, would have been horrified. In 2008, MacKay published Sustainable Energy — wthout the Hot Air, one of the first academic books to look at the land-use impacts of renewables. MacKay, who recognized that nuclear must be part of any effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, also calculated that wind energy needs about 700 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as a fracking site. Three years ago, shortly before his death at age 46 from cancer, MacKay talked with British author and writer Mark Lynas about his work. During that interview, MacKay called the idea of relying solely on renewables an “appalling delusion.”
The punch line here is clear: The Clack paper proves that it’s well past time for the green Left and their political allies to quit claiming that we don’t need hydrocarbons or nuclear energy. Alas, it appears they prefer appalling delusions about renewables to real science and simple math.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.