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21 Experts Debunk a Radical Claim about Renewable Energy

Energy experts are at war over a radical assertion that by mid-century the United States will be able to meet all its energy needs with wind, solar and hydro power.

The claim was made in 2015 by four academic researchers, led by Mark Z. Jacobson, for the continental United States, and it asserts that those renewables will replace not just the coal and natural gas used to make electricity, but also the gasoline and diesel that run cars and trucks, and the gas used in home heating. The paper is regularly cited by environmentalists who claim that the current fleet of U.S. nuclear reactors could close without any consequences to grid reliability.

But last week, a group of prominent researchers, some from Stanford and UC-Berkeley, and others from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Carnegie Mellon and other mainstream organizations, published a second paper that said that while they support the expanded use of renewables, Professor Jacobson et al. were dreaming.

One of the authors of the second paper said that it was dangerous to rely on such a narrow strategy. “I had largely ignored the papers arguing that doing all with renewables was possible at negative costs because they struck me as obviously incorrect,” David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, told The New York Times. But, he said, “when policy makers started using this paper for scientific support, I thought, ‘this paper is dangerous.’”

The dangers, critics say, is that we could step away from other technologies that are essential to reducing air pollution. We have one in mind in particular: nuclear energy.

After the publication of the skeptical assessment, some non-academic behavior followed. Prof. Jacobson said that the new critique had deliberate falsehoods, and that it was “dangerous because virtually every sentence in it is inaccurate.”

The essential problem for advocates of a system based on solar and wind is that their production is not only intermittent, but to the extent it is predictable, it does not match the pattern of demand. Solar production is, by definition, best at noon, but electricity demand is higher when the sun is going down. In many regions, demand is high in winter, when there is less sun. Wind is also out of sync with seasonal demand. Even on a daily basis, it blows strongest late at night, not a peak period. With the limited deployment of solar and wind that we have now, often energy from those sources must be thrown away, because it comes at the wrong times.

Seasonal mismatch between supply and demand on grid
Wind and sun production don’t match demand patterns in any of the American electric markets. Credit: Jared Moore, Ph.D., of Meridian Energy Policy

Operators of hydroelectric generators can usually hoard their water until times when the electricity is most needed, but there are limits, and getting approval to build big new dams is exceptionally hard. Carbon capture and storage, which would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuel plants, is thus far very expensive. The other large scale no-carbon source is nuclear, but Professor Jacobson dislikes nuclear energy.

In any case, we’re cheered to see the “all of the above” strategy reaffirmed with scientific rigor.

The above is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

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