Jacobson: All of the above doesn’t work: Mediocre approaches soak up funds and prevent clean energy solutions

By Claudia Kemfert and Mark Z. Jacobson, Clean Technica, Dec 2020 https://cleantechnica.com/2020/12/16/mediocrity-is-the-enemy-of-the-solution/

On Friday, December 11, 2020, European Union leaders agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. On Saturday, December 12, President-Elect Joe Biden promised that the US would rejoin the Paris Accord on Wednesday, January 20, the first day of his new administration. The agreement calls for the United States to reduce its carbon emissions 25% below 2005 levels by 2025. Also on December 12, President Xi Jinping of China told a virtual climate summit that China would reduce its carbon emissions 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, with renewables accounting for 25% of energy consumption by then.

Are any of these promises enough? Do these and other leaders have a clear understanding of what the problems are and the technologies we need to eliminate emissions? We think the answer to both questions is no.

First, what are the main problems caused by energy? In addition to global warming, they are air pollution mortality and morbidity and energy insecurity. According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die and hundreds of millions more become ill each year from worldwide air pollution. In addition, our current energy infrastructure gives rise to at least four types of energy insecurity: that due to diminishing availability of fossil fuels and uranium; that due to the reliance on centralized power plants and refineries; that due to reliance on energy from outside a country’s borders; and that due to fuels that have mining, pollution, waste, meltdown, and weapons proliferation risk.

Since all these problems are caused primarily by our current energy infrastructure, we believe changing our energy to rely entirely on clean, renewable energy and storage will solve all three problems. Clean, renewable energy includes onshore and offshore wind, solar photovoltaics on rooftops and in power plants, concentrated solar power, solar thermal for heat, geothermal electricity and heat, existing hydroelectric power, tidal power, and wave power. These types of electricity and heat are all provided by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources. Storage includes electricity, heat, cold, and environmentally-friendly, sustainable hydrogen storage. We and other groups have developed plans for almost all countries of the world to transition to 100% WWS and storage at low cost.

How is this solution at odds with those of world leaders? In two main ways. First, most scientists believe that if we want to avoid 1.5 oC global warming since the early 1900s and its catastrophic consequences, the only practical way is to eliminate 80% of energy and non-energy emissions by no later than 2030 and 100% by or before 2050. Neither the Paris Accord nor the other proposals listed at the beginning are nearly so aggressive enough to accomplish this goal. Second, a careful look at the policies of world leaders indicate that, while they include WWS and storage, they also include either natural gas, carbon capture, direct air capture, biofuels, and/or nuclear power. Thus, these leaders propose an “all-of-the-above” policy, where they will try everything that special interests claim help solve the climate problem but really can’t. This policy is often disguised under the term,”climate neutrality.” The term sounds good and creates political majorities, but it also extends technological path dependencies on fossil and nuclear business models. Even worse, the “all-of-the-above-climate neutrality” policy does not address air pollution or energy insecurity at all; instead, it worsens these problems.

As famously stated once, mediocrity is the enemy of greatness. In this case, mediocrity is the enemy of the solution.

So, why does “all-of-the-above” not work?

First, natural gas results in enormous carbon dioxide, methane, and air pollution emissions, both during its mining and use. In addition, it is a limited resource, is used significantly in centralized power plants, is often mined then shipped across country boundaries, and has mining and water pollution risks. As a result, natural gas damages climate, human health via air pollution, and energy security, so it fails to solve any problem. A current example from Europe illustrates the absurdity of current policy related to natural gas. Europe and Germany are currently constructing the Northstream II natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. This contradicts all agreed objectives and is economically and ecologically nonsensical. However, it was agreed upon as a concession to special interest groups within the framework of “climate neutrality.” 

Second, carbon capture (removing carbon dioxide from smoke stacks) and direct air capture (removing carbon dioxide from the air) fail on their face on multiple levels. First, they reduce absolutely no air pollution. Instead, because they require energy to run, they require more mining and burning of natural gas or coal to provide that energy, thus they increase both mining and air pollution. Since they increase rather than decrease the use of fossil fuels, they hasten all the energy security risks of fossil fuels. Because they are inefficient and costly at reducing carbon from smokestacks or the air, the money they use to do that could more easily be used to build a wind turbine or solar plant to replace a coal or gas plant, thus reduce more carbon from the air while simultaneously reducing air pollution and mining. Finally, what happens to the carbon that is captured? Well, today, most is piped to an oil field to make the oil less dense to get it out of the ground more easily. Half the captured carbon is lost back to the air through this process. There is no proof that the rest of the carbon stays in the ground. Recently, EU politicians have been raving about “blue hydrogen”, in which the CO2 produced during the production of hydrogen using natural gas will be captured and stored. Such technologies are often promised by companies in the oil and gas industry as “the miracle weapon for achieving climate neutrality,” for which they request generous state subsidies.

Third, biofuels and biomass are billed as climate saviors. Biofuels are burned as a replacement for gasoline or diesel in vehicles. Biomass is burned as a replacement for coal or natural gas to produce electricity. Because biofuels and biomass are both burned, they create similar levels of air pollution as the fossil fuels that they replace. The land use required for biofuels is enormous. Photosynthesis is only 1% efficient. Solar panels are 20% efficient. Thus, a solar panel needs 1/20th the land as a biofuel to produce the same energy. On top of that, an electric car uses 1/4th the energy as an internal-combustion engine car to go the same distance. Thus, a battery-electric car running on solar energy uses 1/80th the land as an ethanol-fueled car. Further, biofuels require huge amounts of energy, fertilizers, and water to process and transport. Some studies find that the carbon consumed in producing a biofuel is similar to that of the gasoline or diesel it replaces. Similarly, whereas several forms of biomass (e.g., forestry residues) produce less carbon than coal or natural gas for electricity generation, others (e.g., municipal solid waste) produce much more. Even the forms of biomass that produce the least carbon still emit many times more carbon than wind energy. In fact, wind and solar reduce orders of magnitude more air pollution while using less land and reducing much more carbon than biofuels or biomass.

Fourth, new nuclear power has zero chance of helping to solve the urgent climate, pollution, and energy security problems described. New nuclear plants take 10 to 19 years between planning and operation. This includes the times to obtain a construction site, a construction permit, an operating permit, financing, and insurance; the time between construction permit approval and issue; and the construction time. This compares with planning-to-operation times of new wind or utility PV of 1 to 3 years. Thus, with an average new nuclear time of 15 years, not a single new reactor planned today could be built by 2030, when we need 80 percent of all emissions stopped. This applies to proposed Small Modular Reactors, the first of which is estimated to be commercially available only by 2030, and this will likely be delayed as well.

On top of that, new nuclear plants (including Small Modular Reactors) cost around 5 times that of a new onshore wind or utility PV farm. Thus, we for the same money, we would obtain one-fifth the energy with nuclear and 7 to 18 years later. 

Moreover, nuclear has multiple energy security problems. 1.5% of all nuclear reactors built to date have melted down; multiple countries have developed nuclear weapons secretly under the guise of civilian nuclear energy programs; nuclear radioactive waste must by stored over 250,000 years and has exposure risks; and nuclear has underground uranium mining risks for lung cancer. WWS technologies do not have any of these risks. Finally, nuclear is not carbon free. It results in significant carbon emissions during the 10 to 19 years between planning and operation; it requires significant energy for refining uranium and building the plant over many years, and it emits direct heat and water vapor, a greenhouse gas, to the air during its operation. Overall, it emits 9 to 37 times the carbon-equivalent emissions per unit energy produced as a new wind turbine.

In sum, an all-of-the-above policy is a mediocre policy that will not help solve the global warming, air pollution, or energy security problems we face because it will siphon scarce resources needed for the real solution to these problems. It will also siphon precious time, which we have very little of.

What we need is a rapid transition to 100% clean, renewable WWS energy and storage for everything while also addressing non-energy emissions. This transition involves electrification of most everything – vehicles; building heating and cooking; industrial processes – and providing the electricity entirely with WWS. We estimate that, due to the efficiency of electricity over combustion and other factors, such electrification will reduce worldwide energy needs about 57%. Although overall energy requirements will decline, electricity requirements will be about 90% greater than today. Thus, more energy will be electricity. Electricity is the new oil.

Because we will use much less overall energy and because the cost per unit energy is lower with WWS, annual worldwide costs of powering the world for all purposes will be about 61% lower – $6.8 trillion per year rather than $17.7 trillion per year – with WWS in 2050. Because WWS eliminates almost 7 million deaths annually and emissions associated with global warming, it also reduces social costs (energy plus health plus climate costs) worldwide by an even larger 91 percent (from $76.1 to $6.8 trillion per year). 

The upfront capital needed for this transition worldwide (which is spread over 30 years), is about $73 trillion. However, this cost pays for itself in about seven years due to the $11 trillion in annual energy cost savings due to WWS over fossil fuels. In the United States, the capital cost of this Green New Deal is $7.8 trillion. In Europe, it is $6.2 trillion. In China, it is above $16 trillion.

WWS creates 28.6 million more long-term, full-time jobs than lost worldwide, including 3.1 million in the United States, 2.9 million in Europe, and over 8.5 million in China. It needs only 0.65% of the world’s land, of which two-thirds is space between wind turbines that can be used for multiple purposes.

Thus, we urge world leaders to seek a real solution, not mediocrity, and to stop letting fossil-nuclear business models continue under the guise of “climate neutrality” or a different name. We are at a turning point. The decade of avoiding climate change and irreversible climate protection is beginning. But only without alternative facts and smoke screens, only with scientific facts. There are only advantages to a rapid transition to real clean, renewable energy and storage.

Claudia Kemfert
Prof. Dr. of Energy, Transportation, and Environment
German Institute of Economic Research (DIW, Berlin)

Mark Z. Jacobson
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Stanford University


Mark Jacobson’s new book: 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything

Welcome to the website for the book,100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything

by Mark Z. Jacobson, to be published by Cambridge University Press in early 2020. If you would like to order the book in advance, please contact Matt Lloyd mlloyd@cambridge.org at Cambridge University Press. The book will be used during Spring, 2019 for a Stanford University course of the same name. The course is available online. Next spring, the course will likely be available at much lower cost or free.

Stanford University Course CEE 176B/276B (link).

This book examines the science, engineering, economic, social, and political aspects of transitioning towns, cities, states, countries, businesses, and the world to 100 percent clean, renewable wind-water-solar (WWS) energy and storage for everything. Such a transition will address air pollution, global warming, and energy security simultaneously. The book also examines ways to reduce non-energy emissions. It concludes that a transition among all energy and non-energy sectors worldwide is technically and economically possible. The main obstacles appear to be social and political.

The book starts by defining the air pollution, global warming, and energy insecurity problems we seek to solve (Chapter 1). Chapter 2 then discusses WWS electricity and heat generating technologies; transportation technologies; building heating and cooling technologies, high-temperature industrial heat technologies; appliances, and machines needed for a transition. It further discusses energy efficiency measures, electricity storage, heat and cold storage, and hydrogen storage. Finally, it discusses methods of addressing non-energy sources of greenhouse gas and aerosol particle pollution. Chapter 3 goes into depth about why we do not need natural gas as a bridge fuel, fossil fuels with carbon capture, nuclear power, biomass (with or without carbon capture), biofuels, synthetic direct air capture, or geoengineering.

Because a 100 percent WWS world is mostly electrified, Chapter 4 focuses on electricity basics. Solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind will likely comprise the largest share of a WWS world. As such, Chapter 5 discusses solar PV and solar radiation in depth. Chapter 6 discusses onshore and offshore wind. Chapter 7 moves on to discuss steps in developing a 100 percent WWS roadmap for a country, state, or city. Chapter 8 explains how to match power demand with supply with 100 percent WWS plus storage. Finally, Chapter 9 outlines my personal journey toward 100 percent; the movement that has arisen around the 100 percent WWS roadmaps; laws and commitments that have been implemented to date due to them; and the policies needed in the future to finally solve the problems of air pollution, global warming, and energy security.

The DRAFT Introduction and Table of Contents are here (pdf)


Some select draft sections of the text

Air pollution from fossil fuels, biofuels, bioenergy, and biomass burning is 2nd leading cause of death worldwide; a 100% WWS world will eliminate most deaths (pdf)

Diagram of the components of WWS generation, storage, and use (pdf)

Updated timeline and land area to transition 143 countries to 100% WWS and 5 reasons demand decreases 57.1% along the way (pdf)

How to eliminate all non-energy emissions in a 100% WWS World (pdf)

Countries, states, districts, counties, cities, towns, and businesses that have reached or committed to 100% renewables in one or more energy sector (pdf)

How clean, renewable wind-water-solar (WWS) energy reduces four types of energy insecurities that fossil fuels, with or without carbon capture, and nuclear create (pdf)

Changes in carbon dioxide upon implementing WWS (pdf)

How reducing transmission and distribution losses 1% can reduce fossil use 1.6 to 5.4% (pdf)

Maximum extractable wind power on Earth is 58 times that needed for our 2050 roadmaps (pdf)

Contributors to Anthropogenic Global Warming Versus the Natural Greenhouse Effect (pdf)

Why excluding nuclear, fossils with carbon capture, and biofuels makes financial and climate sense (link)

Evaluation of carbon capture with coal and natural gas versus wind, water, and solar (pdf)

Evaluation of nuclear power versus wind, water, and solar (pdf)

Evaluation of biomass with and without carbon capture versus wind, water, and solar (pdf)

Evaluation of liquid biofuels versus wind, water, and solar (pdf)

Evaluation of direct air capture versus wind, water, and solar (pdf)

Evaluation of geoengineering versus wind, water, and solar (pdf)

Please submit any questions by email to jacobson@stanford.edu

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