Is Mark Jacobson the New Amory Lovins?
Amory Lovins has played a pivotal role in America’s energy odyssey over the last 40 years. He has made predictions and evaluations that often seemed outlandish. Sometimes they proved to be true. Yet sometimes they led states and the nation into policies that proved disastrous.
In any case, Lovins’ place at the head of the renewables-can-do-it-all parade seems to have been taken over by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson. Jacobson’s blueprint for a renewable world, “The Solutions Project,” has already been adopted by two states, California and New York, aiming at 50 percent renewables by 2030. Like Lovins, he has received uncritical and sympathetic coverage in the press. And like Lovins, Jacobson adheres to one uncompromising principle – NO NUKES! Nuclear power is the embodiment of evil, an execrable form of energy that should not be allowed under any circumstances, whether we are trying to wean the world from oil or combat global warming.
Since this pie-in-the-sky vision of a world without fossil fuels or nuclear is so appealing in some quarters, perhaps it’s best to take a moment to look back and see how these dreams have played out in real life.
Lovins burst upon the scene while still in his 20s as an Oxford don (even though he had never received a degree) and British representative of Friends of the Earth. He published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” just at the moment when the Arab Oil Boycott had thrown the nation into a frenzy about future energy supplies. At the time, energy consumption was at 80 quadrillion BTUs per year and seemed headed inexorably toward 125 quads by the end of the century. Lovins made the seemingly impossible prediction that with vast, untapped opportunities for energy conservation, consumption could be held at only 100 quads by the year 2000. He proved to be exactly right.
On the supply side, however, he ran into trouble. Lovins predicted that by the year 2000 wind and solar energy – “the soft path” - could shoulder a large portion of the nation’s energy demand and by 2025 the transition could be complete. In the meantime we would need a “bridge fuel” to carry us over so that nuclear would be unnecessary. That bridge fuel was coal. Lovins argued that the new “fluidized bed” process of burning pulverized coal could keep air pollution to a minimum. (Concerns about carbon emissions and global warming had not yet surfaced.)
Lovins’ book-length version of this case, Soft Energy Paths, found its way to the desk of President Jimmy Carter and became the blueprint for Carter’s energy policy. The President chose coal over nuclear since America was the “Saudi Arabia of Coal.” He promised to double our coal consumption to a billion tons by 2000, a prediction that also proved correct. In the early 1970s coal was being phased out in favor of nuclear because of air pollution concerns. But the Lovins-Carter axiom made nuclear “the road not taken.”
The underlying principle of Lovins’ vision was this – electricity was inefficient. Lovins pointed out that 2/3 of the energy is lost in converting fuel to electricity and then the power must be distributed over vast distances to perform what ended up as mostly low-energy household tasks. He famously called this “cutting butter with a chainsaw.” Lovins imagined a world where power generation would be more “appropriate,” with people running their homes on backyard windmills and solar collectors. If your solar heating system malfunctioned you could always “put on a sweater or go next door.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Lovins continued to predict the decline of centralized electricity. In fact, just the opposite happened. In 1975 the nation was 38 percent electrified. By 2000 the figure was close to 50 percent.
Lovins’ other great foray into energy generation was his plan for biofuels. This was presented in a single paragraph in Soft Energy Paths in which he compared the size of the oil refining industry to the dimensions of the beer and wine fermenting business.
Each year the U.S. beer and wine industry, for example, microbiologically produced 5 percent as many gallons . . . as the U.S. oil industry produces gasoline. . . Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale . . . of U.S. cellars and breweries . . . would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States . . . The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable.
From this single paragraph the ethanol industry was born. President Carter made it part of his energy plan and corn ethanol was given huge tax breaks and mandates for inclusion in gasoline. Unfortunately, what Lovins never bothered to calculate was the amount of land that would be required for such an effort. As a result, we now dedicate roughly 20 percent of our agricultural land (45 percent of the corn crop) to producing ethanol that reduces our gasoline consumption by 3 percent. The situation is Europe is even worse. Entrepreneurs have been cutting tropical forests in order to make way for palm oil plantations, eliminating, for example, the habitat of the orangutan in Southeast Asia. Friends of the Earth in London calls it the “Oil for Ape Scandal” and has campaigned vigorously against it. Ironically, this is the same organization for which Lovins was working in 1976 when he first proposed the idea of biofuels.
In the U.S., no one followed Lovins’ blueprints for “soft energy” more assiduously than the state of California. Jerry Brown won his first term as governor in 1980 and followed Lovins’ plan to a tee. From 1980 to 2000 the state built no new power plants. (The Diablo Canyon reactors were brought online in 1985 and 1986 after a decade of effort.) Instead, the state encouraged the construction of electrical-and-heat co-generation plants where manufacturers, small businesses and even nursing homes were encouraged to generate their own heat and electricity through pocket-sized power plants. The largest plant built during the era was a 250-megawatt co-generation plant by Campbell Soups. Meanwhile the state threw up windmills by the thousands, planted solar plants in the desert and captured methane from landfills around the state generating 1 megawatt each. The dream of “distributed energy” in “small is beautiful” packages was being fulfilled.
All this continued until the California Electrical Crisis of 2000, when the demands from the emerging digital economy outran these pint-sized power plants. A dry season in northwest hydroelectric plants sent the state into a tailspin and soon it didn’t have enough electricity to power its traffic lights. California quickly went back to generating electricity the old-fashioned way. Casting environmental impact statements to the wind, it put up 12,000 MW of natural gas plants within a three-year span. Natural gas became the new “bridge fuel” that was going to take us to the land of wind and sunshine. California now gets 60 percent of its electricity from natural gas, highest in the country, and also imports more electricity than any other state, much of it from coal and nuclear plants in Arizona and Nevada. Yet it brags about the 20 percent it gets from renewable sources and – relying on Jacobson’s latest manifesto – has just voted to raise this to 50 percent by 2030.
Interestingly, Jacobson has arrived at his wind-and-solar utopia by taking the exact opposite direction as Lovins. Whereas Lovins envisioned a world in which centralized electricity was eventually phased out, Jacobson wants to electrify everything. Jacobson and his California cohort Mark Delucchi presented all this in a 2009 article in Scientific American, “A Plan to Power 100 percent of the Planet with Renewables.” This year they founded The Solutions Project, which has published a state-by-state analysis of what every state will have to do to reach the 100 percent goal by 2050.
Most notable in Jacobson’s plans is that he would electrify the entire transport system so that cars and trucks will all be operating on electricity. (Airplanes and cargo ships will be powered by hydrogen generated from electricity.) Since transport consumes one-quarter of our energy, this would seem to place an even greater burden on our electrical grid. But in one of those magical sleight-of-hand efforts so common among renewable advocates, Jacobson argues that electrifying the transport sector would actually reduce overall energy demand since electric cars transmit about 75 percent of their power to the motion of the vehicle whereas gasoline engines transmit only 20 percent. Of course all this overlooks the energy that is lost in generating and transmitting the electricity in the first place, but since electricity will now come entirely from renewable sources, who cares? It just means building a few thousand more windmills.
Jacobson proposal is not modest. His plan for electrifying the world calls for 3.5 million 600-foot-tall, 5 MW wind turbines. Although he is not specific, America’s portion of this harvest seems to be somewhere around 500,000 or 10,000 for each state. He calculates that this would only occupy 1 percent of the world’s land but this only counts the actual concrete base of each windmill. The visual and aerial impact would be at least ten times as great, so that it would probably be impossible to go anywhere on earth without being in sight of a windmill. Large migrating predator birds such as eagles, hawks, condors and falcons would go the way of the dodo. To all this he would add 89,000 photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, averaging 300 megawatts apiece. These would be located in the desert and somewhere nearer your backyard.
Significantly, Jacobson’s whole global scenario is based on one bland aphorism: “When the sun isn’t shining the wind is usually blowing.” He writes: “Because the wind often blows during storm conditions when the sun does not shine and the sun often shines on calm days with little wind, combining wind and solar can go a long way toward meeting demand, especially when geothermal provides a steady base and hydroelectric can be called on to fill the gaps.” Anyone who believes this daydream has never spent any time working for an independent systems operator trying to maintain the balance on an electrical grid.
All this might find some justification in the idea of cutting back on fossil fuels and carbon emissions, but what about nuclear power? Isn’t that another way of replacing carbon fuels with much more reliable electricity? Well, like Lovins, Jacobson is emotionally and viscerally opposed to nuclear. He cooks up an argument that says nuclear produces 25 times more carbon emissions than wind. He does this by assuming that every aspect of building 100 new nuclear plants will be fired by carbon electricity while the 89,000 solar plants and 500,000 windmills will be conjured out of thin air. “Enough concrete and steel exist for the millions of wind turbines, and both commodities are recyclable,” he writes. Recyclable from what? Are we going to start tearing down bridges and digging up sidewalks and highways in order to provide steel and concrete for windmills?
Jacobson’s work is filled with such frivolous thinking. “The average U.S. coal plant is offline 12.5 percent of the year for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance,” he writes. “Modern wind turbines have a down time of less than 2 percent on land and less than 5 percent at sea. Photovoltaic systems are also at less than 2 percent.” What he doesn’t mention is that those windmills and solar collectors are only producing electricity 20-30 percent of the time and sometimes as low as 15-20 percent. By not counting these lulls as “downtime,” Jacobson makes them seem more reliable than dispatchable resources.
All this would not matter much if these fantasies did not have such political impact. California has just voted to mandate that utilities get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. That would put them right on track for Jacobson’s 100 percent by 2050. And last May in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo, relying largely on Jacobson’s documents, announced the Reforming the Energy Vision program aimed at pushing New York’s renewable portion to 50 percent by 2030. The plan includes a $1 billion commitment to developing solar energy and will probably add pressure to Cuomo’s efforts to close Indian Point. Jacobson’s work was also cited in Vermont’s decision to close Vermont Yankee and is regularly hailed by opponents of fracking.
Knowledgeable energy experts exhaust themselves trying to point out the flaws in this vision. (See for instance Charles Barton at NuclearGreenBlogspot or Tom Blees at Brave New Climate). But the fantasy is too alluring to bear discredit. Spain and Germany and Denmark have already gone down this road. California, New England and New York are starting the journey. Who’s next?