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Thursday, August 17, 2017

More thoughts on the robustness of Mark Jacobson’s 100% renewable energy plan

Figure 1: Trickle-down solar collector test rig

When I first saw the paper critiquing Jacobson's 100% renewables plan (see here, here, here, and here) I thought to myself, “If he denies there are any mistakes but then makes changes, I'll know that the critiques had at least some measure of validity.” Lo and behold, after denying that there were any mistakes, he immediately made revisions to the study.

I also thought, “And if any changes made involve his input assumptions, that would suggest that the study results were likely heavily biased by cherry picked assumptions all along (garbage in = garbage out).”

Why did Mark Jacobson limit his 100% renewable game plan to the expansion of wind and solar?

In a nutshell, it’s because “we” environmentalists are opposed to practically every other energy source. Corn, palm, cane, and canola liquid biofuels, new dams, and the combustion of biomass have all more or less been rejected as being too environmentally destructive.

But nuclear power does not necessitate the obliteration of river ecosystems, salmon runs, forests, or grasslands. Instead, environmental groups have rejected it on the pretense that it’s too expensive, dirty, and dangerous.

And because none of that is necessarily true, one has to conclude that it’s being rejected out of willful ignorance (not unlike the rejection of the theory of evolution by some groups and for similar reasons).

You might argue that Jacobson rejected nuclear energy because of its cost but when Jesse Jenkins mentioned in a tweet that Jacobson’s own data had (inadvertently) demonstrated that the inclusion of nuclear would actually have lowered costs, Jacobson’s response was to simply ban Jenkins from his twitter feed.

The difference between Jacobson’s study and most others is the extraordinary claim to know how to decarbonize an entire industrialized planet via the expansion of only two (sporadic) energy sources: wind and solar.

I don’t know at what point Jacobson went off the rails, but a research paper is just a road-map used to test hypothesis. Unless and until the results are vetted, the results of studies like these are only, at best, theoretical. In reality, hypothesis rarely pan out, in part or especially in full. His promotion of the study’s grandiose theoretical results as factual borders on the (pick a word for me).

Papers tend to serve as stepping stones for later ones. They are rarely the be all end all solution. A study was recently published that looks a lot like Jacobson's except it fixed many of his problems with the inclusion of nuclear.

The devil is in the details.

Let me give you a simple real world example of a study I did to test the hypothesis that single story homes in Seattle can supply all of their own heating needs using a trickle-down solar collection system. I'd read about these systems but couldn't find any data on them, so, to satisfy my curiosity, I generated my own data by constructing a test rig using a single piece of black corrugated metal roofing covered with glass. A pump circulated water to the top of the roof segment from a three cubic foot insulated container at the bottom. See Figure 1.

The test confirmed that a system like this, on mild, partly cloudy days in Seattle could raise the water temperature from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 110 degrees. Using that information and a whole lot of assumptions to fill in for missing data, I was able to calculate that it would be possible to store, during the summer, enough hot water in a well-insulated pool under a well-insulated single story house to meet its heating needs for a year in that part of the world using a south facing shed roof with the proper inclination etc, etc.

If I were so motivated, I might at this point claim my study proves that every house in Seattle could and therefore should be heated this way. But a peer review of my plan might ask:
  1. How would the glass, inside and outside, as well as the corrugated metal under it be cleaned and by who?
  2. How do you prevent ground water from compromising the insulation around your underground storage pool?
  3. How much power would the pumps consume (can’t be solar powered because the roof is all used for heating water)?
  4. How would you secure the glass to resist wind, snow, and seismic loads?
  5. How long would it take before the water abrades a hole in the roofing?
  6. Who would repair leaks in the storage pool and how?
  7. What would the design of this storage pool look like?
  8. How do you control the water quality in the pool?
  9. How would the heat be retrieved?
  10. What would it all cost?
Technological issues aside, how would you convince people to install this system, assuming you could get it to work and the necessary infrastructure to support it? Some neighborhood covenants require cedar shake roofing for its aesthetic appeal. Seattle zoning laws don't allow solar panels in front yards and on, and on.

Now consider Jacobson’s claim to have calculated ways not to just heat homes in Seattle, but to power an entire planet with the expansion of just wind and solar. I came up with a short, very incomplete, list of ten unanswered questions for my study. Jacobson’s study would generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of them.

Communism also looked good on paper in its heyday …doesn’t work. The NIMBY factor alone likely makes his plan untenable. However, if I were a renewable energy lobbyist or  possibly an extreme left politician, Jacobson's plan would be just the ticket.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Greenpeace isn't the only one, the UCS, Sierra Club, FOE, and even the WWF, to name just a few, all share the blame.

Michael Shellenberger is going after Greenpeace in a series of articles exposing their disingenuous anti-nuclear energy activities. More power to him.
  • Climate change isn't a global conspiracy by scientists to solicit research funding.
  • Climate change is the result of mass global deforestation and the combustion of billions of tons of hydrocarbons that have been stored underground for hundreds of millions of years.
  • The oceans are not going to absorb the extra carbon and heat energy forever.
I could be wrong about climate change. You never know. But isn't it about time to stop using coal to make electricity, regardless? Coal was the replacement for wood when parts of Europe ran out of forests to burn. It's old-school, dangerous to mine, environmentally destructive (although less so that burning wood), and filthy. Nuclear has been coal's main competitor for over half-a-century now. It is a much cleaner and environmentally friendly alternative. Maybe we should replace coal plants with nuclear plants and lessen the impact on those who make a living mining coal by facilitating their participation in their construction and operation?

Should we risk trying to decarbonize without help from nuclear, risk the effects of climate change by excluding the world's largest source of proven, scalable, low carbon electricity? Considering that there is no meaningful risk to including nuclear in the energy mix and that the risk of excluding it may be cataclysmic, the answer should be one of those rare no-brainers.

Video of a dragonfly laying eggs

Nature was collapsing all around us long before anyone heard of climate change. Read the latest in a very long line of books about this subject: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Just a few days ago I took the above video of a dragonfly laying eggs in a goldfish pond. This is not an intact ecosystem. It's covered with a net to keep the cats, raccoons, and herons from eating said colorful carp, which are an invasive species, as is the English ivy in the foreground. It has a pump to aerate the water, and the fish are fed fish food made from fish. Being in the middle of a city you can hear the city noises; cars, trucks, aircraft, snippets of conversations. If the larvae of that dragonfly reduce the goldfish population, that's fine, because dragonflies also eat mosquitoes.

Argentine wildlife reserve--Esteros del Ibera

Speaking of which, I once had the pleasure of visiting an increasingly rare, largely intact ecosystem. You have probably never experienced one this intact, and as sad as this sounds, your children and grandchildren are even less likely to do so. While watching caiman, capybara, and any number of other fascinating creatures go about their business at dusk, I witnessed hundreds of thousands of dragonflies rising into the sky to eat mosquitoes (3:17 into above video and pardon the poor quality for I knew not what I was doing). Although it was ideal mosquito habitat, I don't recall being bitten by one, or even seeing one, while there.

What led many of the world's largest environmental organizations to focus on nuclear energy at the expense of nature (nuclear is one of our most benign sources of energy when it comes to ecosystem disruption--Chernobyl actually resulted in the creation of Europe's largest wildlife preserve)?

In part, the answer has to do with the profit motive (big surprise). I'm all for seeking profit, but sometimes it can lead to bad outcomes. There's money to be made if you can convince people that you're going to protect them from some evil, like nuclear power ...Satan. It works for the Vatican, the UCS, Greenpeace, FOE, any lay-press organization that prints readership garnering anti-nuclear articles. In the beginning, there actually was a conscious effort by some of these environmental groups to make stuff up about nuclear energy, specifically to maintain or increase membership. But before long the creation and dissemination of anti-nuclear misinformation became a self-propagating snow ball rolling downhill, which didn't really matter much until it ran into climate change. Anti-nuclearism eventually evolved (can I use that word?) into a key component of most environmental group's tribal identity. Indoctrination works. Ask any creationist. To this day, a significant percentage of the victims of German antisemitic indoctrination in the thirties and forties still cling to their antisemitic views.

Clearly, it's easier to motivate people with fear than it is with facts. That's because the parsing of fact from fiction is much easier said than done. And since warring parties always claim to have the facts on their side, logically, not being sure who actually has the facts, many people are going to play it safe and side with the group claiming to protect them.

So, in the end, fear trumps facts. Does this mean that if you want people to accept nuclear energy you have to make them even more afraid of climate change? Maybe, but these same environmental groups are busy convincing people that all you need is wind, solar, and hydro to defeat coal and gas. Their contention had been bolstered by the work of Mark Jacobson's 100% wind, water, and solar game plan, but that just went down in flames. Jacobson is a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large. Irony is not a strong enough word to describe the negative impact of the anti-nuclear stance of major environmental groups when it comes to fighting climate change. Read Has anti-nuclear fear mongering nullified all progress made by wind and solar since 2000?

Aspects of our human nature, like our propensity to split into warring tribes, are preventing meaningful progress to slow climate change. Tribal identity is typically the result of imprinting in one’s youth, which could lead to a belief that it’s God’s will or just as easily that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous and dirty. From Clean Energy Mind Games:
“As persistent opposition to nuclear power by many environmental groups demonstrates, not even an appeal to concern about the global environmental threat of climate change is enough to reverse deeply held beliefs. The fear of being disloyal to the tribe and then being ostracized is a visceral, personal, and powerful barrier to revisiting the sources of one’s opposition to nuclear energy.

…we shape our views so they agree with the views of the group or groups with which we most closely identify. Agreeing with and promoting our group’s views demonstrates loyalty, which earns us status as a member in good standing, worthy of our group’s support. This is vital for nothing less than our sense of safety since as social animals we instinctively depend on our group—our tribe—for protection.

But nuclear opponents steadfastly deny these findings. They consistently portray nuclear accidents as doing much more harm than neutral experts have found. They consistently overstate the health risk from even the tiniest problems at any nuclear power facility. This is not unlike the science denial of people who reject the evidence of anthropogenic climate change. The phenomenon is the same. It is cultural cognition working to produce a view of the evidence that, though honestly held, simply conflicts with the current state of established scientific knowledge.”-- David Ropeik

Also consider reading this: How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous.

Likewise, climate activists are asking climate skeptics to be disloyal to their tribe, to brave being ostracized, to give up their sense of safety. Are most climate skeptics any more likely to do that than most climate activists are to embrace nuclear energy? Climate skeptics are just as resistant to facts as the anti-nuclear climate activists.

Not all people react to fear in the same way. Some deal with it via denial, which I suspect is the case for many climate skeptics. This is an example where too much optimism can lead to disaster. Evolution works in mysterious ways. Imagine three hominids in the distant past walking along on the African savannah. One is an optimist, one is a realist, and one is a pessimist. A lion approaches. The optimist assumes it probably isn't hungry. The pessimist has given up all hope. Where's the realist? There she is, in the top of that tall tree.

There’s always hope, or so they say, but that’s not really always true.