Renewable energy


“No need for miracles”: How water, the sun, and wind can power the world, according to Prof. Mark Jacobson.

The influential academic says renewables alone can halt climate crisis, with technologies such as carbon capture expensive wastes of time

“Combustion is the problem – when you’re continuing to burn something, that’s not solving the problem,” says Prof Mark Jacobson.

The academic at Stanford University has a persuasive argument: According to the title of his most recent book, “no miracles needed,” renewable energy sources can rapidly supply the entire world’s energy needs.

He argues that renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar can supply a lot of power at a low cost, putting an end to the climate crisis caused by carbon emissions, cutting deadly air pollution, and ensuring energy security. He argues that new nuclear, carbon capture and storage, biofuels, and other technologies are costly wasters of time.

“Bill Gates said we have to put a lot of money into miracle technologies,” Jacobson says. “But we don’t – we have the technologies that we need. We have wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, electric cars. We have batteries, heat pumps, energy efficiency. We have 95% of the technologies right now that we need to solve the problem.” The missing 5% is for long-distance aircraft and ships, he says, for which hydrogen-powered fuel cells can be developed.

Jacobson makes a significant claim. He is not only referring to the transition to 100% renewable electricity, but also to all energy, of which fossil fuels still account for approximately 80% today. Jacobson has published numerous academic papers, and his work has had an impact on policies enacted by cities, states, and nations worldwide that aim to use only 100% renewable energy. He is also controversial due to his decision to drop a $10 million lawsuit against researchers who claimed his work was flawed.

According to Jacobson, the new book contains all of the evidence that supports his assertions. He asserts that a world powered entirely by renewable resources is not only feasible but also promises significantly lower energy costs. The first reason is that electrified vehicles, heating, and industrial processes are much more energy efficient than those powered by fossil fuels, which waste a lot of energy as heat.

Jacobson claims that between the years 2035 and 2050, an average of 56% less energy will be used if buildings are better insulated and drilling and mining for fossil fuels, which account for about 11% of all energy, is stopped. According to him, the average cost of wind and solar energy will fall by 63%.

There are two camps of approaches to the energy transition, according to Jacobson: The “all-of-the-above camp” says that we should just try everything and keep spending a lot of money on technologies that may or may not work in ten years. However, it is already too late. To keep the world from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists agree that carbon emissions must decrease by 45 percent by 2030.

His camp takes a different approach, Jacobson says: “Let’s focus on what we have and deploy as fast as possible. And we will improve those technologies just by deploying, bringing better solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles and so on. Some people just don’t realise the speed that we need to solve these problems, especially air pollution – 7 million people die every year. We can’t wait.”

However, there are major barriers to a rapid rollout of a 100% renewable energy system, he says: “The No 1 barrier is that most people are not aware that it’s possible. My job is trying to educate the public about it. If people are actually comfortable that it’s possible to do, then they might actually do it.”

He adds: “The policy of all-of-the-above is also a big barrier to a transition. In the US, for example, in the recent [climate legislation], a lot of money was spent on carbon capture, small modular nuclear reactors, biofuels, blue hydrogen. These are all what I consider almost useless, or very low-use, technologies in terms of solving the problems. And yet, a lot of money is spent on them. Why? Because there are big lobby groups.” Another barrier is funding the upfront costs of renewable energy in poorer countries – rich countries need to help, he says.

Jacobson believes progress towards a 100% renewable energy system can be fast: “The goal is 80% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. But, ideally, if we can get 80% by 2030, we should get 100% by 2035 to 2040.”

Maintaining the stability of renewable energy grids is a major concern in a world that is overwhelmingly dependent on electricity. This is relatively simple where dams generate a lot of hydropower; at least ten nations already have grids that are 100 percent renewable. However, relying on intermittent solar and wind power is more difficult in other locations. According to Jacobson, the solution is energy storage, demand management, and expanding the network of renewable energy sources to allow for greater supply continuity.

Batteries, pumped hydro, flywheels, compressed air, and lowering and raising heavy weights are all options for storage. Jacobson is of the opinion that batteries will prevail, though he also asserts that other products may contribute if they are able to compete on price. According to new research, electric vehicle batteries on their own could meet the short-term storage requirements of global grids as early as 2030.

Jacobson also advocates heat storage for some buildings: “Storing heat in boreholes, aquifers or water pits is dirt cheap, excuse the pun. It’s less than $1 a kilowatt hour of storage.” Managing demand, by varying electricity prices with demand, is already growing fast, he says. When the renewables supply exceeds the demand, the electricity should be used to produce green hydrogen, he says, to power the fuel cells needed by energy-intensive users.

“Managing the grid is just an optimisation problem, not a rocket science problem,” he says. “I don’t want to say there’s zero problems, but usually these challenges are ironed out over time just by experience.”

Another criticism of a major renewables rollout is the mining required for the metals used. But Jacobson says such a rollout would in fact hugely reduce extraction from the earth by ending fossil fuel exploitation: “The total amount of mining that’s going to be needed for wind, water, solar, compared to [the] fossil fuel system, is much less than 1% in terms of the mass of materials.”

Jacobson is critical of numerous emerging technologies touted as climate solutions. “Carbon capture and storage is solely designed to keep the fossil fuel industry in business,” he says. Only some of the CO2 is captured and buried, he says, and deadly air pollution continues unabated. Blue hydrogen, produced from fossil gas with some CO2 then captured and buried, is far inferior to green hydrogen produced directly from renewable electricity, Jacobson says: “Blue hydrogen is just really convoluted.”

New nuclear plants are too slow to build and too expensive compared with wind and solar, in Jacobson’s view: “You end up waiting 15 to 20 years longer, for a seven to eight times higher electricity price – it just makes no sense. Even if they improve [build times], say to 12 years, that’s still way too long. We have cheaper, faster, safer technologies. Why waste time?”

Biofuels are also dismissed by Jacobson: “The biofuels push was really not helpful. They hold constant, or increase, air pollution and they use a huge amount of land.”

When it comes to direct air capture (DAC), he takes things a little more slowly: technologies capable of capturing CO2 from the air and burying it. He asserts that given the cost-effectiveness of investing in renewable energy sources for reducing emissions, it currently plays no role. However, numerous scientists have come to the conclusion that in order to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis, CO2 will need to be extracted from the air even after burning fossil fuels ceases. Jacobson asserts that at that point, the costs of DAC ought to be compared to those of other strategies for sequestering carbon and limiting global warming, such as reforestation and reducing emissions of other more potent greenhouse gases, such as livestock methane and fertiliser nitrous oxide.

Some experts have offered their support for Jacobson’s book. The book “presents a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for the options we have right now to address the climate crisis,” according to Professor Michael Mann at the University of Pennsylvania. Mann has stated that those who assert that we do not currently have the tools to decarbonise the economy are incorrect.

Prof Claudia Kemfert, at the German Institute for Economic Research, who has advised the German government and European Commission, says: “[The book] shows impressively that numerous crises can be killed with one stone, without us having to wait for miracles.”

But others are critical of a focus on only wind, water and solar. Prof Ken Caldeira, at the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US, says: “Having a broader set [of technologies] in the toolbox only makes it easier to solve problems. We will only use the tools that it makes sense to use in any particular circumstance, but maintaining and expanding our options is a good thing.

“The key question is not what is physically possible in an ideal world, but what is practically possible in the world as we know it,” he says.

Prof Rob Gross, the director of the UK Energy Research Centre, is somewhere in the middle of the debate: “I broadly agree that we can largely use existing technologies, but we will need to put those to new applications, such as using bulk stores of hydrogen in order to provide interseasonal storage.”

“Moonshot efforts to invent entirely new things are almost certainly a distraction,” he adds. “Jacobson is right that the principal need is to deploy what we have. He is wrong to the extent he makes this sound easy.”

Asked about the controversy around his work, Jacobson says: “Usually, the people against us don’t like the fact that we don’t include their technologies.” On the lawsuit over a critical paper, he says: “That was not a question of a scientific disagreement.” He claims it was an attempt to protect his reputation. He dropped the case in 2018.

Jacobson remains optimistic: “There is a technical and economic solution to the climate, air pollution and energy security problems we face. But we do have major challenges in trying to implement that solution. The challenges are getting the political willpower to focus on a narrow set of solutions that we can implement quickly. The vested interests are very much a problem because they are pushing this ‘all of the above’ approach.”


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