How Feasible Is a Migration Away From Fossil Fuels?

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Mark Z. Jacobson is a researcher at Stanford who has made a splash recently with his findings that, both technologically and economically, it’s possible for us to migrate away from fossil fuels in the direction of renewable energy.  He’s even been on the (late-night television show) David Letterman to present his case to casual viewers at home.

In essence, he wants to see 50% of our planet’s 15 terawatts coming from solar, another 40% from wind (mainly offshore), and most of the rest of it from hydrokinetics.

I believe Jacobson is 100% correct that we can phase out fossil fuels altogether; in fact, I think we must.  But I was surprised to see his solution.

First, though I’d love to see tons of offshore wind for a variety of reasons (aesthetics, better wind conditions, less impact on bird and bat populations), but it’s expensive.

Second, while he understands that solar and wind are variable, his idea of somehow packaging solar with wind and hydro and transmitting an integration of the three to the population centers sounds far-fetched.  I think most people see this problem solved, at least partially, with energy storage.

Third, I think we need to acknowledge that a practical solution needs to be politically feasible, and I’m not sure this approach is best vis-à-vis the lay of the land politically.

If we are to say goodbye to fossil fuels, it will happen by:

• Removing the enormous subsidies for fossil fuels and creating a level playing field for clean energy in terms of capital formation

• Internalizing the externalities of energy, forcing all generators and consumers of energy to pay the true and comprehensive costs associated with what they’re doing

• Encouraging public and private capital to flow into clean energy R&D; this includes nuclear, btw, especially thorium; most people who study the subject believe that success can’t happen in the absence of nuclear

• Investing heavily in energy efficiency, especially in retrofitting our buildings, creating huge numbers of new jobs

• Rapidly phasing out coal before the environmental devastation from this resource becomes irreparable

• Making smart grid happen (especially smart cities)

• Creating energy storage solutions that support the integration of large amounts of variable resources

• Rebuilding our grid, enabling high-voltage transmission over long distances

• Replacing liquid hydrocarbon fuels with electric transportation, further absorbing off-peak renewable energy, i.e., generation that does not correspond to load

As always I eagerly anticipate readers’ comments.

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  • Roger Sinsheimer

    There do seem to be ongoing developments that are encouraging.

    Thorium reactors and flow batteries both seem like promising areas of research.

    Here in the US we went down the path of uranium and light water reactors because that’s what Admiral Rickover selected for his nuclear-powered fleet, so in turn that’s what GE and Westinghouse knew how to build when the utilities came calling. It was the path of least resistance, but it didn’t take into account the longer-term externalities of that decision. Now we’re finally stepping back, seeing what went wrong and (hopefully) the investments will be made to right the ship before it sinks.

    Flow batteries are very promising technology with all kinds of interesting possibilities (re-“fuel” your electric car in a couple of minutes by swapping in fresh electrolyte, store solar or wind power in tanks of liquid rather than just depend on the amount of electrolyte that can be jammed between the anodes and cathodes of a fixed battery), hopefully the promise will become cost-effective reality.

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  • https://plus.google.com/108700016208375092957 Leftheri Pavlides

    1) On the cost of offshore wind VS solar – wind is less expensive.
    Offshore wind right now costs 1/3 the cost of solar per KWh. This means solar is 300% more expensive than offshore wind. I am surprised Mark is expecting 50% to come from solar but he may know some solar technologies that are on their way that will bring costs down. For example solar thermal is less expensive than PV. Right now off-shore is by far the least expensive (other than hydro.) Solar also takes too much energy to manufacture unlike wind that it takes less than a year to recoup the energy spend to manufacture the equipment.

    2) On storage – hydro is the least expensive back up when there is no wind or sun
    There was a Canadian study that found existing hydro can be used as back up instead of batteries and is much less expensive. This means hydro will bot be used and will be saved to be use only during times that these is no wind or sun.

    Furthermore pumped storage has been used for close to fifty years in nuclear energy to store excess energy during times of low demand such as in the middle of the night to use during times of high demand. So excess wind generation can be stored by pumping water to be released later and be converted it into hydro-electricity with cost-effective technology.

    3) I guess there is not enough geothermal to be mentioned and wave and tidal is still far way to be factor.

    Most important point is that the cost of electricity is not only what we pay utilities for generation and for distribution. The cost of electricity also includes the cost to doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, lost work and premature deaths from dirty and dangerous electricity’s pollution that causes asthma and bronchitis.

  • John Ihle

    Transmission and central station investments need careful and unbiased scrutiny. They’re, complicated with respect to load flow, expensive and at times may be unneeded with respect to distribution enhancements. Good luck finding unbiased scrutiny. I think there are conflicts of interests regarding reliability and utility motivations which require returns on investment with respect to their investors. At some point in the near future RE, energy efficiency, storage, building construction practices will simply be less expensive and cleaner than business as usual involving territorial laws and the natural monopolies utilities currently enjoy. I’d like to see thought leaders help figure out how the utility industry will fit in all things considered providing choice. This is happening in Minnesota, now, through the e21 initiative and other parts of the country where expiring municipal franchise agreements provide leverage for cities wanting to achieve emission reductions and provide more local economic opportunities and it’s encouraging.