The Jacobson debate: Distractions, detours and the Energy Transition

About six weeks ago, a think tank in London, Climate Policy Initiative, released a study on integrating high levels of renewable energy. It wasn’t the first such study; many others have been done, including a series by the U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory that looked at penetrations up to 90% renewable energy on U.S. grids.

But Flexibility was a good one. Unlike many of the studies that had been produced by academics, it did not include technologies like concentrating solar power that are failing in the market, or insist on using today’s prices for technologies that are experiencing ongoing cost reductions, or feature other arbitrary limitations. Instead, it focused on the technologies which are being deployed now – wind, solar and lithium-ion batteries, and how these could dominate future grids.

Significantly, the study found that near-total renewable energy systems with extensive deployment of lithium-ion batteries and some gas backup would be cheaper than a gas-based system by 2030 – even without accounting for a price on carbon. Furthermore, it looked at four regions – Scandinavia, Germany, Maharashtra, India and California – that have very different conditions, modeling higher penetrations of renewable energy for all four.

The report immediately struck me as above the cut of normal analyses of these issues. More than anything, it lacked the ideological fervor that marks some aspects of the Climate Change and renewable energy movements, and didn’t exclude any technologies, even including nuclear power in two of its scenarios. All in all, it looked like where we are going today, with accelerated battery deployment and long-term grid planning to enable higher penetrations of renewables.

It also featured a strong technical section on technologies, business models and flexibility mechanisms that would be needed to maintain high levels of system reliability under these scenarios of high wind and solar penetrations.

This included options to meet interday & seasonal load shifting, integrating multiple flexibility options to minimize costs, and the sharing of flexibility across different needs.

I quickly covered this report for pv magazine, expecting that I would be in competition with other publications as to who would report on this first.

I shouldn’t have been so concerned. It’s six weeks later, and aside from one article in Business Green, I’ve found no references to this report in the media. I am sure that certain publications, including Greentech Media, did not cover this report, even though I sent it to their writers (Note: see update at bottom).

Over the last 36 hours something else happened in world of energy media. My Twitter feed has exploded with news of the take-down of Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobson’s study of powering the United States with 100% wind, water and solar. Nuclear industry advocates in particular are having a field day, as a take-down of a major renewable energy report supports the fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign that the nuclear industry has been waging against its cleaner and cheaper competitors.

I am not in a position to evaluate the technical merits of the modeling or lack thereof done by Jacobson and his team, which was a central assertion of the critique by Christopher Clack and his co-authors, which include renowned renewable energy expert Daniel Kammen of U.C. Berkeley.

However, it does not take energy system modeling experience to know that there were issues with the Jacobson study. When the study came out I welcomed it as an academic work, but noted several of its limitations; I certainly never expected it to be used as a plan for deployment of renewable energy as it is wildly impractical.

And I should probably not be surprised that the energy press is all over this debate between the foremost advocate of 100% renewable energy and the credible scientists who have critiqued his team’s study. But I remain disappointed, because these same reporters have repeatedly failed to cover more practical studies like CPI’s.

Eight years ago when I began studying and writing about renewable energy there was an urgent need to deploy renewable energy quickly, and for policies that would support accelerated deployment. This was also true four years ago when I started this blog, and this is the reason that I championed feed-in tariffs, as the policy mechanism that had the best track record for rapid deployment of renewables.

Today we are in a very different world. Solar and wind are the lowest-cost sources of electricity in many places. And while feed-in tariffs are driving deployment in China, Japan and other nations, I see no need to advocate for this policy. The greatest struggle for the transition to even moderate levels of renewable energy in both China and Japan is not deployment; instead these nations need significant investments in long-distance transmission (China) and a fundamental redesign of their grids and utilities (Japan).

Even in the United States, I am not concerned about deployment. I am instead concerned about how we will integrate the large amounts of renewable energy that are coming online. California, which is perhaps the leading location for high levels of wind and solar, is already experiencing negative prices and curtailment, largely due to multiple features of its power system which are not designed to accommodate high levels of wind and solar, such that the state’s grid operator both runs hydroelectric dams and imports power while curtailing wind and solar.

No, the fight is no longer about deployment. It is about the future of the grid.

If you go back to Flexibility, or the IEA’s Power of Transformation, both stress that it is not possible to integrate high levels of renewable energy at low costs without carefully planning the larger electricity system to this end. Flexibility is quite clear on this point:

In the long term, greater flexibility will be needed to meet low-carbon objectives and to accelerate a transition to a cleaner, more sustainable, and ultimately less expensive energy system.

However, this seemingly attractive future is not guaranteed. Inappropriately designed markets can significantly increase the investment risk, and therefore the financing cost, of renewable energy supplies and discourage investment in and development of new flexibility technologies and resources. Unfortunately, there are many aspects of current electricity market regulation and design that threaten both higher renewable energy financing costs and poor long-term incentives for flexibility.

As such, all of the noise for and against Jacobson’s unwieldy and idealistic plan is a distraction from larger issues, and unfortunately the Solutions Project, even while advancing a vision for high levels of renewable energy, has handed its opponents a weapon in their fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign.

The stakes are extremely high. Idealism alone will not get us to a grid dominated by wind and solar; instead it will take careful technical planning. And if the nuclear and fossil fuel proponents have their way, such planning will not happen, or will be detoured into results that prevent the deployment of high levels of renewable energy.

I still have hope, in that utility executives, grid operators and regulators tend to be more well informed on these issues and less prone to ideological influences than either the general public, or, sadly, many energy journalists. However, there is a real fight for the world that future generations will inherit. The rapid transition to cleaner forms of energy that is desperately needed will take hard work, and that work needs to start now.


Update 6/22/17: The day after I published this post Greentech Media ran an article by Brendan Pierpont of Climate Policy Initiative discussing the findings of Flexibility. I’m happy to be corrected on this point.


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