Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his colleague, Mark Delucchi of the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a series of plans, based on huge amounts of data churned through computer models, showing how each state in America could shift from fossil fuel to entirely renewable energy.

With such a big claim, its locked behind a paywall of course, here at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Is it credible? Costs $10 to look for 48 hours. You probably already paid for it as a taxpayer.

The team did offer a state by state analysis on how an entire shift from fossil fuel to entirely renewable energy could be accomplished. There are some gaps that we’ll get to in a bit. Meanwhile, they use the data from those single-state calculations of the number of wind, water and solar generators potentially needed in each state to show that these installations can theoretically result in a reliable, affordable national grid when the generators are combined with inexpensive solar storage and “demand response” – a program in which utilities give customers incentives to control times of peak demand.

Sounds great. The new model foresees, and is dependent upon, an all-electric country, with virtually everything running 100 percent on electricity: cars, trains, buses, industry, heating and cooling, and with the electricity originating from wind, water and sunlight. Apparently there won’t be airliners, RVs, motorcycles, farms, construction projects, river barges, ships at sea and many others things operating in this new world. We’re curious if these cars and other things will be heated, air conditioned or operate at night. Then what about the country that lives rural, out on the developed edge or further and military or police?

Still there are ideas in the research that might be worthwhile to folks earning a living without reinvesting their retirement, reducing their standard of living or pushing them into debt.

The proposed system relies on the ability to store and retrieve heat, cold and electricity in order to meet demand at all times. Summer heat gathered in rooftop solar collectors could be stored in soil or rocks and used for heating homes in winter. Excess or low-cost electricity could be used to make ice, which would be used for later cooling when the price of electricity is high.

Excess electricity could also used to make more electricity, by supplementing the energy-producing mechanisms that drive concentrated solar power plants and pumped hydroelectric facilities. Utilities would also provide incentives to reduce energy use during times of peak demand.

In Jacobson’s plan, hydrogen would also be used as a storage medium; during low-demand hours, excess electricity would be used to create hydrogen, which could be stored in fuel cells and used to power some vehicles. They propose no need for coal, natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power or enormous battery farms for storing electricity. Such a world, which would be “100 percent clean” by 2050, can result in a stable grid, he said.

Jacobson’s previous studies have drawn wide attention, but critics have argued that a national electric grid without power plants powered by coal for background power and natural gas to fill in gaps of supply would not be reliable. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, and batteries for the grid are not yet affordable enough for storing and managing the nation’s electricity.

Jacobson responded with, “The utilities and others who are against renewables have always argued that the lights are going to go out, the grid is going to be unstable, and it will cost too much to keep a clean, renewable-energy grid stable and reliable. Skeptics have never studied a system of 100 percent clean, renewable energy for all purposes, and particularly one that combines low-cost storage with demand response and some hydrogen, as in this new paradigm.”

Jacobson and his coauthors, including Bethany Frew, now at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and graduate student Mary Cameron, use the new study to suggest that combining existing low-cost ways of storing green energy and using that stored energy to smooth out the uneven demand for electricity, heat and cold simultaneously over the course of a minute, day, week or year could solve that problem.

All raw energy for this system would come from wind, water and sunshine – no natural gas, biofuels, coal or nuclear power. The resulting drop in air pollution would save tens of thousands of lives each year, the researchers say. Sixty to sixty five thousand people die prematurely in America annually as a result of air pollution.

As a demonstration of some of these technologies, Jacobson points to the Drake Landing Solar Community in Canada, near Calgary. The 52 homes there are heated in winter with solar energy captured and stored underground during the summer. Water warmed to 175 degrees Fahrenheit by the sun is kept in insulated tubing buried under 120 feet of rocks, earth and insulation. The stored warmth is enough to heat the homes in the community through winter, Jacobson said.

An all-electric nation could reap a number of benefits. While the cost of electricity per kilowatt hour in Jacobson’s system might be about the same as electricity generated from fossil fuels, users would actually spend about 30 percent less due to the fact that fewer kilowatt hours are needed in the new system because the efficiency of electric engines exceed those of combustion engines, Jacobson said.

He added that underground storage of energy is cheaper than batteries. Some wind turbines now shut down when there is no immediate demand for their electricity, because the cost of storing it is too high. Using excess electricity to produce heat simultaneously with using solar collectors to produce heat increases the availability of stored energy.

Widespread use of underground energy storage and the other types of storage he proposes would cost much less than batteries, Jacobson says. Storing electricity in batteries currently costs $350/kilowatt hour, compared with a cost two orders of magnitude lower for storing heat in soil, he said. Similarly, storage in concentrated solar power, pumped hydroelectric power and existing hydroelectric reservoirs costs one-tenth of storage in batteries.

Jacobson noted, “You eliminate air pollution and global warming emissions, stabilize fuel costs, create over two million more jobs than are lost in the U.S., you reduce reliance on international trade of fuels, and you reduce the risk of power disruption, such as from terrorism or massive failure, because more energy is distributed over larger areas. Most energy would be local. You can eliminate a lot of fuel emissions, just because you won’t have to transport oil in tankers across the ocean, you won’t have to use trains of coal cars to ship the coal.”

This methodology for keeping the grid stable, he said, should work in many places worldwide.

In fairness, this post is based on a press release. And press releases are often written very very broad brush strokes. How useful the work might be is said to be reported to Congress, and sits behind a paywall. A paywall is an instant discreditor when seeking to influence public discourse. Surely, Jacobson has worthwhile information for the U.S. and world citizenry. It needs to be useable. Paywalling it is a foolish thing to do.

In the real world there are houses built on pilings over water to houses build on stone that can hardly be drilled and blasted free. Businesses range from vast expanses on open areas to stacked up dozen of stories high with very different solar, wind and hydro access.

In a U.S. economy with a Federal debt load fast closing on $20 trillion dollars, the largest real number of a value of wealth ever to exist in human history one has to wonder how over 100 million homes, millions of businesses, tens of millions of cars, pickups, trucks and vans, plus whatever else Jacobson has thought to include can be financed.

The wealth isn’t out there. Many left, socialist types hope for a capital tax, but cashing out Bill Gates and Warren Buffet would be blown through by the government in just days. Keep in mind that those who have the wealth to buy up the assets and raise the cash will realize they are coming to the chopping block as well. The wealth of the U.S. economy would be worth pennies on the dollar instantly.

For the rest of us regular folks these ideas are fraught with risk. Today, wind turbines and solar projects are only built when the tax incentives, tax credits, deductions, and guaranteed pricing, take or pay contracts and low or no cost regulatory barriers are trusted to make the risk essentially – none. Digging a storage thing under a suburban home is one thing, digging one under a row house a completely different problem.

Then there is the early adopter risk. Do a project, start the financing, break even maybe. Then wonder when a bureaucrat decides that system won’t do and you’re faced with a do over? What regular folks can stand that? With nearly everyone faced with a permit matter up front, the bureaucrats will have a list of folks to force a do over.

And folks the press and politicians wonder why this is so hard to do.

It a sure thing Professor Jacobson and his team have ideas well worth our time. But $10? Not a cent from your humble writer, there are far better sure things to do with the money for now.


2 Comments so far

  1. MattMusson on December 8, 2015 7:52 AM

    I can make up a story about the future where all the vehicles run on hydrogen. Or, I can imagine a tomorrow where they run on liquid fuel created by pulling CO2 from the atmosphere. And, I can even put my boots in the oven and call them biscuits. But, it is still just pretend.

  2. Brian Westenhaus on December 8, 2015 8:10 PM

    (Almost, five nines) Exactly right.

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