Saturday, 19 December 2015

Mark Z. Jacobson spins an illusory tale about renewable energy

Jacobson imagines a "Roadmap to repower California with all-purpose energy from wind, water, sunlight (WWS)". He, and others, cost it at [3] "$1.1 trillion installation cost of 603 GW of new power needed for a 100% all-purpose WWS system within ~7 (4–14) years."

That seems impossibly cheap considering that, up to 2014, various EU countries paid €1 trillion (~ $1.1 trillion) for 216 GWe of RE nameplate installations [2]. Europe was mostly installing unbuffered electricity. Jacobson proposes to go much further: a complete replacement for California's predominantly fossil fuel energy systems. Not just its electricity, he imagines transport, industrial and domestic heat to be renewable powered, and buffered with storage.

Returning to that EU country price tag (€1 trillion for 216 GWe of RE nameplate). The capacity factor averaged ~18%, which works out at €29 billion / GWe. i.e. The €1 trillion actually provided 34.5GWe of a nominal 100% capacity supply. Let's compare that to nuclear power, AP1000 reactors in particular, such as those proposed for Moorside in Britain. These are projected at €4.152bn / GWe (operating at ~90% capacity). When I normalize it for a nominal 100% capacity, I make it 4.613bn/GWe. So Europe could have paid just €160 bn (instead of €1 trillion) for the same nuclear electricity as all that RE provides, but without the headache of intermittent supply! The normalization I'm doing here is just to compare like with like: to compare the capacity actually delivered instead of, largely fictional, nameplate capacity. Nuclear power can be much cheaper than the AP1000. ThorCon estimate their costs will be only a quarter of AP1000 capital costs, a mere $1bn/GWe.

I can't help but feel European countries have been ripped off here. They bought expensive, intermittent renewable energy at prices over six times what the equivalent nuclear power would cost. In many cases, for example Germany, this hasn't even led to significant drops in carbon dioxide emissions. German emissions were the same in 2014 as 2009. No change in six years.

Getting back to California. There are a number problems with Jacobson's proposals. He wants to go much further with renewable energy than any country before; including buffering (energy storage). He says it will be done cheaply with technologies that have never been tried at this scale, for which no suitable manufacturing capacity exists.

  • His cost estimates are ridiculously low.
  • He assumes technologies which have not been shown to work at scale.
  • He has not provided a credible model, or simulation, to show his system could cope with, for instance, long periods of very low wind, which are frequently found in the real world weather systems.
  • His estimated timescale to transition to this RE utopia is ridiculously optimistic. I doubt that a totalitarian governed California could achieve it; let alone, the real California
  • He proposes a complete renewable energy system for all California's needs. Nothing like this has ever been achieved. The closest we have is a country like Iceland which claims to provide 89% of its primary energy from renewables. Maybe it does? Yet Iceland's per capita carbon dioxide emissions are still over twice that of France! Pray tell me Iceland, what was the point? And France has only decarbonized its electricity with, mostly, nuclear power!
  • He ignores potentially higher commodity costs which might well happen when vast new resources must be exploited to make very large amounts of machinery for low power density, renewable power, collectors.
  • The costs of renewable energy, whatever they are, will recur. Wind turbines last 20 years. Energy storage systems will need periodic replacement. Practically, solar PV will last no more than 35 years. Vast amounts of machinery will need to be periodically replaced.

As far back as 10 years ago, I too believed in 100% renewable energy systems. Now I'm more responsible. I've studied energy. I understand that getting it wrong will wreck the lives of millions of people. It would be grossly irresponsible for me not to criticize Jacobson's fantasies. I don't for a moment think California can succeed in its solartopia dream. I think a lot of harm could be done trying to get there.

This isn't even about climate change, and stopping global warming. Most fervent opposition to nuclear power is typical of a mindset which sees climate change as a mere symptom of humanity using too much stuff. The solartopia delusion is about living in a fantasy world where vast resources are deployed to provide the renewable energy needed but it doesn't count as too much stuff because it's renewable energy. 100% RE is more a moral project than a practical one. It will not be an environmental saviour. Au contraire, it will be an environmental disaster.


  • WWS: wind, water, sunlight renewable energy
  • RE: renewable energy
  • GWe: Gigawatt of electrical power
  • AP1000: An advanced pressurized water reactor, with intrinsic safety
  • nameplate: The power output assuming 100% utilization
  • capacity factor: The actual power output achieved as a proportion of nameplate
  • ThorCon: are just one of many nuclear power startups planning to provide intrinsically safe, nuclear power cheaper than coal. Many of their competitors plan similar low capital costs and low electricity prices


  1. Green Mythology and the High Price of European Electricity
  2. European Renewable Energy Performance And Costs: 2014, by Ed Hoskins
  3. "A roadmap for repowering California for all purposes with wind, water, and sunlight", Jacobson et. al., Energy Volume 73, 14 August 2014, Pages 875–889, doi:10.1016/

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