The Weekend Wonk: Mark Jacobson on Powering the Planet

March 23, 2013

I can’t believe I missed this till just now.

Mark Jacobson is a Stanford Engineer, who published a plan in Scientific American a few years ago for powering the entire planet on renewable energy. I interviewed him at AGU in 2011, and he’s continued to refine and update his concepts in recent years.


11 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Mark Jacobson on Powering the Planet”

  1. Oog.

    The minute somebody says “Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered. ” (as in the linked Scientific American article) I’m inclined to write them off.

    “Up to” is disingenuous; nothing in the construction and refining process could not itself be powered by carbon-free energy. I’m not saying I’m pro-nuclear. (I’m on the fence, leaning against.) I’m saying that we are listening to someone who is willing to use a misleading argument.

    There is no doubt that powering the world on renewables is entirely feasible. There’s nothing particularly brilliant or original in saying so.

    The issue is an economic system that systematically favors exploiting finite natural resources over sustainability. We need to solve that problem, and it won’t be solved by engineering.

    To be fair, the Scientific American article does address that – it advocates tweaks and adjustments rather than a fundamental rethinking, and given the short time scales available to us on this front, that’s probably right. But whether the details work is another story, and we need serious analysis to make the case.

    Maybe this is forgivable in a politician, but if so, the role of the expert and the role of the politician ought to be different. Since the way he discusses nuclear is misleading, and likely deliberately so, I can’t trust his other quantitative arguments.

  2. Martin Lack Says:

    Jacobsen’s arguments in a debate with Stewart Brandt were so deeply flawed, I am surprised he still dares to show himself in public.

    See also my comments on this video, which I made on JP Greenword’s blog:

  3. I do not like exaggerated estimates either, because they distort reasoning and only delay solutions to serious problems we face. When nuclear proponents claim no one ever died from a nuclear power plant, I wonder if they also believe no one ever died from smoking or cancer from radiation. The literature has huge variation because the amount and kind of GHG used to develop and construct each power source varies tremendously, all the way from coal, to low GHG energy sources. To be sure, serious analysis is in order and the peer-reviewed articles and data have to be assessed. It is necessary to consider full life cycle emissions of all GHG including those for mining, transportation, construction, decommissioning, waste storage, and accident clean up for all sources. The gist is that nuclear power GHG estimates have historically ignored lifecycle GHG analysis in favor of the rosier operational GHG figures for obvious reasons. When life cycle GHG analysis is taken into account, wind appears more favorable than nuclear, and now, solar will, too. However, the energy source needs to be assessed from multiple perspectives, not just GHGs. I agree that technology will not solve the sustainability issue. Still, we have to choose the path that causes the least destruction towards that goal. A method that produces 100s of square miles of devastated earth every 20 years fails.

  4. Martin- We appear to have wide areas of agreement. I find some of the exaggerated arguments on both sides annoying. There is no need overplaying the proliferation argument with a mushroom cloud. The wind area footprint is needlessly tacky canard.
    Baseload arguments are ridiculous. Nuclear is used as baseload because it cannot be throttled, not because its cheaper. In France, since nuclear is so prevalent, it has to be throttled and so its capacity factor is lower and costs higher. Wind and solar can supply varying demand economically 24/7 just as Peter has chronicled in various articles. One by one, the list of arguments against true renewables have collapsed. The arguments against are being constructed by the very industries most in danger of being superseded by alternative energy. Brand just repeats the same mistakes MacKay makes. I like your best arguments, worst arguments approach. There is something to be said for the impact of waiting a decade for a power plant to be built if you are looking at GHG impacts. That and the fact that most of the currently operating reactors are old and need replacement should give an idea of the difficulty of increasing nuclear generation to reduce GHG. Still, I find something deeply disturbing in the fact the human health and quality of life consequences of nuclear are seldom seriously considered. It has a quality of denial reminiscent of the tobacco companies.

    • Martin Lack Says:

      Thanks for (presumably) taking the time to read my comments on JP’s blog. My position has evolved somewhat since I made them – mainly because I think we will never have the money or the time to make proper use of the solutions Fast Breeder Reactors offer. Thus we will probably never do anything with all the nuclear waste we have already generated, which is the worst possible outcome for a whole load of reasons. To repeat, I am not pro-nuclear, I am just not ideologically opposed to it because it was a spin-off from nuclear weapons manufacturing.

  5. Martin, you state that nuclear is attractive to you, because you can’t beat the efficiency of “E = MC squared”.

    I think that is irrelevant. It matters not how efficient any phase of an energy process might be, what is important is how much electricity can be generated for a given cost.

    The fact is that nuclear is incredibly expensive. Florida Power & Light informed the Florida Public Service Commission in December 2007 that their estimated the cost for building two new nuclear units at Turkey Point in South Florida was $8,000 per installed kW, or a shocking $24 billion.

    To put that into perspective, if we were to construct a massive solar PV installation in the American Southwest large enough to completely replace every calorie of energy currently produced by carbon fuels, it would require $468 billion worth of PV panels at current wholesale costs. These costs are likely to be halved in five years, which means that for ten times the cost of two nuclear plants, we could buy enough solar panels to supply 100% of total U.S. energy requirements.

    Nuclear power is also inherently relatively dangerous, produces radioactive waste we have no good place to sequester, and requires massive reconstruction every few decades, and then there is the problem of constantly finding and purchasing fuel for the reactors.

    Solar and wind have few, if any, of these problems. They will only get less expensive over time, and are already proven and cost-efficient technologies.

    Whatever technological choices we make down the road, spending the least amount of money to convert our energy generation to a carbon-free future is going to be important. Solar and wind are simply much less expensive overall, cleaner, more adaptable, reliable, inexhaustible, and accessible. They are our future, they are ready to go now, and need only to be be deployed.

    Another large-scale always-on-line technology that is interesting is geothermal using fracking. Simply gigantic amounts of heat in the Earth’s crust which could be tapped indefinitely.

    • Martin Lack Says:

      Hi Roger, I hope you will read my response to Christopher (above). Here in the UK, the government has given the green light to the construction of the World’s largest ever nuclear power plant in Somerset. If it is ever built, it will power 5 million homes but, it will only ever be built by the cost of ultimate waste disposal being borne by the taxpayer not the plant operator.

      When looked at dispassionately, I agree that nuclear power is probably a colossal waste of money: Money that no-one actually has anymore but, if we did have it, money that would be far better spent on paying for every suitable property to have solar PV panels put on its roof. This would also mean we would not have to build lots more power distribution networks that, it must be stressed, will be required for centrally-generated power schemes – irrespective of whether they are renewable and non-renewable.

  6. Paul Whyte Says:

    I find the arguments about nuclear above interesting not in what they discuss but in what they leave out.

    The 4 th generation nuclear (IFR read Plentiful Energy by Till) that does not need mining or enrichment while having a solution to arms diversion and waste storage (pyro processing) does seem to solve the issues raised.

    The waiting for regulatory approval state of GE Toshiba’s nuclear battery designed to replace the coal burning part of existing coal fired plants goes a long way in reducing installation times.

    The 1,000 years of free fuel for the Earths energy needs from all ready mined depleted uranium and turning swords to plow shares use of plutonium is worth discussing.

    These and other nuclear solutions are ready to fast track but for the low standard of debate on the issue.

    • Martin Lack Says:

      The issues you raise, Paul, are exactly those which I have raised here – and on my own blog – in the past; and been heavily criticised for doing so too.

      The ultimate problem we face can be summarised as follows:
      1. We probably do not have have sufficient finite mineral resources to manufacture renewable power generation technology sufficient to provide for 10 billion people.
      2. We probably do not have the time or the money to build the 4th generation nuclear power plants that could provide for 10 billion people.
      3. Without either of the above, a post-carbon World will not be capable of supporting more than a pre-Industrial global population.

  7. Kiwiiano Says:

    I should earnestly hope that any nuclear power station can be throttled and in a split-second if need be or every one is a ticking time bomb.

    Perhaps they mean “they don’t like throttling them back because it wastes money or radioactive decays, if you don’t use it you lose it!”? Or it’s fiddly & expensive (that word again) to bring them back up to speed.

    • True, existing solid-core reactors can’t be throttled quickly because nuclear chain reactions take time to die down after inserting the control rods. Because of that, the heat must continue to be dissipated, normally through conversion to electrical power via turbines connected to generators.

      Liquid molten salt reactors (MSRs) differ in that respect (and many more). In this case, if electrical demand decreases, and heat builds up, the liquid fuel expands thus reducing the neutron cross-section, making the reactions sub-critical. Now that doesn’t mean demand could drop to zero instantaneously without overheating. In the unlikely event of overheating, the fuel can be gravity-drained into a tank designed to dissipate the heat.

      Also an interesting idea is coupling an MSR with a brayton cycle gas turbine, such that the MSR supplies the base load and natural gas supplies instantaneous peak demand via the same turbine.

      BTW MSRs are expected to be way less complicated (less cost) as well as smaller (less material=less cost) thus the technology lends itself to being built in a factory (think Boeing-sized assembly plants) thus leading to even further cost reductions.

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