No Miracles Needed: Wind, Water, Sun Enough to Beat Climate Change

February 8, 2023

Mark Z. Jacobson in Guardian:

Nearly 7 million people die each year from air pollution. Moreover, global warming is already causing catastrophic damage. We have only seven years to eliminate 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – and 12 to 27 years to eliminate the rest – to avoid 1.5C global warming since the 1850 to 1900 period. We are already 1.1C above average.

The world also faces serious energy-security risks related to climate change: the economic, social, and political instability that will result when fossil fuels and uranium run out; blackmail by countries that control the supply of fuel to other countries; the high costs of shipping energy long distances; blackouts when a centralized fossil-fuel or nuclear power plant unexpectedly goes down; and health and environmental problems associated with continuous fuel mining, waste storage, nuclear reactor meltdown, and nuclear energy-related weapons proliferation.

Given the magnitude of these problems and the urgency of a solution to them, it is no surprise that the best solution is one that can be implemented quickly and at low cost. Enter wind, water and solar (WWS). WWS includes energy from the wind (onshore and offshore wind electricity), the water (hydroelectricity, tidal and ocean current electricity, wave electricity, geothermal electricity and geothermal heat), and the sun (solar photovoltaic electricity, concentrated solar power electricity and heat, and direct solar heat).

When combined with electricity storage, heat storage, cold storage and hydrogen storage; techniques to encourage people to shift the time of their electricity use (demand response); a well-interconnected electrical transmission system; and nifty and efficient electrical appliances, such as heat pumps, induction cooktops, electric vehicles and electric furnaces for industry, WWS can solve the ginormous problems associated with climate change at low cost worldwide.

The biggest reason a WWS system is low cost is that it uses much less energy than does a combustion-based energy system. Worldwide, in fact, the energy that people use goes down by over 56% with a WWS system. There are five reasons for the reduction: the efficiency of electric vehicles over combustion vehicles, the efficiency of electric heat pumps for air and water heating over combustion heaters, the efficiency of electrified industry, eliminating energy needed to obtain fossil fuels and uranium, and some efficiency improvements beyond what is expected.

On top of that, a WWS system reduces the cost per unit energy by another 12% on average, resulting in a 63% lower annual energy cost worldwide. Adding health and climate cost savings gives an overall 92% reduction in annual social cost (which is the energy plus health plus climate cost) relative to a conventional system.

The worldwide upfront capital cost of such a 2050 WWS system is around $62tn. However, due to the $11tn annual energy cost savings, the payback time is less than six years. The new system may also create over 28m more long-term, full-time jobs than lost worldwide, and may require only about 0.53% of the world’s land for new energy – less than the land required for the current energy system.

What is more, we have 95% of the technologies we need to solve the problem. The ones we don’t have include long-distance aircraft and ships and some industrial technologies, but we know how to transition those technologies. We also need to address non-energy emissions as well, but we know how to do that, as well. So, if we have almost all that we need, why do we need “miracle technologies” being proposed ad nauseam to solve these problems?

We don’t. We do not need carbon capture and storage or use, direct air capture storage or use, blue hydrogen, new nuclear power, or bioenergy. Carbon capture equipment extracts carbon dioxide from power plants or other industrial sources. Direct air capture equipment extracts carbon dioxide directly from the air. Blue hydrogen is hydrogen produced from natural gas with carbon capture equipment added to remove the resulting carbon dioxide.

These three technologies, which all require equipment and energy, merely increase air pollution, fuel mining and fossil-fuel infrastructure, thus energy insecurity, while hardly reducing carbon dioxide. They all increase energy requirements by 30% or so compared with no capture, have average capture efficiencies of 20 to 80% rather than the 90 to 95% claimed, and increase, not decrease, carbon dioxide from the fuel mining and transport by requiring more energy.

Furthermore, 73% of all carbon dioxide captured today is used to help dig more oil out of the ground. This process releases about 40% of the captured carbon back to the air in addition to producing more dirty oil. These technologies are opportunity costs whose real effects are to extend the life of the fossil fuel industry.

In addition, new nuclear suffers from a 10- to 21-year time lag between planning and operation (too long to be useful for immediately addressing the climate crisis), costs that are five to eight times those of new wind and solar per unit energy, weapons proliferation risk, meltdown risk, waste risk, underground uranium mining health risk, and carbon dioxide emissions that are nine to 37 times those of onshore wind. Bioenergy produces air pollution and greenhouse gases while using rapacious amounts of land and water.


6 Responses to “No Miracles Needed: Wind, Water, Sun Enough to Beat Climate Change”

  1. Mark Mev Says:

    I watched the whole video of the wind turbines, just relaxing and watching, until I realized that I’m now going to get cancer.

  2. ubrew12 Says:

    Jacobson’s advice would be smart to take. Waiting for the ‘next new thing’ was an option 30 years ago, but not now. Too much carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere to do less than with proven technologies that, and this is important, are as easily taken down as put up. So when the ‘next new thing’ finally makes its appearance, we have options. But compared to taking down a solar or wind farm, nobody is taking down our excess carbon emissions anytime soon, at anything approaching a reasonable cost. And unless they do…

    Between the rock and the hard place that climate denial has landed us, Jacobson’s is the path forward. ‘Hope’ is not a strategy, however useful it is, otherwise.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    To me, it seems plausible to implement carbon capture technology from point sources where it wouldn’t be cost effective to extract it from atmosphere with < 500 ppm (0.05%) CO2.

    Maybe some biological trick like more testing of ocean iron fertilization that can be brought up to scale faster than engineered extractors could work, since planting trees takes to long (and they might catch fire).

    • ubrew12 Says:

      I’m hopeful that carbon capture solutions will eventually exist, but hope isn’t a strategy. What we have are perfectly inexpensive, and reversible, solutions that are here today, that can at least prevent atmospheric CO2 from getting any higher. They should be implemented. And if Africa (20% of humanity) chooses to ‘do an India’ (which chose a decade ago to ‘do a China’) with development, the World needs to come together, finally, and dissuade them from doing it with coal. Once those coal plants go in, they’ll take 30 years to pay for themselves. By the time they do, the planet will be toast.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        Solar’s cheap enough up front to be attractive to Africa, which straddles the equator, and it requires relatively pedestrian construction skills and maintenance. It’s flexible and waterless, too.

        I’m hoping that the locals will embrace more community solar.

  4. John Oneill Says:

    South Africa, the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, is getting about 85% of power from coal, 4% from nuclear, a few percent from hydro, solar, and wind. The previous ANC government’s plan to build ten Russian reactors went down in a welter of corruption allegations, though the present one is probably little better. Nigeria, the largest country by population, is about 70% gas, maybe 20% hydro – but during the frequent power cuts, anyone who can afford it fires up a generator. Egypt in 2021 got 50x as much power from gas as from solar, 5x as much from other fossil fuels, and demand is rising rapidly. The Russians are building four reactors on the Mediterranean coast, which should start producing power in three years, eventually equalling about a quarter of current gas production.

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