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Idea of 100 percent renewable energy isn't feasible

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'Clean coal' technology fails to capture world's attention

In this Nov. 16, 2015 photo, employees work next to the gas lines of the Mississippi Power Co. carbon capture power plant in DeKalb, Miss.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen recently passed Resolution 124, which calls for the city to commit to transition to 100 percent clean energy in the form of wind and solar by 2035.

On the surface this sounds like a nice idea. Why not? Especially when many cities have taken the plunge into the 100 percent renewables boondoggle. They are being led by Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson, who has reached Hollywood fame with his claim that the country can survive just fine on wind, solar and hydro. The problem is that his claim has recently been debunked by 21 scientists in the prestigious journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This group of scientists concluded that his work used “invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.”

What do scientists do when their work is challenged in a scientific journal? They defend it by writing a follow-up article in that journal showing how their approach is correct. With such high stakes, you would think that Jacobson would have chosen this path, unless of course, he was unable to. The alternative, which Jacobson chose, was to take the Journal and the lead author to court, and sue them. In other words, if I cannot defend my position on scientific grounds, maybe I can find a legal means of quieting the voices of dissent.

Why is it that “100 percent renewables” is not feasible? First, we have to realize that the key to modern society is reliability. It is the intermittent nature of wind and solar that is the fundamental problem; you can rely on renewables to be unreliable. But, you will argue, we have batteries for large-scale utility storage. First of all, we do not. Even if we did, getting to 100 percent renewables is still not feasible.

It is not trivial to understand why, but you can get a sense by thinking about the following: We all remember times when there were long stretches of extreme heat, or weeks of overcast, rainy weather. To charge batteries so that they are available during those times, you need to build excess capacity. And, as the percent renewables rises toward 100 percent, the amount of excess capacity you need to install heads towards infinity. You would need to install enormous stretches of solar panels and wind turbines, each turbine nearly the size of the Gateway Arch. Our beautiful, green countryside would be transformed into black and white machinery. The excess capacity needed to reach 100 percent renewables would sit there for most of the year doing absolutely nothing, so that batteries could be charged for those rare occasions when they were needed.

Since the industrial revolution, coal, oil and natural gas have driven unprecedented growth in life span, population, income, education and quality of life. They have done so by providing us with energy 24/7/365, and the International Energy Agency projects that fossil fuels will account for a whopping 77 percent of our energy use in 2040. Like your most reliable friend, they have been there for us whenever and wherever we have called upon them. And, like your reliable friend, they are not perfect, but there are technologies being developed that allow us to use fossil fuels with minimal emissions. Anyone who is truly concerned about the planet should be open to supporting these efforts and not be limiting their choices to wind and solar.

Perhaps the aldermen of St. Louis cannot be faulted for their actions, as there are other cities doing the same. The tragedy of this action is that it misleads and misdirects the public.

Richard L. Axelbaum is a professor of environmental engineering science in the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering at Washington University.


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