Last week there was quite a stir as a big report came out in Energy & Environmental Science titled: 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States (100% WWS USA hereafter). The report was picked up by all the normal sources and given a lot of play in the press. It being 2015, the paper even has an interactive website at http://thesolutionsproject.org/. Now as regular readers of my blog know, I did an analysis of what it would take to get British Columbia to a 100 % Fossil-fuel free state and the results were not pretty. I calculated that it would require the energy produced from the equivalent of approximately 12 Site C Dams to get us there and that did not seem terribly promising. Needless to say the idea the United States could achieve a 100% fossil fuel free status was very appealing to me but I was skeptical. Many of the tweets I read made it out to sound relatively simple but one of the bloggers I have come to trust (David Roberts at Vox.com) suggested that it might not be quite that easy. He likened it to a World War II–scale mobilization which sounded about right. That being said, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the numbers to see for myself.
The first thing I noticed about the paper was that the names of the first two (lead?) authors (Jacobson and Delucchi) were very familiar to me. For those unfamiliar with these two, Jacobson and Delucchi prepared a similarly-themed pair of papers titled “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power”, Part I and Part II (called 100% WWS World Part I and 100% WWS World Part II hereafter). I had always meant to dig more deeply into those papers and apparently I will be getting a chance to do that now because the 100% WWS USA paper relies heavily on those two papers for many of its assumptions and raw data.
One of the most interesting features of the 100% WWS USA paper is that it categorically shuts off the option of nuclear fission as part of the energy mix. The basis for this dismissal is an interesting one and almost entirely free of any legitimate concerns about nuclear energy itself. Sadly for the casual reader, the basis for this dismissal is pretty hard to track down. The 100% WWS USA report very briefly discusses why nuclear energy has been summarily dismissed and does so by referring the readers back to two documents. One is the 100% WWS World Part I paper (above) and the second is a paper prepared by a similar batch of authors lead by Jacobson and Delucchi (Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight hereafter 100% WWS NYS). The inclusion of the second reference is a questionable one as the 100% WWS NYS paper doesn’t actually provide any original analyses about nuclear power. The sole useful reference to nuclear power simply states “Jacobson and Delucchi (2011) explain why nuclear power and coal with carbon capture are also excluded.” Now you can probably guess what I a going to tell you. Yes, Jacobson and Delucchi (2011) is indeed “100% WWS World Part I”. So in the 100% WWS USA paper they cite two sources to explain why nuclear power is not appropriate for use in the United States. Both sources represent the author’s own work and one is simply a circular reference driving back to the other. As an outsider it looks a lot like they are padding the impact factor of their earlier works while making the average reader believe that their claim is supported by multiple independent lines of research. Going back to the source (100% WWS World Part I) we discover that the basis of the exclusion of nuclear from the mix is discussed but its primary technical basis is derived from a single report prepared by, yes you guessed it, Marc Jacobson and titled “Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security”(hereafter Jacobson 2009).
Jacobson 2009 is worthy of an entire blog series of its own because the best I can say is that it is an interesting paper to read. In the paper Jacobson creates a unique scale to define which technologies would make the cut in a future energy mix. I won’t go into detail about all the assumptions that inform the table that I find questionable but for the interested reader I direct you to read the paper and see for yourself. For instance Jacobson indicates that wind energy (a truly dispersed energy source) would have the lowest physical footprint of all potential energy sources because he calculated the footprint of a wind power station to include only “the tower area touching the ground”. Under this approach the Buffalo Ridge Wind Farm in Minnesota which covers 42,800 acres, and has a direct physical project footprint of 77 acres, would occupy less “physical space” than a small city block. Even more amusing is the fact that he classifies wind as having the highest “normal operating reliability” while nuclear is in the middle of the pack. Having written a lot about wind in the last year I can state quite comfortably that the only thing reliable about wind power is that it is reliably absent for a large percentage of the generating year. It may be possible to smooth out reliability by putting enough plants in enough areas to allow for cross-connections but even that has a limited capacity to deal with low wind scenarios (see this ref for a breakdown for Europe). In the same section Jacobson downgrades nuclear energy’s reliability because nuclear plants can have “unscheduled outages during heat waves”. This ignores the realities that heat waves typically involve an absence of wind so while the nuclear plant may have issues relating to over-demand at the same time the wind is sitting idle completely unable to provide supply. Jacobson goes on to point out the actual reliability statistics that indicate that nuclear is a very reliable energy source but discounts those statistics for his subsequent data aggregation.
Jacobson compiles all his data into a single table (Table 4) where he rates/ranks the relative energy sources in order to demonstrate that the technologies he does not like are not viable for use. A brief look at Table 4 shows that nuclear fails the grade due to the risk of nuclear proliferation, some very interesting assumptions about future deaths attributable to nuclear proliferation (threat of nuclear war), thermal pollution from cooling tower return water (which he doesn’t really explain but assumes is a terrible thing) and the potential for disruptions to power supply by terrorists? Remember this paper is serving as the basis for a decision in all his subsequent papers (including 100% WWS USA) to dismiss nuclear energy as an alternative for future energy needs. So yes, you read that right, one of the primary drivers for discounting the use of nuclear energy in the United Sates in the 100% WWS USA paper includes the risk of nuclear proliferation associated with the facilities. Apparently the USA is not a nuclear power and therefore we run the risk of giving the Americans the bomb if we allow those scary folks in Idaho to use nuclear power? The same goes for nuclear powers like the French, the English the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians not to mention the entirety of the NATO alliance and the dozens of countries that have safely used nuclear power for generations without building a bomb. Can you imagine a more ridiculous basis for deciding to omit such a critical energy source from the North American power grid? It is almost as if Jacobson and Delucchi have something against the use of nuclear power and are simply looking for an excuse to exclude it from the mix.
Admittedly, the 100% WWS World paper doesn’t rely entirely on Jacobson’s 2009 paper to dismiss nuclear energy. It also relies on papers by Benjamin Sovacool and Manfred Lenzen. Regular readers of my blog will remember Benjamin Sovacool. I wrote about him in a couple posts Wind Energy and Avian Mortality: Why Can’t We get any Straight Numbers? and When peer-review is not enough – On estimates of avian deaths attributable to coal and nuclear facilities. He was the gent who derived an avian mortality rate for nuclear plants across the US by extrapolating the results from four sources where the biggest influence was actually a nearby fossil fuel plant. In doing so he extrapolated an avian nuclear apocalypse essentially out of thin air. I do not have time to deconstruct the Sovacool 2008 paper so I will leave that to the folks at RationalWiki (ref) who demonstrate that by triple counting a report by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen (ref) and ignoring a number of other papers Benjamin Sovacool manages to turn nuclear energy into a bulk emitter of carbon to be shunned. Suffice it to say that the 100% WWS World Part I paper could have chosen any number of meta-analyses to establish the carbon emissions of nuclear energy and the two they chose are arguably the most egregious outliers from the peer reviewed literature.
I think I am done banging this drum. It is quite clear that in the 100% WWS USA paper the authors did not want to include nuclear power in the mix. Based on their previous output, that appears to have been a conscious decision on their part. Please let me be clear here, it is not an inherently bad decision. The authors of scientific papers often make specific decisions in order to do interesting research. The problem, in this case, is that instead of saying outright that they are excluding nuclear power to provide for an interesting research perspective they do so in a manner that smears nuclear power. The same authors who were willing to distinguish to the decimal point the percentage of energy you would need to rely on from tidal turbines in California, were unwilling to distinguish between the risk of nuclear proliferation based on the development of nuclear power plants in North Sudan and those in North Dakota? Going down the list, virtually all of the concerns from the Jacobson 2009 paper are made irrelevant in a US context and yet they form the basis for excluding nuclear power in the 100% WWS USA paper.
I see this blog post is getting a bit long. I had planned on addressing the distressing way the 100% WWS USA paper deals with rare earth metals in this post, as well, but I think that should be the topic for a future blog post instead.