This week the Globe and Mail featured an interview with engineer Dr. Mark Z Jacobson on his plan for the world to get all its energy – including transport and heating fuel and electricity – from wind, water and solar resources by 2050. This topic has gained a lot of traction in the environmental community with 34 Council of Canadians chapters joining in the chorus demanding that a “100% clean economy is 100% possible by 2050”. The basis for the “100% clean economy is 100% possible by 2050” plan is a paper prepared by Dr. Jacobson 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World (called 100% WWS hereafter).
Now I am going to be a wet blanket and explain, briefly, why Dr. Jacobson’s ideas, while visionary and incredibly appealing, are also simply not possible.
Before I go much further I want to give a hat tip to physicist Dr. Jani-Petri Martikainen at the blog PassiiviIdentiteetti [I copy and pasted that name as I had no chance of spelling it correctly otherwise]. As readers of my blogs know I have already looked at Dr. Jacobson’s work in three previous blog postings:
- Deconstructing the 100% Fossil Fuel Free Wind, Water and Sunlight USA paper – Part I Why no nuclear power?,
- Deconstructing the 100% Fossil Fuel Free Wind, Water and Sunlight USA paper – Part II What about those pesky rare earth metals?, and
- Deconstructing the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight scenarios – Part III Issues with energy storage
In those blog posts I looked at big picture features of the Jacobson model but I never dug down into the country-specific numbers. This week I was directed to a brilliant blog post by Dr. Martikainen Part 1: Why does Mark Jacobson hate Finland? that humorously skewered the work by looking at the assumptions for a single country (Finland) to show how many of the conclusions aren’t based on reasonable assumptions. This encouraged me to go to the supplementary information that came with the paper, in particular the spreadsheet used to do the calculations. Dr. Martikainen’s blog thus served as the inspiration for this blog post.
To go back to my “big picture” view for just one paragraph let’s look at one simple example of a global issue with the 100% WWS paper. Looking at Table 2 in 100% WWS you see that the 100% WWS model requires the construction and installation of 1.954 Million – 5 MW wind turbines worldwide by 2050. As I note in my earlier blog post, a single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains 600 kilograms of rare earth metals. If we choose to ignore the minor difference between 3.5 and 5 mw turbines (size and weight) we are still talking about around 1.27 million tons of rare earth metals. According to the US Geological Service, the worldwide production of rare earth metals is approximately 110,000 tons. This means that between now and 2050 (34 years) the equivalent of over 10 years of the entire world’s production of rare earth metals would need to be solely dedicated to producing wind turbines. Forget batteries, magnets, MRI machines or computers for the equivalent of 10 years we would only have enough of the stuff to make windmills under 100% WWS. As for construction schedules, in order to meet our January 1, 2050 deadline we would need to install over 57,000 wind turbines a year starting yesterday. To put that into perspective that comes out to a manageable 155+ installations a day…better get started soon.
Now let’s look at the Canadian story, because even if we don’t think Ethiopia is going to get its act together in time we Canadians live in a rich country and should be doing our part to meet the 2050 target. After all if the Council of Canadians says it “is doable” then surely it must be. In 100% WWS the breakdown of energy sources by 2050 in Canada would include:
- Onshore wind 37.5%
- Offshore wind 21%
- Solar PV plant 17.7%
- Hydroelectric 16.5%
- Wave energy 2%
- Residential rooftop solar 1.5%
- Commercial/govt rooftop solar 1.7%
- Geothermal 1.9%
- Tidal turbine 0.2%
On the outset the numbers look challenging, but not necessarily impossible. Being a practical guy, I thought I should dig a bit deeper to see how these numbers pan out.
The first thing that jumps out to me is that wind makes up the lion’s share of our proposed energy mix, providing 58.5% of our total energy supply. Now I am not an energy wonk, but Dr. Jesse Jenkins is and in his Energy Collective blog he points out the difficulty with relying on variable renewable energy for more than 40% of your energy supplies. If you combine the solar and wind (the variable energy sources) you get 76.2% of our energy supply. This is not good for our power grid and would mean that in addition to everything I will describe below, we would need to massively upgrade our existing energy grid and control systems to make this project work.
Okay, for the time-being we will give 100% WWS a pass on the power grid concerns and look to the actual new infrastructure necessary to get this project started. According to Table 2 of the spreadsheet, Canada has a particular challenge in that to achieve our national goal we need to install over 60,000 wind turbines between today and 2050. That means 1764 a year or 5 units a day between now and Jan 1, 2050. British Columbia will really have to get moving because that national number includes both onshore and offshore facilities. As one of the two coasts British Columbia would be responsible for close to half of the 21,555 offshore units needed to achieve our 100% WWS goal. To put the scale of this challenge into perspective: as of September 2015 British Columbia had 5 onshore wind installations with a total of 217 wind turbines and an installed capacity of 489 MW. As of September 2015 we had zero offshore wind facilities. Getting from zero to 10,000 in 34 years, in our regulatory environment, shouldn’t be much of a problem, heck according to BC Hydro they have up to 300 potential wind energy sites being investigated for project development. Of that group offshore represents 43 project with an installed capacity of 14,688 MW. Sure it is only 4 percent of the 368,000 MW of nameplate capacity called for in 100% WWS but we are assured this is “doable” so let’s continue.
From a cost perspective wind, while not ultra-expensive, is not cheap either. BC Hydro’s Bear Mountain Wind Park in Dawson Creek cost $200 Million dollars for a 102 MW facility. Now this facility needed no major transmission lines upgrades as it is located near an urban area and didn’t need major roadway improvement since it is near a highway so this project would represent a low-cost installation. Unfortunately this low-cost operation put us back about $1 million per MW (for an onshore power facility). Dr. Jacobson acknowledges these costs as the 100% WWS spreadsheet suggests an initial range estimate of $1.35 million to $1.8 million per MW for onshore wind.
Now consider that 100% WWS calls for over 10 million MW of capacity in Canada alone. Using my low estimate, that comes out to $10 trillion (yes trillion with a “t”) in costs for wind installations. That $10 trillion is before you consider costs for the transmission lines, grid upgrades or roads to access the facilities. Now consider that Canada’s GDP is around $1.8 trillion. If we dedicated our entire GDP to building wind facilities it would be the equivalent of 5.5 years of Canada’s entire economic output. Alternatively, we could pro-rate it over the 34 years and it would only represent 16% of our GDP for the entire span.
It looks like I misread Table 2 in the spreadsheet, I used the “technical nameplate capacity” instead of the “total nameplate capacity” for my onshore wind calculations. Based on the calculations presented in the paper we only need 39,263 – 5 MW wind installations. Using Dr. Jacobson’s discounted rate for these units the wind installations would only cost $273 billion not $1.8 trillion. So that ONLY represents 2.4% of GDP not 16% over the entire span.
Remember that is for the onshore wind facilities only we haven’t considered the offshore wind, wave devices, solar facilities and geothermal plants. This is what the Council of Canadians says is “doable”.
Now the wind numbers look daunting, but not technically impossible. We have a small, but growing, domestic wind power industry.
We could benefit from scaling up production and maybe cut it down to about the equivalent financial footprint as our medical care system (11.6% of GDP). A somewhat less likely set of assumptions comes from the wave and tidal power spreadsheets. According to the plan in order to meet our goal we will need 27,323 wave devices (covering a physical footprint of about 14 km2) and 1980 tidal turbines. With zero wave devices installed yet in Canada at the end of 2015 we only have to install 804 of these, as yet not yet designed nor tested systems per year to meet our goal. As a bonus, that energy is not going to come cheap. According to BC Hydro the estimated unit energy cost for wave energy ranges from $440 to $772/MWh. For perspective BC Hydro has been paying about $78/MWh from the Independent Power Producers and this has caused some political folks to blow their lids over the costs. As for that footprint of 14 km2 we know that British Columbian environmentalists go out of their way to encourage large industrial users to cover huge swathes of their marine foreshore with industrial power plants, so that won’t be a problem either.
Now that I have covered the power sources, I will address what I view as the biggest Achilles heel in the 100% WWS goal for Canada: power transmission. I’m not sure if Dr. Jacobson and his team had a chance to notice but Canada is what they call a big country. The vast majority of our inhabited land mass is not near a coastline where all that offshore wind, and the tides and waves are going to generate one quarter of all our power. The only way to get that power from where it is generated to where it is needed is via transmission lines and building transmission lines in Canada can be intensely expensive. Consider that the Northwest Transmission Line project in BC is looking to cost over $2 million a kilometer to build.
Consider that to achieve 100% clean energy in 2050 virtually every community in Canada will need to be connected to a national grid since cities like Yellowknife, which is hundreds of miles from the nearest coast and where solar provides negligible power for much of the year, will need to import a lot of power in order to continue to exist. Under 100% WWS the citizens of Inuvik won’t be allowed to use diesel generators during the 6 month winter, when the ice has blocked up the coast and the wind can disappear for days at a time. They will thus have to import electricity from down south. Now I admit to having picked a couple extreme cases to make my point, but recognize that Canada’s vast and challenging geography has limited our ability to create a nationally integrated power grid. Yet in order to work the 100% WWS proposal requires such a grid. It needs us to shift power from areas where it is windy to areas where it is not windy and from our coastlines to places like northeast Saskatchewan. Even the most optimistic view has a new grid costing $25 billion and taking a couple decades to build. A more realistic appraisal puts the cost of a national backbone of 735 kV transmission lines at around $104 billion and taking 20 years to complete. Only once the backbone has been built can we then start work on all the feeder lines that will have to go to every city, town and hamlet. Since we only have 34 years to get this accomplished we had better get started sooner rather than later.
Reading back the last few paragraphs, I realize that I sound a lot less like a wet blanket and a lot more like the voice of doom suggesting we all abandon ship or die. The truth is that while the 100% WWS by 2050 plan is clearly not possible that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to achieve its underlying goal of low or no carbon energy with a strong renewable component. The problem with the 100% WWS proposal is that it is hobbled by some of the personal views of its creators. It omits some pretty obvious energy solutions like further large-reservoir hydro in Quebec, Labrador, Ontario and BC, run-of-the-river hydro across Canada and, of course, further nuclear power. A country like Canada that is blessed with an abundance of hydropower opportunities should not ignore those opportunities because one engineer from California doesn’t particularly like that technology. A fear of the risk of nuclear proliferation should not hinder nuclear savvy countries like the US, Canada, France and China from making use of nuclear power in their energy mix. It is not as if we have to worry that Iowa may get the bomb if the US builds a nuclear plant in Idaho.
As I have said more times that I would care to admit in this blog: I am a pragmatist. As a pragmatist I tend to live by the credo “moderation in all things”. The 100% WWS model fails because it does not believe in moderation. It places tight, and poorly supported, restrictions on a number of important baseline clean energy technologies and in doing so results in a proposal that is ruinously expensive. Looking at the numbers above, the costs would be prohibitive for Canada consuming over half our national GDP over the 34 year time frame proposed. While ruinously expensive is technically “doable”, the same can’t be said for countries like Zimbabwe or Ethiopia where the anticipated costs exceed GDP by orders of magnitude. Alternatively, Ethiopia could build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project which would provide it with ample, essentially carbon-free, electricity and raise its citizens out of abject energy poverty.
Let’s be clear here, I believe strongly in renewable energy, but as I have written before I believe in regionally-appropriate renewables. I also believe that we cannot ignore the potential of nuclear and hydro energy in a post-fossil fuel energy mix. To summarize what I have written above: when an apparently innumerate representative from the Council of Canadians assures you that 100% WWS is “doable” the correct response is: “only in your dreams…only in your dreams”.
Author’s note: It was pointed out to me that my numbers may be off, and not surprisingly some of them were. The Jacobson spreadsheet is quite the maze of interconnected macros and I missed one. I have thus made a correction to the calculation for onshore wind power. As is my practice I have not erased anything but have used strike-through in order to allow readers to see the old text (my mistake) and added some new text in italics to allow the section to still read clearly. Unlike some people I don’t disappear my errors, I admit to my mistakes and then correct them.
The error changes the cost of onshore wind by quite a bit, but since the original number I had was insanely high, the new number is now only disastrously high. Looking at the numbers in the spreadsheet, which low-balls offshore wind costs and provides numbers for technologies that have yet to be developed, it looks like the entire cost for new power infrastructure only would run closer to 15% of our GDP per year between now and 2050. Remember this is before we consider the necessary transmission system upgrade; before we undertake the massive electrical grid conversion; does not include any costs for all that storage needed to make these technologies work; and assumes that costs for the infrastructure will be substantially reduced for these technologies even though we know that raw material costs will go through the roof because of a shortage of the rare earth metals and Lithium necessary to make the technologies work.