On the glaring intellectual inconsistencies in 100% Wind Water and Sunlight

Ralph Waldo Emerson is his famous essay Self-Reliance coined the phrase “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. As readers of my blog know I have spent a lot of time researching and commenting on the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight series (100% WWS) with the latest article being 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World (called 100% WWS World hereafter). What I can confidently say from that research is that the champions of this approach are not small minds. Frankly the amount of effort that has gone into this project is admirable as is their goal, to achieve a 100% clean energy  future. This is a goal I share, I might add. The problem, to my mind, is that they have failed to convince and apparently do not understand economics. As I point out in my post More on 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight and the Council of Canadians “100% Clean economy” by 2050 goal the costs of this endeavour would be ruinous, especially given the suggestion that 80% of the effort [and thus the costs] would need to be accomplished by 2030. For Canada alone, that represents over 1 trillion dollars of energy infrastructure (according to 100% WWS World spreadsheets), a new power grid and upgraded energy transmission system (neither of which they have costed) all within 14 years. More problematically, from an intellectual perspective, are the glaring intellectual inconsistencies in the 100% WWS program. Now I surely can’t make such a broad statement without any supporting data so the rest of this post will address what I view as the most obvious of the glaring intellectual inconsistencies in the 100% WWS scheme.

My concern with the intellectual incoherence underlying the 100% WWS scheme is their insistence on simultaneously accepting and rejecting technologies and/or the risks associated with those energy technologies. While there are several examples of the 100% WWS team simultaneously accepting and rejecting a technology let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: the role of water in the energy program.

The 100% WWS team have a particularly odd love/hate relationship with water. When it comes to nuclear energy the 100% WWS team is clear; they eschew the technology and do not incorporate it in their calculations. Even in a country like France, that currently gets the majority of its power via nuclear, 100% WWS World requires France to be run entirely from non-nuclear sources. The same cannot be said for hydro. They go in the exact opposite direction with hydro. The 100% WWS plan does not make use of any new hydro, but retains all the existing hydro. The W.A.C Bennett dam in British Columbia is absolutely fine but the planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is not allowed. Moreover, while they apparently do not like the technology, and apparently see it as a dead-end (since they add no more), they still expect that efficiency of the hydro will improve and thus they assume that capacity factor of the exiting hydro will increase. So the first example of their cognitive dissonance is the fact that under 100% WWS World existing hydro is good, but new hydro is supposed to be so bad that it cannot be used.

Staying with water, as described above, 100% WWS World does not include the creation of new reservoirs behind dams. Apparently for the creators of the scheme there is something inherently wrong about water reservoirs. However, in 100% WWS USA pumped hydro storage represents 5.42% of the US energy storage and pumped storage is mentioned in the other papers as an important energy storage technology. Pumped hydro storage, by its very nature, requires the use of reservoirs at both the top and the bottom of a topographic grade. So under 100% WWS hydro reservoirs are a bad thing when connected to a hydro dam but are okay when the same water is held behind a similar dam so that pumped hydro can be used as an energy storage technology?

Keeping with the inconsistencies with which 100% WWS handles water, as I described above, pumped hydro is a storage technology that makes use of the potential energy in stored water to generate electricity. There exists a similar technology used throughout the world called run-of-the-river hydro. Run-of-the river hydro is an environmentally sensitive and sustainable technology that makes use of the natural flow of a stream to generate power. As of late 2014 there were 56 independent run-of-river projects supplying electricity to BC Hydro and another 25 that are anticipated to reach operation by 2018 in British Columbia. This technology is used around the world to generate power and seems to be an obvious choice in a 100% WWS world. That being said 100% WWS does not incorporate run-of-the-river power generation. Once again I am confused. Water running downhill in a man-made sluice at a pumped hydro facility is considered a good way to generate energy in 100% WWS because the facility has the name “pumped storage”. But a virtually identical system using natural features to generate power (run-of-the-river) is bad and is excluded from use in 100% WWS, how is that for incoherence?

Now the various examples involving water do not represent the only examples of intellectual inconsistency in the 100% WWS scheme. Prior to his blocking me on Twitter, I got to follow Dr. Jacobson’s outgoing missives. One of the technologies Dr. Jacobson regularly decries on his Twitter feed is fracking. Examples include:

“Study Links Fracking To Premature Births, High-Risk Pregnancies” Oct 9, 2015

“No fracking in NY–>1 step closer to 100% WWS” Oct 17, 2014

Now I have written a bit about fracking, including discussing the misinformation being spouted by opponents with regards to the toxicology of fracking fluids. I have also written a lot about geothermal energy. As anyone who has read my writing knows, I highly approve of the technology. Unfortunately, there are not many geologic formations that will allow for the extraction of geothermal energy at industrial scales without the use of fracking. As described in the literature, fracking of one sort or another is necessary for most large, industrial geothermal facilities. Some activists try to distinguish between “fracking” and “slipping” and claim that “hydro-shearing” is different than fracking, but the earth doesn’t care if it is being blasted by one technology or the other. If you fear that fracking will enhance geologic instability and result in earthquakes, well geology doesn’t really know the difference between these three named technologies. Put simply, enhanced geothermal is geothermal fracking and any risk posed by fracking for natural gas has comparable risks when applied to a geothermal facility.

As a final example of intellectual incoherence for this posting I will choose Dr. Jacobson’s favourite hobgoblin: nuclear power. One of the biggest complaints about 100% WWS World is the complete exclusion of nuclear power. As I have described previously, one of the major bases for eschewing this technology in 100% WWS involves the radioactive waste generated in the mining and disposal of nuclear waste. As I have described numerous times, the production of the rare earth metals necessary for 100% WWS produces a lot of radioactive waste. It has been estimate that refining one ton of rare earth elements results in approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about one ton of radioactive waste residue. That is a one-to-one ratio for rare earth metals and radioactive waste. As I have previously noted, a single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains 600 kilograms of rare earth metals which means about 600 kg of radioactive waste. According to 100% WWS World, Canada will need approximately 60,000 – 5 MW wind turbines to meet our 100% WWS goal. That works out to over 36,000 tons of radioactive waste residue. That total is only for the wind turbines needed for 100% WWS in Canada. Once you add all the rare earths needed to electrify everything, that number will sky-rocket. Could someone please explain to me why radioactive waste is bad when associated with the mining and refining for nuclear power but is not so bad when associated with wind, water and sunlight?

So to summarize, under 100% WWS World existing dams are good but any new dams are bad. Storage of water in reservoirs is bad when used in hydro energy but absolutely necessary and good when used for pumped storage. Collecting the energy of water running downhill is good when used in pumped storage but bad when it is run-of-the-river hydro. Fracking is dangerous and an unacceptable risk when used for natural gas, but the same technology is acceptable when used for geothermal energy. The presence of radioactice waste is an unacceptable by-product of the nuclear industry but is an acceptable by-product of the rare earth industry.

In his renowned book 1984 George Orwell introduced us to a number of fascinating terms/ideas that have become staples of modern intellectual thought. One of the most interesting, from my perspective, is the concept of “doublethink” which RationalWiki defines as “simultaneously accepting and rejecting a given proposition”. Doublethink is comparable to the concept of “cognitive dissonance” without all the negative clinical associations. As they put it in RationalWiki: Doublethink could be “thought of as cognitive dissonance that not only remains unresolved but is also desirable to leave unresolved”. There are few better examples of modern doublethink than the sell job associated with the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight series.

A lot of people might suggest that I am being a bit harsh by referring to 100% WWS as “doublethink” and for this I am sorry. I attribute no ill intent to Dr. Jacobson and his team. Rather, I see them as true believers. Like evangelical Christians who will cite the Leviticus edict against homosexuality (20:13) while ignoring the edict against seafood (11:12), I see the 100% WWS supporters as simply not recognizing the level of their personal cognitive dissonance.

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9 Responses to On the glaring intellectual inconsistencies in 100% Wind Water and Sunlight

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Explodes a few pipe dreams

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just recently became aware of your blog due to a link on Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. I have spent a significant portion of my free time this weekend reading many of your assorted posts including this latest one. I just wanted to say how great it is to see some excellent scientific discussion of many of the subjects around modern environmentalism and the politics of such. As a Professional Geologist myself who holds many of the same views it is wonderful to see someone using their passion for science to try and educate the public. Well done and keep up the great work. I have added your site to my list of sites to visit and read.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Chester Draws says:

    The point of 100% WWS is that it will fail, and thereby cause de-industrialisation.

    If we add nuclear, extra hydro, run of the river, geothermal etc then in some places (British Columbia, New Zealand, Iceland) it might actually be possible, even if never in the timescales envisaged. Which would never do, because then we could continue on our evil planet-raping ways.

    Have you ever met a person that keen on renewables who was also keen on further industrialisation and technological expansion?

    So in order to ensure that it isn’t possible and that you have the appropriate hair shirt attitude to economic growth you can’t eat bacon you have to add specious barriers.


  4. hunter says:

    Neither Wind, water nor solar are low impact on the environment.
    It is astounding that climate and enviro fanatics would lose their critical thinking capacity to the point of actually claiming otherwise.
    Wind- destroys the landscapes and clutters the flight ways of countless flying animals with deadly huge spinning blades, not to mention the 100% backup power that must be kept ready at all times to take over when the wind does not blow.
    And of course wind produces in most locales at a small fraction of its listed capacity and has no real ability to achieve economies of scale, which means more power means more environmentally damaging landscape clutter.
    Water power requires restricting flows and/or flooding valleys.
    solar in large scale requires huge amounts of land to be covered in panels and requires 100% backup for either night or multiple days of low light.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. doug lucchetti says:

    Many of the decision makers, and all humans when in collective action, are subject to what they believe more than what they can reason. Our modern system relies on public opinion to guide public policy and the creation of legislation and that opinion reflects the people’s beliefs. The people, most of whom have only a slight ‘liberal arts’ understanding of the technology’s dependence on mathmatical reality, or how subject to delusion otherwise intelligent and informed people can be, need guidance and advice but it must be palatable or it will be rejected.


  6. Alan says:

    To raise a nit and play a little Devil’s Advocate, I would point out that the radioactive “waste” (SNF) from nuclear plants is quite a bit hotter than the thorium waste resulting from mining REEs. However if you are talking more about the waste resulting from uranium mining, some of which is (I believe) radioactive, that would be more of an apples-to-apples comparison. In any case, with next generation nuclear (or if you consider reprocessing SNF), almost all of the high-level “waste” from NPPs can be used to generate energy and an almost insignificant amount being left over that needs to be isolate, and then only for a few hundred years.

    Excellent blog. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: A Jacobsonian 100% Wind Water and Sunlight gallop at UCLA | A Chemist in Langley

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