As regular readers of this blog know, I have spent a lot of time debunking components of the still-draft 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). My last post debunked the claimed health costs savings associated with 100% WWS. Before that I discussed its intellectual incoherence; its general failings with respect to assessing energy costs; its issues with energy storage; its nonsensical aversion to nuclear energy; and its dismissal of limitations in rare earth metal supplies. In my last post, I promised to move forward to discuss Canadian job losses/gains but in re-reading the article I realized that I had not finished addressing the topic of costs savings.
In my last post we discovered that a bit of creative extrapolation combined with a novel use for an obscure concept from economics (value of statistical life or VSL) could result in reported “health cost savings” equivalent to half the actual Canadian health care budget. Today we will see how using an inflated value for the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) one can make it look like Canadians will save thousands of dollars in health and climate costs by implementing 100% WWS when the truth is, as I will show, likely at least an order of magnitude lower.
For those of you wondering where I am getting these numbers, it is from the Solutions Project infographic for Canada for 100% WWS. This infographic provides the talking points that Ms. Klein and her followers from the Leap Manifesto have been using to attempt to discredit anyone who challenges the energy plan in the Leap Manifesto. In my previous blog post I was able to debunk the “Avoided Mortality and Illness Costs” in the infographic. Today I will look at the “Money in Your Pocket” box, which claims that “Annual energy, health, and climate cost savings per person in 2050: $8,887. As I will demonstrate in this post, this important talking point represents another exaggeration which takes the ridiculous costs savings discussed in my previous post and adds it to an outlier estimate for the “social cost of carbon” to provide a resultant value that is completely out of keeping with any reasonable interpretation of the academic literature.
So let’s get on with the topic at hand: understanding how that number ($8,887 in per capita cost savings in 2050) was generated for the infographic. The number comes from column G of Table 6 of 100% WWS. Careful readers will notice that the infographic says $8,887 but the paper says $8,888 but don’t worry, if you try to sweat the small stuff you will never make it through this paper. To figure out where the $8,887 comes from you need to go to the supplementary information that came with the paper, in particular the spreadsheet used to do the calculations. To see the derivation of the number, open the spreadsheet and under tab “Infographic” it appears as cell V23. That $8,887 is made up of three numbers:
- “Average (middle-value) energy benefit (cost savings) of WWS to each person ($/person/yr)” = -$16 hereafter “Energy cost savings”
- Middle-value air-quality benefit (avoided damages) of WWS to each person (/person/yr) = $2571 hereafter “Air quality benefit” and
- Middle-value climate-change benefit (avoided damages) of WWS to each person ($/person/yr) = $6109 hereafter “Climate change benefit”
Now the first number is pretty inconsequential but kills another one of the big talking points that Dr. Jacobson (and the Leapers) uses when discussing his paper in Canada. You see for most countries in his analysis, once he applies his unique algorithms to the data, the net cost of energy under 100% WWS comes out to be lower in 2050 than the “business as usual” scenario using fossil fuels. Thus he can claim a cost savings (which the infographic actually does of $163 per capita). It is interesting that of all the numbers in the infographic, this is the one ($163) I have not yet been able to trace and it may actually represent a typo. The reason I say this is that the infographic admits that average electricity costs under 100% WWS will be higher than the business as usual case using fossil fuels. Given this fact, I can’t quite figure out how he manages to say that we will save money on electricity using that higher priced electricity. But enough about that since we already know that talking point is dead and the number is negligible. Suffice it to say that under 100% WWS electricity in Canada will be more expensive than under the “business as usual” case.
The second number is simply a re-statement of the health costs savings that I addressed in my last post. They simply take that invalid health cost savings number (based on the “value of statistical life”) and correct it for the modeled 2050 Canadian population. Actually, this number once again shows pretty definitively how ridiculous the figure is since the theorized death toll (9,598 by their inflated numbers) results in a health care cost of $2,571 per person. Can you imagine what the health costs would be for the remaining 40+ million Canadians in 2050 if the health costs for 9,598 resulted in a per capita cost of $2,571? Given actual health costs, rather than the ridiculously inflated number, this figure also goes from $2,571 to some amount approaching zero (it, too, is negligible per capita).
The final number is that $6,109 per capita. It represents the “avoided 2050 global climate change costs” from Table 8 corrected for population (once again there is a bit of confusion here as the spreadsheet calls it Table 9 but the paper calls it Table 8). The energy number presented in 2050 is $141.7 billion/year (the 2050 avoided global climate costs) which consists of the 2013 carbon budget (503 Million tonnes/year with a correction factor) multiplied by the “social cost of carbon” in 2050 (in 2013 dollars) used in this paper. This where things get interesting.
Let’s start with a quick primer. The social cost of carbon (SCC) has been defined as:
an estimate of the economic damages associated with a small increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, conventionally one metric ton, in a given year. This dollar figure also represents the value of damages avoided for a small emission reduction (i.e., the benefit of a CO2 reduction).
A reasonably accurate estimate for SCC is a necessary first step in any process to justify climate change policy. As a consequence, the US EPA has spent millions of dollars comprehensively assessing the social cost of carbon as part of their mandate to make rules under their climate change regulations. Through their exhaustive process they have estimated a SCC range of $26/tonne to $95/tonne with a 95% percentile of $212 tonne for SCC in 2050. Given this heavily researched topic, you might be surprised to discover that the 100% WWS paper uses a SCC value of $500/tonne with their range going from $282-$1063/tonne in 2050? Now that is one huge disparity and it seems pretty important so let’s look at it closer.
Well the EPA number is the result of the work of a team of specialists who ran a number of different economic models. It is considered the state of the art and is relied upon by US regulators and the majority of economists out there. As for the 100% WWS number? Well not surprisingly it is a home-grown number derived by the Jacobson team for another one of the 100% WWS papers, specifically his road map to convert the 50 United States to Wind, Water, and Sunlight (100% USA paper).
So how did they get the higher number? For the 100% USA paper they did a limited review of selected papers on the subject (Table S3 in the supplementary materials). In their review they acknowledge the presence of other studies that give SCC values comparable to the EPA number but never address it directly. They then cite a single analysis that suggests much higher potential numbers and a second study that agrees with some of the premises of the first paper. So to summarize, having identified the range of values in the academic literature the paper simply discounts them and uses the one outlier value. Now as a regular reader of the scientific literature I ask: would you accept a consensus number generated using millions of dollars of research and used by almost every critical thinker in the business, or would you use the one outlier that presents a number an order of magnitude higher? Not surprisingly, for 100% USA (and 100% WWS) they chose the latter. They took the higher number and correcting it for inflation they derived the SCC value of $500/tonne in 2050 used in the paper and the infographic. So using a value of $500/tonnes they derived a number of $6109 per capita. Now if we assume the number is closer to the EPA number (say the 3% value of $69/tonne) the resulting savings would be $843 per capita. Adding the three numbers together (-16 +0 + 843) equals a $827 per capita total savings, or almost an order of magnitude less than the value from the infographic.
Now let’s be clear here. Nothing Dr. Jacobson has done is unethical or scientifically inappropriate. Dr. Jacobson is not trying to trick us in any way. He works hard to makes all his assumptions as transparent as possible which is exactly what we would expect from a good scientist. He then he uses those transparent assumptions to make predictions. This is also the work of a good scientist. The only “problem” with his work is that the assumptions he uses are consistently inconsistent with the scientific consensus. There is no law that says you can’t use VSL to assess health costs even though it is inconsistent with the actual definition of VSL. Similarly, there is no law that says that you cannot choose a high outlier value for SCC. Ultimately, it would be at the peer-review stage of the work that the peer-reviewers would be expected to ask pointed questions about the choices made in the paper, but even then, as I noted, all the decisions are transparent so the peer reviewers might even let them go. It is up to the reader, therefore, to recognize that many of these assumptions are manifestly ridiculous and that the resultant conclusions are similarly out to lunch. If you don’t believe me (after all this isn’t peer-reviewed either) then believe an actual peer-reviewed examination of the topic which singles out 100% WWS for its unique assumptions.
Frankly 100% WWS is a perfect example of caveat emptor in the scientific literature. The only problem is that the majority of the people reading it do not have the expertise to recognize where unexpected/unfamiliar/ridiculous assumptions are being made. Frankly, when I first read the paper I missed a lot of the assumptions as well since my expertise is not in the topic of costs/economics. It was only after I recognized the pattern of decisions that I decided to look more deeply into the choices made in the paper. Only then did I come to realize how badly this paper risks distorting the policy discussion in our country by convincing a bunch of science-blind political activists that there is a better way…I address that issue in my postscript.
I have been asked online why I am so hard on 100% WWS? After all it is simply the output of one small research group? A project that is mostly ignored by the scientific community or when considered by other experts in the field is often treated like an interesting outlier (an interesting academic/intellectual exercise) rather than a practical solution to our energy needs. Admittedly Dr. Jacobson has developed quite the following based on this work but much of that following is from activists and non-scientists who do not (or are unable to) read too deeply into the work. As I have written, it is such a wide-ranging work that it is essentially impossible to peer review since no individual reader will have the necessary expertise to critique it in its entirety. Still, my very deep reading of the work has convinced me is not a realistic approach to achieving a fossil fuel-free future.
Ultimately the reason I have critiqued the paper so carefully is because in my country a band of activists under the banner of the Leap Manifesto are treating it as a serious blueprint for our energy future. In Canada, the backers of the Leap Manifesto are working across the country to advance the 100 % WWS cause, and in doing so they are setting back the cause of low-carbon energy in the process. Look at the Leapers in British Columbia, fighting the Site C Dam, which represents the biggest, low-carbon addition to the western Canadian power grid in a generation. Site C represents exactly the type of project we will need if we are going to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement. Similarly in Eastern Canada (and the Eastern US) the Leapers and the 100% WWS folk are fighting battles against nuclear power; even though the best science by scientists who study renewable energy demonstrates that any system heavily dependent on renewables needs nuclear or hydro as a quickly dispatchable baseline energy source. If the Leapers did not exist, I would let 100% WWS sit unread and untouched, but because it has become the political touchstone for a generation of science-blind policy activists. Because of this it is up to scientists like myself, who have enough knowledge to debunk works like this one, to bring the discussion back to rational and pragmatic plans; plans that have a real chance at leading us to a fossil fuel-free future. The Leap Manifesto and 100% WWS do not represent such a plan.