Dr. Marc Z. Jacobson, the lead scientist of the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight (100% WWS) movement, was in Vancouver last week for a presentation. Dr. Jacobson is a proponent of relying solely on wind, water and sunlight to meet our future energy needs (although that is not strictly true since his model relies on hydroelectric facilities and lots of energy storage to make his math work). Dr. Jacobson can be something of a divisive character as he known, in some corners, for blocking people who ask him tough questions on Twitter and for suing his scientific critics. The Tyee was on hand and prepared a summary of his presentation (his slide package is here).
I have written a lot about 100% WWS, especially as it applies to the Leap Manifesto and most of my analyses have not been positive. The repeated issue I have identified is that the model appears possible from a big-picture perspective, but it quickly becomes unglued when you look carefully at the details. This was demonstrated by Dr. Clack and his colleagues in their reply to one of his papers and more amusingly by a physicist from Finland who addressed specific instances where the model struggles.
Given the popularity of this model domestically, I want to re-look at the plan (my earlier analysis of the draft plan is here) now that a final version has been released. Specifically, I want to carefully unpack the numbers for Canada because I feel these numbers really speak for themselves. In my view, the reason the 100% WWS crew have been able to successfully promulgate their theories has been that few people have had the tenacity to crawl through the supplementary information and spreadsheets to see what the model actually entails. I’m confident when readers are exposed to the plan’s details they will see how impractical (and unnecessarily expensive) it would be.
Let’s be clear at the outset. I agree that we need to decarbonize our energy system to fight climate change. But I believe that 100% WWS is the wrong approach to achieve that goal. I believe 100% WWS’ requirement that we exclude numerous low-carbon alternatives (like nuclear and run-of-river hydro) adds significantly to the expense of the plan while providing few real benefits.
The 100% WWS worldwide plan is presented in a paper by Dr. Jacobson (and an extensive list of co-authors) titled 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World. The paper provides a detailed break-out of what it would take for each country in the world to achieve 100% renewable energy (excluding nuclear power and any new hydro) by 2050. You note that big proviso. The Solutions Project is strongly anti-nuclear energy and argues against large reservoir or run-of-the-river hydro so they are excluded from the mix. In the web site associated with 100% WWS a breakdown of energy sources by 2050 in Canada is presented:
- Onshore wind 27.5%
- Offshore wind 22.9%
- Solar PV plant 9.8%
- Hydroelectric 14.5%
- Wave energy 2.2%
- Residential rooftop solar 5.3%
- Commercial/govt rooftop solar 9.1%
- Geothermal 1.7%
- Tidal turbine 0.2%
At the outset the numbers look challenging, but not necessarily impossible. Being a practical guy, I dug a bit deeper to find the details. These are presented in an associated spreadsheet. In “Table for GATOR-GCMON” of that spreadsheet is the list of units necessary by 2050 to achieve the 100% WWS goal for Canada:
- Onshore wind: 34,993 – 5 MW units ( 2240 units currently installed)
- Offshore wind: 27,242 – 5 MW units (currently no units in Canada)
- Solar PV plant: 1690 – 50 MW facilities (currently 13 similar facilities)
- Solar CSP plants 450 – 100 MW facilities (currently 1 in operation)
- Solar CSP plants for storage 275 – 100 MW facilities
- Hydroelectric: Uses currently built facilities with efficiency gains
- Wave energy: 26,227 – 0.75 MW installations (currently no unit in Canada)
- Residential rooftop solar: 12,992,080 units (currently <2% of units installed)
- Commercial/govt rooftop solar: 1,383,183 units (currently <2% of units installed)
- Geothermal: 50 – 100 MW facilities (currently no such facility in Canada)
- Tidal turbine: 2000 – 1 MW units (currently no units in Canada)
Looking at these requirements you can see why I am unsettled. That is a LOT of construction to be completed in the 32 years between 2018 and 2050. To make it clear how far we have to go to meet this challenge, consider that as of August 2018 British Columbia had 698 MW of installed onshore wind capacity consisting of 288 wind turbines. Since the 100% WWS model calls for about 62,235 MW of wind capacity by 2050, we are still 61,537 MW away from this goal. We would need to install 1923 MW/year to achieve that goal. This is twice the capacity we have installed to date and that would be required each and every year until 2050.
Lets look at the offshore wind platforms. As one of the two southern coasts, British Columbia would be responsible for close to half of the 27, 242 offshore units needed to achieve our national 100% WWS goal. As of today, we have zero offshore wind facilities. 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. This represents about 10% of the 136,000 MW of nameplate capacity called for in 100% WWS by 2050. All the plans in the works only gets us to 10% of our 2050 goal.
As a British Columbian, I recognize a pretty obvious concern about this offshore number and looking more deeply into the spreadsheet I see an oversight. The reason the model imagines we can put all these offshore facilities in place is that the model imagines Canada has over 200,000 km of useful coastline (presented in the “population density” tab) on which to place those facilities. Admittedly, Canada’s coastline is vast (over 200,00 km) but the majority of that coastline is in the north (mostly in the Arctic) where weather and ice preclude the construction of offshore wind turbines.
Thus, when the model calculated how much offshore wind potential was available it missed the fact that much of the area described is not practical for offshore wind turbines. Anyone familiar with BC geography also knows that the Pacific Continental Shelf abuts much of the West Coast of Canada. The sea floor drops precipitously very close to the coast and as such over most of our coast it would not be affordable to install offshore wind platforms (even tethered floating ones) as the foundation of such installations would need to be 100s of meters deep. Alternatively, this would mean trying to shoe-horn 13,500 of these units in the narrow area of relatively shallow water near Haida Gwaii which is both unlikely and eliminates the geographic dispersion necessary to provide balance to the system.
Moreover, according to the model, to meet our goal we will need 26,227 wave devices (covering a physical footprint of about 14 km2) and 2000 tidal turbines. Be aware, we still do not have a design for a fully-functional industrial scale wave installation suitable for the stormy west coast. There are lots of pilot projects and one unit in Australia looks promising but before we can even start the planning processes, a design needs to be identified. Absent even a design for a unit it is unclear how we are going to meet our goal in the time frame provided.
The other consideration not readily mentioned is that all that new infrastructure is going to cost a lot of money. Using their numbers (from the draft report as I was unable to reconstruct the costs in the new document) it would cost Canada $1.8 trillion of investment by 2050 just for the basic energy generation installations. Assuming we spread the costs evenly between 2018 and 2050 (32 years) that comes out to $56 billion per year to build that infrastructure. Remember we haven’t considered the infrastructure necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…) or the costs to do the environmental assessments on all those projects, we are simply talking about the capital costs of the actual units themselves.
Talking about environmental assessments, given Canada’s history of welcoming large industrial power facilities, I am quite certain there will be no delays in initiating the construction of all these facilities…just look at how smoothly Site C and the Trans-Mountain have been progressing in BC.
As noted, even if we spent $1.8 trillion to build all those turbines etc.. we still wouldn’t have a way to get that power to the people who need it. 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 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 the 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. 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 after the national 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. Building transmission lines in Canada can be intensely expensive. Consider that the Northwest Transmission Line project in BC cost over $2 million a kilometer to build. Yet in order to work, the 100% WWS model requires that these lines be built. As for the costs? If your single main line is $104 billion and we will need 10’s of thousands of kms of feeder lines then even taking into account the existing infrastructure we are talking in the low trillions to connect all our communities.
Not only will this construction be ruinously expensive, it would be ecologically devastating. Let’s imagine that we somehow manage to get permits to fill every inlet and fjord on the west coast with some form of electricity generating device, you still need to cut down tens of thousands of acres of forests to create the transmission corridors to get that power to the people. The biologists out there continually warn about linear developments that cut openings into pristine habitats, now imagine the number of linear developments necessary to connect 26,227 tidal units to the power grid. I find it particularly amusing that the same groups who fight a hydroelectric dam in the Peace because of its footprint would demand we build a electricity generating system and grid that would decimate the last protected areas of our coast.
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 questionable, restrictions on a number of important baseline clean energy technologies and in doing so results in a proposal that is ruinously expensive consuming over $100 billion per year. Can you imagine the legacy of debt we would place on our children, our grand-children and our great-grandchildren if we suggested borrowing $100 billion+ a year for the foreseeable future to fund this infrastructure? Admittedly we live in an era of low interest rates but they will not last forever. Adding several trillion dollars to our national debt is simply a non-starter.
To close this post let’s reiterate a few facts: fighting climate change is going to be a very expensive, electricity-intensive project that will take a huge political will; the expenditures of massive financial resources; and cooperation between the private and public sectors. I agree we should work hard to develop a power system with a strong renewable component, but I believe in regionally-appropriate renewables. The problem with the proposal pushed in 100% WWS 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 in Ontario and on the prairies.
A country like Canada that is blessed with an abundance of hydropower and nuclear opportunities should not ignore those opportunities because a team of engineers from California don’t particularly like that technology. Put simply, we cannot ignore the potential of nuclear and hydro energy in a post-fossil fuel energy mix. Researchers have enumerated the costs savings to incorporating nuclear and other alternatives into our mix and they are substantial. It is already going to be a tough battle to achieve a low-carbon grid. Let’s not make it impossible just because 100% WWS sounds good as a catch-phrase.