The case for 100 percent renewables rested on a lie. Here's what it teaches us about energy and the environment

by Michael Shellenberger

Earlier this week an all-star group of energy and climate scholars published a scientific article in a prestigious journal pointing out that a Stanford professor’s proposal for powering the United States entirely on renewable energy sources rests upon a gigantic lie.

Over the last several years, Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo and many politicians have pointed to Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson’s modeling as proof that we can quickly and cheaply transition to 100 percent renewables.

What is the lie? That we can increase the amount of power from U.S. hydroelectric dams ten-fold. According to the U.S. Department of Energy and all major studies, the real potential increase is just one percent of that.

Without all that additional hydroelectricity, Jacobson’s entire house of cards falls apart. That’s because there’s no other way to store all of that unreliable solar and wind energy, given the shortcomings of current battery technologies.

The authors diplomatically call Jacobson’s lie an “error,” but it is in fact a lie and everyone — Jacobson included — knows it.

In his response, Jacobson writes, “Increasing hydropower's peak instantaneous discharge rate was not a ‘modeling mistake’ but an assumption.”

What is an assumption? It is “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof” [emphasis added].

But what have Jacobson, Gore, DiCaprio and politicians around the world been insisting for years? That Jacobson’s study proves not only that we can power the world with renewables-alone, but also that doing so would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Upon the big lie rest others.

For example, around the world, politicians and renewables advocates seeking to close nuclear plants justify their actions by claiming Jacobson’s work proves that nuclear plants are not needed as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Jacobson himself told the audience during our debate at UCLA last year that California would replace our last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, entirely with renewables — and at a lower cost than keeping the plant running.

Jacobson says these things even though he knows perfectly well that everywhere in the world nuclear plants are closed, fossil fuels are burned instead.

There are other victims, too, as Environmental Progress Fellow Jemin Desai recently discovered.

For his summer project, Jemin has been comparing the mining, material use and waste impacts of different energy sources including renewables like solar and wind, which we tend to think of as having little to no environmental impact.

Environmental Progress staff and fellows

Environmental Progress staff and fellows

The first thing he discovered is that solar panels in fact contain significant quantities of toxic metals like lead, chromium and cadmium — known carcinogens — and yet no nation outside of Europe has a plan to safely dispose of them. Many could end up in waste dumps in poor communities in Asia and Africa and poison drinking water supplies.  

How much solar waste is there? About 300 times more per unit of energy than there is from nuclear power.

As a result, if solar and nuclear waste from producing the same amount of electricity were stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).

The reason for the difference is obvious. Sunlight is diffuse and so a large number of collectors (panels), as well as the land they take up, is required to generate enough electricity. Because nuclear fuel is so energy-dense, very little is required in terms of materials or land.  

Sierra Club advertisement claiming solar panels move us "beyond mining"

Sierra Club advertisement claiming solar panels move us "beyond mining"

That the energy density of our fuels determines their environmental impact is intuitive when you think about it for a few minutes, and yet the basic, physical connection between the two has been denied by renewable advocates including Jacobson for decades.

With the publication of the new paper debunking Jacobson’s big hydroelectric lie, that may be changing. Even so, everyone — academic researchers, journalists and policymakers — still has a very long way to go.

It is telling that while there are thousands of articles, studies, books and movies about the relatively miniscule quantities of well-managed spent fuel that comes out of nuclear plants, there is to date only one estimate of how much solar waste the world is on track to produce, and it was calculated for the first time by an 18-year-old nuclear engineering student from UC Berkeley and (proudly) published yesterday by Environmental Progress.