It’s a MYTH that We Need Fossil Fuel Or Nuclear

The big oil, gas, coal and nuclear companies claim that we need those energy sources in order to power America.

Good news: it’s a myth.

Mark Diesendorf – Associate Professor and Deputy Director, Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW at the University of New South Wales – notes:

The deniers and scoffers repeatedly utter the simplistic myth that renewable energy is intermittent and therefore cannot generate base-load (that is, 24-hour) power.

Detailed computer simulations, backed up with actual experience with wind power overseas, show that the scoffers are wrong. Several countries, including Australia with its huge renewable energy resources, could make the necessary transition to an electricity generation system comprising 100 per cent renewable energy over a few decades.


Feasibility has been established by computer simulations of electricity generation systems by several research groups around the world, including my own …

Diesendorf gave an update earlier this month:

Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and I have performed thousands of computer simulations of 100% renewable electricity in the National Electricity Market(NEM), using actual hourly data on electricity demand, wind and solar power for 2010.

Our latest research, available here and reported here, finds that generating systems comprising a mix of different commercially available renewable energy technologies, located on geographically dispersed sites, do not need base load power stations to achieve the same reliability as fossil-fuelled systems.

The old myth was based on the incorrect assumption that base load demand can only be supplied by base load power stations; for example, coal in Australia and nuclear in France. However, the mix of renewable energy technologies in our computer model, which has no base load power stations, easily supplies base load demand.

Similarly, Dr. Mark Jacobson – the head of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program, who has written numerous books and hundreds of scientific papers on climate and energy, and testified before Congress numerous times on those issues – has run a series of computer simulations based on actual historical energy usage data.

Jacobson found that the U.S. can meet all of its energy needs with a mix of wind, solar and hydropower.

The difference between a failed alternative energy pipe dream and a viable alternative energy strategy is in having the right mix … and that takes sophisticated computer simulations using historical data. Jacobson’s study started several years ago by matching California’s historical power demand with available wind, solar and other renewable energy sources:

Jacobson has now developed specific plans for each of the 50 states on how to do it. Click on a state to see the specific energy mix which Dr. Jacobson’s team has found would provide 100% sustainable energy.

Watch this must-see 25-minute talk by Jacobson:

Jacobson also shows that the wind-water-sun combination would actually reduce electrical consumption (because it is more efficient than fossil fuels or nuclear):

And he shows that the wind-water-solar combination is superior to nuclear, “clean” coal, natural gas and biofuels. As one example, Jacobson notes that it takes at least 11 years to permit and build a nuclear plant, whereas it takes less than half that time to fire up a wind or solar farm. Between the application for a nuclear plant and flipping the switch, power is provided by conventional energy sources … currently 55-65% coal. Nuclear also puts out much more pollution (including much more CO2) than windpower, and 1.5% of all the nuclear plants built have melted down. More information here, here and here.

A banker for one of the world’s biggest banks also notes that switching to alternative energy provides certainty in energy pricing … and is usually a less expensive source of energy when long-term costs are factored in.

So why haven’t we switched? As David Letterman noted when interviewing Jacobson, the main hurdle to switching from fossil fuels and nuclear is simply that the big fossil fuel and nuclear companies would lose a lot of money, so they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep the status quo.

Read our recent interview with Dr. Jacobson on a related topic.

And note that decentralizing power supplies is arguably key to protecting against terrorism, fascism and destruction of our health, environment and economy.

Category: Energy, Think Tank

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

15 Responses to “Wind, Solar and Hydro Could Power All 50 States”

  1. Jim Birch says:

    It’s also worth noting that smart metering – that is, allowing pricing signals to be felt – would result in a better match between supply and demand. Flattening the demand will reduce the required capacity. This could mean, for example, that your air conditioner/heater comes on when the sun is shining before you get home or that some industries optimize their power usage to match cost cycles.

    • Iamthe50percent says:

      Yeah, shut your AC off during the heat of day and stay up and wash your clothes at Midnight. Great ideas. It’s all a ripoff from the power companies to charge you more with rates that they otherwise couldn’t get by the regulators. With smart metering when they show ungodly profits they can tell the regulators it’s the public’s fault for not wanting to sweat.

      • VennData says:

        Turning off and on a nuke plant is very expensive. So expensive they PAY into the grid to run them at off hours. It’s better than shutting them off and back on.

  2. Iamthe50percent says:

    Australia is mostly desert. Of course they can rely on solar power.

  3. Bob K. says:

    I own a solar energy company, and although this article is technically true, it is also very simplistic. There are tremendous load balancing and distribution issues to overcome, and costs are simply prohibitive in many parts of the U.S. without massive subsidies.

    We need breakthroughs in battery, transmission, and capacitor technologies.

    I am optimistic, nonetheless.

  4. JMelville says:

    Thank you Bob K. I wonder if the noted computer simulations are as reliable as the climate change ones?
    That said, I work in the O&G industry, and am glad I have only about a decade to retirement. There is a lot of $ and effort being funneled into this now and even incremental innovations will at least help offset demand growth. FYI: very good Business & Environment insert to the WSJ today.

  5. ElSid says:

    Some prof with “detailed computer simulations”? Funny how that’s a shorthand for “what I say”, when all you have to do is give the wrong (or just “optimistic”) inputs and you get the wrong answer. See economist models for the economy of the last few decades.

    Maybe BR should convince his clients to throw down the first tens of millions, and then he and the prof could go around with a hat in hand coming up with the other couple of TRILLION dollars it would cost to put this new grid down, and then spend hundreds of millions on an ad campaign to convince electric customers to pay 50-100% more than they are now, while not minding the outages. Then go back to the drawing board on transport fuels that are nowhere close to viable, sans the $4 per petroleum unit that, after a two-minute refueling, will push a multi-ton vehicle 20-50 miles for 500 miles at at time.

    Not saying it can’t happen or that it shouldn’t happen – it will someday when hydrocarbons price properly (much higher); I just mean that no one – not private industry nor governments – can afford it.

    Solar energy ends “growth” as we know it (which is probably the growth we need to pay for solar), as most of growth was attributable to EXCESS and nearly “free” (yes, even at $100 per barrel) energy/calories that we pumped out of the ground and got to burn for a few centuries, while it lasted.

  6. vboring says:

    Yes, it is technically possible to have a 100% renewables system. The cost of the system comes down to how reliable you want it to be. The implementation is only feasible with support at the Federal level.

    The existing system does have outages because of equipment failures and storm damage. A 100% renewables system would have outages from these causes plus outages because the load simply can’t be met by the supply. During a cold snap, the system load peaks, solar and wind plants produce a fraction of rated output. Hydro resources still produce, assuming that they have stored capacity. Get hit with a cold snap in the fall after a dry summer and you probably won’t have capacity there.

    The solutions are simple. Either build transmission or firm generation. The existing transmission system was designed to move power only hundreds of miles from local generation to local load. We’re using it to move power thousands of miles, but it doesn’t work very well. Every energy market in the country experiences wild swings in energy prices caused by congestion on the transmission system. The problem first became obvious during the California energy crisis. We’ve done very little about it. The problem is that building transmission lines requires wading through a morass of broken regulations at the local and state level. The Federal government has promised to fix the system, but so far it has just been a decade of promises. Even if the regulatory hurdles are fixed, speculative thousand mile long transmission lines built to link energy markets will be tough to finance.

    The other option is generation. To be clear, what 100% renewables proponents want is for there to be enough generation to provide 100% of peak load and they want it to sit idle 99.9% of the year so it doesn’t emit CO2. Technically, this is possible. Gas turbine plants are cheap, easy to build, easy to permit because they are only expected to run a few hundred hours a year. The problem is that peak loads sometimes happen when it is cold out, when everyone else wants is burning gas to keep warm. The PJM nearly went dark this winter because so many coal plants have been retired and replaced with gas plants, but the gas transmission infrastructure can’t support them and the residential/commercial/industrial loads so the gas plants couldn’t generate. Same thing has happened in ERCOT and CalISO. Again, it is a solvable problem, but building gas transmission pipes faces the same hurdles that building electric transmission lines faces: regulations and return on investment.

    So, yes, it is technically possible, but it would require a major restructuring of the markets, a transfer of regulatory powers from the state to the Federal level, and it would be fairly expensive.

    • willid3 says:

      some of the power problems in Texas are because of the drought. and thats because most of the ways we generate electricity require that you have lots and lots of water. and getting some of the fossil fuels also requires lots and lots of water (i.e. fracking). course if you geothermal power generation, you still needs water, but you aren’t as limited as other renewables either. problem witg geothermal is that its not available every where.

  7. yenwoda says:

    “the main hurdle to switching from fossil fuels and nuclear is simply that the big fossil fuel and nuclear companies would lose a lot of money, so they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep the status quo.”

    No, the main hurdle is that there is a huge amount of existing infrastructure around the status quo, and it’s not going to get swapped out overnight, especially in a country that can’t bring itself to upgrade structurally compromised bridges even when its government can borrow for 30 years at 3%.

    Plus renewables – which I love and am hugely excited about – are controversial for other reasons. They tend to take up a lot of space, which brings zoning / eminent domain / property value issues into play. The “solutions project” site for my state, MA, suggests 55% offshore wind. In the real world, there is large offshore wind project (Cape Wind) which is well managed and funded, but has been subjected from day one to delays and court challenges from the NIMBY crowd who don’t want their lovely Nantucket views ruined by nasty spinning turbines.

    Note that the project – which I enthusiastically support – will generate electricity costing about twice the current rate of fossil fuel electricity. So the slam dunk “it’s only the crony capitalists keeping us from our computer simulated utopia” narrative is more than a bit simplistic. But renewables have been steadily gaining and will continue to do so.

  8. Tim says:

    Attention should be paid to the aesthetics of widespread wind farm installation. One of my life-long friends and his wife settled in Northern Vermont many years ago, and he developed very successful tree farming, logging, maple syrup production, and other companies.

    Two+ years ago, a major 21 tower wind farm was installed about 15 miles South of their gorgeous farm estate — ruining the views substantially, and substantially lowering the appraised value of their property. Hopefully there will some provision made to compensate those who end up in similar circumstances in the future.

    • willid3 says:

      sounds a lot like how oil and gas rigs ruined a lot of views too. probably took out the property values with them. some states actually required that the y put them into enclosures so that you couldnt really see them, but they do look funny as they are basically buildings in strange places

  9. JoeG says:

    I think there is more here than just “can we get enough renewables to replace fossil fuels.”
    It does not appear that renewables will generate sufficient EROI to sustain *today’s* level of “industrial society.” And, others would suggest that by the time we get around to ramping production of the level of renewables needed, we’ll be out of the fossil fuel to build and transport the renewables into place.
    FTA: Most recently, for example, a thorough study of the Spanish solar energy program by Pedro Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall has worked out the net energy of large-scale solar photovoltaic systems on the basis of real-world data. It’s not pleasant reading if you happen to believe that today’s lifestyles can be supported on sunlight; they calculate that the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of Spain’s solar energy sector works out to 2.48—about a third of the figure suggested by less comprehensive estimates.

    The Prieto/Hall study has already come in for criticism, some of it reasonable, some of it less so. A crucial point, though, has been left out of most of the resulting discussions. According to best current estimates, the EROEI needed to sustain an industrial civilization of any kind is somewhere between 10 and 12; according to most other calculations—leaving out the optimistic estimates being circulated by solar promoters as sales pitches—the EROEI of large scale solar photovoltaic systems comes in between 8 and 9. Even if Prieto and Hall are dead wrong, in other words, the energy return from solar PV isn’t high enough to support the kind of industrial system needed to manufacture and maintain solar PV. If they’re right, or if the actual figure falls between their estimate and those of the optimists, the point’s even harder to dodge.

    Similar challenges face every other attempt to turn renewable energy into a replacement for fossil fuels. I’m thinking especially of the study published a few years back that showed, on solid thermodynamic grounds, that the total energy that can be taken from the planet’s winds is a small fraction of what windpower advocates think they can get. The logic here is irrefutable: there’s a finite amount of energy in wind, and what you extract in one place won’t turn the blades of another wind turbine somewhere else. Thus there’s a hard upper limit to how much energy windpower can put into the grid—and it’s not enough to provide more than a small fraction of the power needed by an industrial civilization; furthermore, estimates of the EROEI of windpower cluster around 9, which again is too little to support a society that can build and maintain wind turbines.

  10. GGJr says:

    As a home owner in SoCal where is never rains and is always sunny etc that bought a “complete 100% replacement of your average last years electrical usage” solar install 1 year ago I can tell you from personal experience & my electric bill that the good Professors Model is probably as good as the one that predicts Climate Change – ie it’s crap.

    My 100% coverage system (BOSCH Panels – no Chinese stuff) ended up producing about 70% of what we actually used, and that was after I spent another $3-400.00 on LED bulbs for every light fixture we could use them in. Did I mention that there’s no power generated after the sun hits the horizon?


    Where do we get these brainiacs?

  11. victor says:

    See today’s Australia’s sources of energy:
    (Coal=74%, NatGas=15%, Hydro, Wind, Bio, Solar=6%, 3%, 1%, 1% resp.). Short term nothing beats Conservation and Efficiency, Longer Term, I’d bet on Solar.