Mark Jacobson’s Science

The writings of Stanford’s Mark Jacobson effortlessly blends science and ideology along a continuum to envision an all-renewable energy future for America. His success in doing this marks a sad state of affairs between science, culture and politics.

Jacobson’s popularity began with his 2009 Scientific American piece, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables. The piece and his recent works argue both a means by which we could transition to renewable-only power and that an all-renewable energy mix is the means by which we should pursue greenhouse gas reduction. They seem to answer several questions, though the questions aren’t stated explicitly:

Is it possible to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is it feasible to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is it desirable to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is a renewable-only portfolio the best means of stopping the increase in atmospheric CO2?

The first question is an engineering problem. The 2nd is an engineering and economic question. The 3rd is economic, social, and political. The 4th is my restating of the 3rd to emphasize an a-priori exclusion of non-renewables from the goal of stopping the increase in atmospheric CO2. That objective, implied in the Sci Am article’s title, is explicitly stated in the piece’s opening paragraph:

“In December leaders from around the world will meet in Copenhagen to try to agree on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. The most effective step to implement that goal would be a massive shift away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources.”

It should be clear to readers that the possibility or technical feasibility of a global 100%-renewable energy portfolio in no way defends the assertion that it the most effective way to implement that goal is such a portfolio. Assuming that the most desirable way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is by using a 100% renewable portfolio, the feasibility of such a portfolio becomes an engineering, economic, and social challenge; but that is not the gist of Jacobson’s works, where the premise and conclusion are intertwined.  Questions 1 and 2 would obviously be great topics for a paper, as would questions 3 and 4. Addressing all of them together is a laudable goal – and one that requires clear thinking about evidence and justification. On that requirement, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables fails outright in my view, as do his recent writings.

Major deficiencies in Jacobson’s engineering and economic analyses have been discussed at length, most notably by Brian Wang, William Hannahan, Ted Trainer, Edward Dodge, Nate Gilbraith, Charles Barton, Gene Preston, and Barry W. Brook. The deficiencies they address include wrong facts, adverse selection, and vague language, e.g.:

“In another study, when 19 geographically disperse wind sites in the Midwest, over a region 850 km 850 km, were hypothetically interconnected, about 33% of yearly averaged wind power was calculated to be usable at the same reliability as a coal-fired power plant.”

Engineers will note that “usable at the same reliability” simply cannot be parsed into an intelligible claim; and if the intent was to say that that these sites had the same capacity factor as a coal-powered plant, the statement is obviously false.

Jacobson’s proposal for New York includes clearing 340 square miles of land to generate 39,000 MW with concentrated solar power facilities. CSP requires flat, sunny, unburdened land, kept free or rain and snow without addressing the possibility, let alone feasibility, of doing this. His NY plan calls for building 140 sq mi of photovoltaic farms, with similar requirements for land quality. He overstates capacity factor of both wind and photovoltaics in NY, as elsewhere. He calls for 12,500 5MW offshore wind turbines with no discussion of feasibility in light of bathymetry, shipping and commercial water route use. Further, his offshore wind turbine plan ignores efficiency reductions due to wind shadowing that would exist in his proposed turbine density. The economic impact, social acceptability, and environmental impact of clearing hundreds of square miles of mostly-wooded land and grading it level (NY is hilly), of erecting another 4000 onshore turbines, and of 12,500 offshore turbines is a very real – but unaddressed by Jacobson – factor in determining the true feasibility of the proposed solution.

The above writers cover many concerns about Jacobson’s work along these lines. Their criticism is aimed at the feasibility of Jacobson’s implementation plan. In my engineering judgment these complaints have considerable merit. But that is not where I want to go here. Instead, I’m intensely concerned about two related issues:

1) the lack of knowledge on the street that Jacobson has credible opponents that dispute his major claims
2) absence of criticism of Jacobson for doing bad science – not bad because of wrong details but bad because of poor method and bad values.

By values, I don’t mean ethics, beliefs or preferences. Jacobson and I share social values (cut CO2 emissions) but not scientific values. By scientific values I mean things like accuracy, precision, clarity (e.g., “useable at the same reliability”), testability, and justification – epistemic values focused on reliable knowledge. To clarify, I’m not so naïve as to think scientists and engineers shouldn’t have biases and personal beliefs, that they shouldn’t act on hunches, or that theory and observation are not intertwined. But misrepresenting normative statements as descriptive ones is a kind of bad science against which Bacon and Descartes would have railed; and that is what Jacobson has done. He answered one question (what we should do to level CO2 emissions) while pretending to answer a different one (are renewables sufficient to replace fossil fuels). This should not pass as science.

Jacobson’s writings are highly quantitative where they oppose fission, and grossly qualitative where they dodge the deficiencies in renewables. This holds particularly true on the matters of variability of renewables (e.g., large regions of Europe are often simultaneously without wind and sun), difficulties and inefficiencies of distribution, and the feasibility of energy storage and its inevitable inefficiencies (I mean laws-of-nature inefficiencies, not inefficiencies that can be cured with technology). He states the fission is not carbon-free because fossil fuels are used in its construction and maintenance, while failing to mention that the concrete and other CO2-emitters used in building and maintaining solar and wind power dwarf those of fission.

At times Jacobson’s claims might be called crypto-normative. For example, he says that “Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.” As stated, the claim is absurd. Applying the principle of charity in argument, I dug down to see what he might have meant to say. Beneath it, he is actually including the CO2 footprint of his estimation of the impact of inevitable nuclear war. So, yes, with a big enough nuclear war included (not uranium refining and transport), the CO2 emissions of nuclear power plus nuclear war could result in up to 25 times more CO2 than wind. But why stop there? We could conceive of nuclear war (or non-nuclear was for that matter) that emitted thousands of time more CO2 than wind power. Speculation about nuclear war risks is a worthwhile topic, but not when buried in the calculation of CO2 footprints. And it has no place in calculating the most effective means to cut greenhouse gas.

How can Jacobson have so many mistakes in his details (all of which favor an all-renewables plan) and engage in such bad science while so few seem to notice?  I’m not sure, but I fear that much of science has become the handmaid of politics and naïve ideological activism. I cannot know Jacobson’s motives, but I am certain of the incentives. Opposition to renewables is framed as opposing the need to cut CO2 and worse – like being in the pocket of evil corporations. I experience this personally, when I attend clean-tech events and when I use this example Philosophy of Science talks. As a career and popularity move, it’s hard to go wrong by jumping on the renewables-only bandwagon.

At a recent Silicon Valley clean-tech event, I challenged three different attendees on claims they made about renewables. Two of these were related to capacity factors given for solar power on the east coast and one dealt with the imminence (or lack thereof) of utility-scale energy storage technology. All three attendees, independently, in their responses cited Mark Jacobson’s work as justification for their claims. My attempts at reality checks on capacity factors using real-world values in calculations didn’t seem to faze them. Arguments hardly affect the faithful, noted Paul Feyerabend; their beliefs have an entirely different foundation.

Science was once accused of being the handmaid of religion. Under President Eisenhower, academic science was accused of being a pawn of the military industrial complex and then took big steps to avoid being one. The money flow is now different, but the incentives for institutional science – where it comes anywhere near policy matters – to conform to fickle societal expectations present a huge obstacle to the honest pursuit of a real CO2 solution.

I’m not sure how to fix the problem demonstrated by the unquestioning acceptance of Jacobson’s work as scientific knowledge. Improvements in STEM education will certainly help. But I doubt that spreading science and engineering education across a broader segment of society will be sufficient. It seems to me we’d benefit more from having engineers and policy makers develop a broader interpretation of the word science – one that includes epistemology and theory of justification. I’ve opined in the past that teaching philosophy of science to engineers would make them much better at engineering. It would also result in better policy makers in a world where technology has become integral to everything. Independent of whether a statement is true or false, every educated person should be able to differentiate a scientific statement from a non-scientific one, should know what constitutes confirming and disconfirming evidence, and should cry foul when a normative claim pretends to be descriptive.


“The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.” – Paul Feyerabend – Against Method, 1975.

“I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same.” – Keith Briffa – IPCC email correspondence, 2007.

“A philosopher who has been long attached to a favorite hypothesis, and especially if he have distinguished himself by his ingenuity in discovering or pursuing it, will not, sometimes, be convinced of its falsity by the plainest evidence of fact. Thus both himself, and his followers, are put upon false pursuits, and seem determined to warp the whole course of nature, to suit their manner of conceiving of its operations.”  – Joseph Priestley – The History and Present State of Electricity, 1775

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  1. #1 by Respect Silence on October 14, 2016 - 12:33 am

    The growing aesthetic blight of wind power is already bad enough for many of us. It doesn’t even need to fail on capacity merits. It’s strange to see people ostensibly concerned about nature who disregard landscapes and seascapes that have always been intrinsic to “the environment.” They seem fine with turning the countryside and ocean vistas into an urban sprawl continuum. How is that remotely green? Carbon is never going to be the sole environmental problem.

    We have a new generation of quasi-environmentalists who care far more about “clean tech” than respecting the whole planet. Someone needs to separate those sterile engineers from actual environmentalists with aesthetic values. You can’t claim to be saving the planet by filling its open spaces with machines in history’s biggest construction binge.

    http://cutt.us/blightfornaught

  2. #2 by Bill Storage on October 14, 2016 - 10:46 am

    “Blight for naught” – great name! Interesting that the Restore Hetch Hetchy people are mostly on board with wind. They insist their goal is environmental and not to destroy the economy of San Francisco.

    • #3 by Respect Silence on October 15, 2016 - 12:13 am

      Yes, it’s ironic that water dams are generally considered worse than air dams, when the latter cause a type of disruption we’d never seen in nature. On the purely visual side I’d rather see more hydro power, though none of it is ideal.

      http://cutt.us/blightfornaught

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