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Science splits ranks over fossil fuel phase-out

June 26, 2017, by Tim Radford

What’s in the fossil fuel phase-out toolbox? And will it be enough for the job?
Image: By Erich Ferdinand, via Wikimedia Commons

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US academics are arguing with ferocity about how to achieve a fossil fuel phase out. But, for now, the debate is entirely academic.

LONDON, 26 June, 2017 – In a furious argument that can only leave the lay observer  blinking, two sets of academics have parted company over the future of US energy: how actually to achieve a fossil fuel phase-out.

One group has just published a complex analysis that bundles together wind, sun and hydro power, the nuclear option, biofuels and even carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the realistic answer to the need to drastically reduce a nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

And the other group thinks the US can be powered by wind turbines, hydropower and photovoltaic cells.

To complicate matters, last year the lead author of the first group seemed also to think the same thing. Christopher Clack of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, went on record then with a proposal that could deliver clean power to all 50 US states.

Diversity needed

But the latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that only “a diverse portfolio of clean energy technologies makes a transition to low-carbon-emission strategy both more feasible and less costly than other pathways.”

This is, the study says, in contrast to a study led by a scientist at Stanford University who said it could all be done by wind, water and solar power.

And just to ram home the point, Dr Clack and colleagues find “significant shortcomings” in the Stanford analysis.

Their paper is accompanied by a short, fierce response in the same journal from Mark Jacobson of Stanford, cited in the first study, who argues that the premise of Clack and his colleagues is “demonstrably false.”

Counter argument

On the contrary, Professor Jacobson’s arguments are, Professor Jacobson says, “in the mainstream, as grid stability studies finding low-cost, up-to-100% clean renewable solutions without nuclear or CCS are in the majority.”

That is, he and his partners stand by their argument: America could power itself by renewable technologies.

He is not the first to make such a claim: researchers at the University of Delaware long ago proposed that renewable energy could provide 99.9% of the national electricity supply.

Although US President Trump has torn up the nation’s promise to contain global warming, and invoked coal as a key part of his energy strategy, other studies have pointed out that coal is a bad bargain: the US would gain far more in human health, lives saved and return on investment if it put the money into renewables such as solar power.

“Our energy system is leaking waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When you call a plumber to fix a leak, you want her to arrive with a full toolbox”

To the interested lay reader, the academic furore seems for the moment entirely theoretical: on the face of it neither side of the argument is likely in the near future to see its hypothesis tested in the energy market.

But at bottom there remains a serious problem. On the assumption that global warming is not a hoax invented by the Chinese to cripple the US economy – and only President Trump has made that claim – then the issue will become a matter of national urgency as sea levels rise, floods, droughts and superstorms become more frequent, and some Americans have to abandon their homes as climate refugees.

So the question raised by what might seem an academic dogfight remains open: how do modern economies get to a state in which they can drastically reduce dependence on fossil fuels? And the case made by Clack and his colleagues is that researchers should be looking at every possible option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our energy system is leaking waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When you call a plumber to fix a leak, you want her to arrive with a full toolbox and not leave most of her tools at home,” Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of the authors, said. “Having a full toolbox means you are more likely to be able to solve the problem.” – Climate News Network

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