UPDATE (4/8/2013; 4:18pm ET): How much would this fairy tale plan for New York cost, even if it weren’t hindered by novel concepts like physics and reality? A whopping $382 billion by 2030, according to calculations done by Bloomberg. It would also require an amount of land equivalent to 13 percent of New York State’s total area, which is an interesting plan to endorse by folks who are opposing responsible shale development partially on the basis that it would overtake New York’s majestic landscape!
As Bloomberg further observes:
The findings cast doubt on the ability of the state to eliminate oil, natural gas and coal from its energy supply. The Cornell proposal would require onshore wind turbines covering an area 3.3 times the size of New York City’s five boroughs.
“It’s too ambitious by 2030 to replace all the state’s power with renewables, although big progress could be made,” Angus McCrone, a senior analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London, said today. The projections, he said, look “unrealistic” for individual technologies. (emphasis added)
At least it was a fun thought experiment while it lasted, though, right?
—Original post, March 14, 2013—
A new paper from scientists at Stanford, Cornell, and the University of California at Davis suggests the state of New York could generate all of its energy from three sources: wind, water, and solar. This also includes a large scale shift to hydrogen fuel cells (produced by “excess” renewable power generation) to allow for even New York’s transportation to run on renewable energy sources.
But before you say, “That doesn’t sound possible,” don’t worry – other credible voices have already suggested as much. Andy Revkin of the New York Times said the paper’s analysis “works best as a thought experiment” (ouch), given what he deems “monumental hurdles – economic political, regulatory and technical – that would hinder such a shift” away from energy sources like oil and natural gas (among others).
Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and a senior fellow at The Breakthrough Institute (a progressive think tank), says that the authors’ claims of having a technically and economically feasible plan is “dubious empirically,” adding that “people are not going to be reordering society along the lines called for here [in the paper].” It appears Dr. Pielke’s central concern is with the authors’ assumption that, under the plan outlined, energy consumption in New York will actually decrease by 37 percent (!) by 2030, even as the population grows by 2.15 percent. For reasons that should already be obvious, Dr. Pielke called the plan a “fantasy” and the product of “magic thinking.”
Also of note: the list of authors includes none other than Cornell activists Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, whose own research on natural gas development has been debunked categorically throughout the academic community, including on multiple occasions by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Howarth/Ingraffea “findings” nonetheless serve as a linchpin to this latest study’s conclusions, which of course should raise serious red flags itself.
The lead author, Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University, has become something of an impresario of the anti-fracking speaking circuit, and is touted by vocal anti-shale activist (and occasional B-list actor) Mark Ruffalo as “America’s real Bruce Banner.” Two years ago, Dr. Jacobson also decided it would be a worthwhile use of his time to hold a strategy session with Josh Fox and Mark Ruffalo, according to the Huffington Post:
In February, 2011, Jacobson, Fox, Krapels, and Ruffalo brainstormed by phone. A consensus developed quickly — the team agreed that if Jacobson could refine his research to address the specific characteristics of New York State’s natural resources and energy potential, his groundbreaking work could provide the alternative energy plan Ruffalo was determined to identify for his adopted state.
Of course, Ruffalo has played a scientist in the movies before, and Fox has been known to make a few movies of his own, so this collaboration seems entirely reasonable to us.
Let’s be real for just a second: this paper really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with renewables, which, truth be told, continue to see their installation numbers increase owing to the abundance and availability of dispatchable, baseload natural gas. The paper’s entire focus (just look at who its authors are!) is aimed at manufacturing a new talking point in opposition to the development of natural gas from shale in the state. But motivations aside, how good is the actual paper? Below, we take a closer look
Bad Science to Justify Ban on Natural Gas
The plan outlined by Jacobson et. al., requires a complete phase out of natural gas, based primarily on research from Cornell professors Howarth and Ingraffea. From the paper:
“Although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide per unit electric power than coal, two factors cause natural gas to increase global warming relative to coal: higher methane emissions and less sulfur dioxide emissions per unit energy than coal.” (p. 7)
The authors also cite research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the same research that has been debunked and even cautiously marginalized by the Environmental Defense Fund. We’ve outlined many times before why the methane leak accusation is not grounded in credible science (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but the main takeaway is this: Most research shows a leakage rate of one to two percent, and the EPA’s latest data suggests methane emissions could be 66 percent lower than what the agency had previously estimated (EPA’s best guess for leakage, based on its earlier data, was a little over two percent). We also know that natural gas is reducing carbon emissions and cutting air pollution in the United States.
Thus, opposing natural gas on the basis that it is worsening climate change and harming air quality is not a factual argument; it’s a talking point, and a very bad one at that.
Not content to rely solely on discredited theories about emissions, the authors also claim that “the use of electricity for heating and electric motors is more efficient than is fuel combustion for the same applications,” citing a previous study authored by … themselves.
But heating cost data from the Energy Information Administration show the average fuel price per million Btus for electricity is $34.57, whereas the average price per million Btus for natural gas is $6.01. That makes natural gas more than 80 percent cheaper than electricity.
And according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, even an electric water heater that appears to have an efficiency rating of 50 percent higher than a comparable natural gas heater will actually use “much more source energy,” because it takes three times as much energy to deliver a unit of electricity instead of gas.
So natural gas is substantially cheaper and more efficient from a total energy use standpoint, yet the authors of this study want to pretend that electricity is “more efficient”? Since calling for more electric heating also means increasing energy use significantly, how can the authors expect total energy demand to decrease by more than one-third?
Retrofitting or Replacing Everything in New York City
You know all those skyscrapers, bridges and scenic walkways in New York City? The plan would require that nearly all of them be either (a) bulldozed or (b) entirely retrofitted from top to bottom. Mark Delucchi of UC-Davis (one of the co-authors) told the New York Times: “Instead of upgrading, maintaining, and replacing deteriorating existing infrastructure, invest in new infrastructure.”
Are we really to believe the local population will cheerfully allow legions of (taxpayer-funded) construction crews to enter Manhattan, tie up traffic in every direction, and displace millions of people while buildings are retrofitted, revamped, or outright razed? For Pete’s sake: Mayor Bloomberg is facing a big enough backlash from his new plan to ban big sodas!
And you know all those natural gas pipelines that crisscross throughout the city, providing heat to families and businesses? They’re going to have to be decommissioned, dug up, and either replaced or removed altogether. If the skyscraper replace-and-retrofit plan wasn’t already going to turn the city into a big enough construction zone, the pipeline work certainly would.
Plus, it’s worth noting: New York City has stated that “80 percent of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already here today,” which means any suggestion that the buildings in that city (much less the entire state) can be easily replaced is an argument against social, political, and technological realities.
Renewables Seen Through Rose-Colored Glasses
We all love renewables, and no one wants to stand in the way of technological progress. According to the renewable energy industry itself, shale gas is not only a perfect partner for renewables, it’s also facilitating rapid growth of wind and solar – the same technologies that groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC have invested so much of their time and other people’s money promoting.
But we also love facts, and pretending that you can fit a square peg into a round hole just doesn’t measure up. Unfortunately, that’s what the authors of this latest report are trying to do.
For example, the authors state: “Offshore wind, wave and tidal are in water, and so do not require new land.” The claim that offshore wind turbines “do not require new land” may technically be true from a pure, direct-use, look-only-at-onshore-acreage standpoint. Just don’t tell it to the Kennedys, who seem to have an outsized ability to influence energy discussions in New York. The bigger point is that just because a huge offshore wind turbine isn’t built on land doesn’t mean it has zero impact. Nor is this just aesthetic; building out infrastructure to support the offshore turbines (when they produce energy, that energy has to be sent somewhere) means onshore land disturbance.
There’s also the issue of economic impacts. Aside from the direct, taxpayer-borne cost, an economy-wide shift away from affordable energy sources like oil and natural gas means a lot of hardworking men and women will lose their jobs. In New York specifically, a lot of families upstate have been struggling for a long time because the Governor can’t make up his mind on whether to allow responsible shale development, so one could only imagine the backlash to a declaration banning not only natural gas, but also oil, nuclear, and coal.
The authors claim, however, that renewable power actually creates more jobs than conventional fuels, so the net impact will actually be positive in terms of jobs:
“Even if the current electric utility industry plus mining jobs were lost due to a conversion with the present plan, they would be more than made up by with the 58,000 permanent jobs resulting from the present plan.” (p. 37)
As evidence, the authors cite research showing oil and natural gas create 3.7 jobs for every million dollars spent on those resources, but wind and solar create 9.8 and 9.8 jobs, respectively. When you consider how much more expensive wind and solar are, the math would appear to support the authors, especially if you were to produce (theoretically) the same amount of energy from renewables as projected to be generated by oil and natural gas.
But that also raises a serious and more fundamental problem for the report, as it essentially offers an efficiency argument in favor of natural gas over renewables.
For example, let’s look at electricity production. According to the EIA, the total system levelized cost for a conventional, combined cycle natural gas plant is $66.10 per megawatt-hour. For wind, that price is $96, and for solar it’s more than $150. When you add in the capacity factors (87 percent for natural gas, 33 percent and 25 percent for wind and solar, respectively), you’ll see that spending $1 million on natural gas is going to produce a lot more energy than wind and solar. It also means natural gas is more productive from an energy-produced-per-hours-worked basis.
In other words, the authors are essentially admitting that wind and solar require a much larger portion of the labor force just to produce the same amount of energy – and that energy is also substantially more expensive! In fact, since the authors predict New York’s energy production will decline by more than one-third, the plan they’re advocating actually calls for using greater and greater shares of the available labor force to produce less and less energy.
Kevin Bullis from MIT’s Technology Review, while acknowledging that the theory warrants more study, also offers some words of caution about calls for an immediate, full-scale shift to renewables:
“Another key question about costs has to do with financing. When we’re talking about renewable energy, we’re talking essentially about paying for all of the power we’ll use over the lifetime of a solar panel upfront. The cost savings from efficiency measures also require an upfront investment. The cost and availability of financing will have a big impact on the cost per kilowatt hour of renewable energy, or whether battery-powered vehicles pay for themselves in fuel savings.
“And a big unknown is just how much it will cost to integrate huge amounts of intermittent renewable sources of energy to create reliable power. The New York study gestures to this problem, but the methods proposed are untested on a large scale, and the challenge will vary considerably depend on renewable resources in a given region. In some parts of the world, doldrums set in for entire seasons, making wind power a terrible option.”
As Andy Revkin observed, the study is interesting as a “thought experiment.” So is smoking pot, and watching videos like this. But real world facts contradict the authors’ assertions on too many occasions to think that this plan is a viable and legitimate course to take, for New York or anyone else. The fact that the authors had to use some of the worst research available on natural gas emissions – ignoring the climate and air quality benefits that natural gas is delivering and will continue to deliver in the process – to justify their arguments is perhaps the most revealing part of the whole study.