Blog Post

The US 100% renewables dispute

What’s at stake: Two years ago, a debate started on whether it would be feasible for the US to achieve 100% renewable energy power. The arguments on both sides have been fierce, and more has been written recently. We review the debate.

By: Date: June 26, 2017 Topic: Energy & Climate

In 2015, Mark Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford argued that it would be technically feasible for the United States to be entirely powered by clean energy sources, between 2050 and 2055. One factor currently inhibiting the large-scale conversion to 100% wind, water, and solar (WWS) power for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) is fear of grid instability and high cost due to the variability and uncertainty of wind and solar. Jackobson et al. conducted numerical simulations of time- and space-dependent weather and coupled them with simulations of time-dependent power demand, storage, and demand response, to provide low-cost solutions to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of WWS across all energy sectors. They  argue that solutions can be obtained without higher-cost stationary battery storage by prioritizing storage of heat in soil and water; cold in water and ice; and electricity in phase-change materials, pumped hydro, hydropower, and hydrogen.

 

Last year, Bistline and Blanford offered a skeptical response. They argued that the conclusions of the study by Jacobson et al. were based on strong assumptions and methodological oversights, and that they omit the essential notion of trade-offs by making use of a “grid integration model” in which investment and energy system transformations are not subject to economic considerations. Bistline and Blanford argue that the resulting renewable dominated capacity mix is inconsistent with the wide range of optimal deep decarbonization pathways projected in model intercomparison exercises in which the contribution of renewable energy is traded off in economic terms against other low-carbon options. Moreover, Bistline and Blanford believes that the Jacobson study underestimates many of the technical challenges associated with the world it envisions, and fails to establish an appropriate economic context.  Every low-carbon energy technology presents unique technical, economic, and legal challenges. Evaluating these trade-offs within a consistent decision framework is essential.

 

More recently, Christopher Clack and 20 other co-authors casted further skepticism on the Jacobson paper. A number of analyses, meta-analyses, and assessments, have concluded that 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid could be achieved at reasonable cost and that deployment of a diverse portfolio of clean energy technologies makes a transition to a low-carbon-emission energy system both more feasible and less costly than other pathways. This contrasts with the findings of Jacobson et al.’s paper, which according to Clack et al. is plagued by significant shortcomings, such as invalid modeling tools and contained modeling errors. Additionally, they argue it is made implausible by inadequately supported assumptions. In particular, Clack et al. argue that both hydroelectric power and flexible load have been modeled in erroneous ways in the jacobson paper and that these errors alone invalidate the study and its results (see figures below). Policy makers – they conclude – should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that rely almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.

Jacobson et al. defended their study, offering five reasons why the claims offered by its critics should be considered inaccurate. First, regarding the decision to exclude nuclear power from the study, they argue that grid stability studies finding low-cost up-to-100% clean, renewable solutions without nuclear or CCS are the majority. Second, they point out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contradicts Clack et al.’s claim that including nuclear or CCS reduces costs. Third, the official studies cited by Clark et al. in their counter-argument have never performed or reviewed a cost analysis of grid stability under deep decarbonization. Fourth, Clack et al.’s include nuclear, CCS, and biofuels without accounting for their true costs or risks. Fifth, Jacobson et al. dispute the claim that they place “constraints” on technology options.

Vox has a broader overview of the issues involved in the 100% dispute. As Brad Plumer at the New York Times points out, the 100% dispute has the merit of having shifted the focus of the renewable debate onto much higher targets than were thought feasible in the past. Policymakers may have a tendency to treat the 100% target as “gospel”, but the important question is whether – in light of the disagreement on this issue – we want to keep other tech and R&D options open for the time being (such as CCS/nuclear) or whether we think it’s a good idea to phase out the existing nuclear fleet instead of relying on it for some decarbonization. If 100% renewables isn’t ultimately doable and we close off other options today, we may find ourselves in a dead-end a few decades from now.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Reinforcing the EU energy industry transformation: stronger policies needed

The European energy system is being transformed by three major forces, decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation. Decarbonisation is changing the European energy mix, while innovation in digital technologies is enabling disruptive change in the way energy systems are operated.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: September 21, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
5
11:00

Fostering energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa: what role for Europe?

Lack of energy access is a major challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa. How can Europe contribute to solving this issue?

Speakers: Laura Cozzi, Lapo Pistelli and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
17
11:30

Fiscal aspects of the Energy Transition

At this event, we would like to hold a discussion about fiscal instruments and how they can be adjusted to better accommodate the energy transition.

Speakers: Jos Delbeke, Prof. Dr. Karen Pittel, Ian Parry and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Hong Kong should add the euro to its dollar peg

Volatility offers an opportunity for the territory to rethink its strategy. With the economy now more synchronised with China than ever before, the dollar peg may no longer provide an accurate reflection of the real value of the Hong Kong dollar.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 12, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
20
09:00

EU-Turkey energy and climate dialogues

This event is part of the joint Bruegel-IPC initiative European Neighbourhood Energy and Climate Dialogues.

Topic: Energy & Climate Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Bruegel Annual Meetings 2017

The Annual Meetings are Bruegel’s flagship event. They offer a mixture of large public debates and small private sessions about key issues in European and global economics. In a series of high-level discussions, Bruegel’s scholars, members and stakeholders will address the economic policy challenges facing Europe.

Speakers: Carlos Sallé Alonso, José Antonio Álvarez Álvarez, Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Pervenche Béres, Matthias Buck, Grégory Claeys, Zsolt Darvas, Jean Luc Demarty, Maria Demertzis, Anna Ekström, Lowri Evans, Ferdinando Giugliano, Sandro Gozi, Peter Grünenfelder, Reiner Hoffmann, Levin Holle, Kate Kalutkiewicz, Steffen Kampeter, Peter Kažimír, Emmanuel Lagarrigue, Matti Maasikas, Steven Maijoor, Reza Moghadam, Nathalie Moll, James Murray, Johan Van Overtveldt, Julia Reinaud, André Sapir, Dirk Schoenmaker, Mateusz Szczurek, Marianne Thyssen, Jean-Claude Trichet, Reinhilde Veugelers, Nicolas Véron, Ida Wolden Bache, Liviu Voinea, Guntram B. Wolff and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Square - Brussels Meeting Centre Date: September 7, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Hurricane Harvey’s economic impact

What’s at stake: tropical storm Harvey has caused unprecedented and catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas. We review recent estimates of the economic impact of this natural disaster.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 4, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Should the EU have the power to vet foreign takeovers?

Should the EU have the power to vet foreign takeovers? André Sapir and Alicia Garcia-Herrero debate the issue, which has become topical in view of recent Chinese investment in Europe.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and André Sapir Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 1, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

The European Gas Markets

This book, co-edited by Bruegel's Research Fellow Simone Tagliapietra, explores in detail the challenges which the European gas markets currently face, and the opportunities they present. Bringing together some of the most prominent gas experts on Europe from both academia and industry, this edited volume provides a comprehensive analysis of the various economic, political and technological factors that interact in this sector.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate Date: August 31, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Low carbon technology exports: the race is still open

A country’s relative strength in exporting a certain product is likely to persist. But it is easier to gain a comparative advantage in exporting low carbon products. When it comes to R+D, strength in a certain technological field is much less linked to past specialisation. This also holds for low carbon technologies. Finally, our preliminary findings are consistent with the view that R+D can help a country specialise in clean technology exports. However, we are not yet able to show that policy action supporting R+D in clean technologies is a sensible way to develop a comparative export advantage in these sectors.

By: Georg Zachmann and Enrico Nano Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: August 24, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The issue of U.S. prescription drug prices

What’s at stake: Americans spend a lot on prescription drugs, more per capita than any other country by far. Individual cases of sharp price increases - like the case of the EpiPen - have recently driven attention to this issue. We report review contributions on this topic.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: August 24, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Book/Special report

Towards EU-MENA Shared Prosperity

Endowed with half of the world’s known oil and gas reserves, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has become a cornerstone of the global energy architecture. This architecture is currently undergoing a structural transformation, prompted by two different forces: decarbonisation policies and low-carbon technology advancements. This book seeks to address the following research question: are MENA oil-exporting countries equipped to prosper in times of global decarbonisation?

By: Simone Tagliapietra, Abdelhak Bassou, Marion Jansen, Yassine Msadfa, Mario Filadoro and Larabi Jaidi Topic: Energy & Climate Date: August 17, 2017
Load more posts