Scientists debate: could renewable energy entirely replace fossil fuels in U.S. by 2050?

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Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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Scientists generally debate their studies and projections in relatively civil language, but perhaps the currently adversarial tenor of U.S. politics has spilled over into science.

A 2015 study on the potential for renewable energy use in the U.S. has now produced not only a stringent attack, but a harsh rebuttal to that attack in language rarely seen among academics.

The debate erupted in the pages of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Two years ago, Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and the director of its Atmosphere and Energy program, published a paper.

In that work, based on a model he alone had built, he suggested that the U.S. could generate all the energy it currently uses from renewable sources by 2050.

Specifically, “no natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries" would be needed.

Wind farm outside Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Canada [photographer: Joel Bennett]

Wind farm outside Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Canada [photographer: Joel Bennett]

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Moving from the current mix of coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewable sources to a grid powered entirely by wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy in 33 years is a fairly dramatic projection.

The current issue of the Proceedings published both a strong criticism of Jacobson's “wind, water, and sun” energy mix and a rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues that IEEE Spectrum accurately described as "unapologetic."

The analysis of Jacobson's work was produced by a group of 21 experts in both electric-power systems and climate modeling, led by Christopher Clack, who's CEO of a power-system modeling firm called Vibrant Energy.

Their critique suggested that Jacobson's paper had used invalid modeling tools, included modeling errors, and relied on “implausible and inadequately supported assumptions” in projecting the makeup of U.S. energy supply in 2050.

Specifically, the group attacked Jacobson's evaluation and rejection of two specific technologies: nuclear reactors and fossil-fueled generating plants that capture their carbon emissions.

Coal-fired Nanticoke Generating Station, Ontario, Canada, now being converted to 44-MW solar farm

Coal-fired Nanticoke Generating Station, Ontario, Canada, now being converted to 44-MW solar farm

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“The scenarios of [that paper]," Clack wrote, "can, at best, be described as a poorly executed exploration of an interesting hypothesis."

Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues fired back that while they were fine with questions about their assumptions, Clack’s own critique was “riddled with errors” and “demonstrably false.”

In unusually strong language, Jacobson calling the group's analysis “the most egregious case of scientific fraud I have encountered in the literature to date.”

Power lines by Flickr user achouro

Power lines by Flickr user achouro

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It stemmed, he suggested, from its authors' known affinities for continued use of fossil fuels.

As IEEE Spectrum points out, both sides have known affinities for particular energy sources and solutions.

One of Clack's coauthors had published a paper suggesting that "solving the climate problem will depend on" advanced nuclear reactors and carbon-capture technology, for instance.

But Jacobson was an earlier attacker on the climate effects of black-soot emissions, which has made him a target before—since the theoretical carbon-capture plants of the future would still emit soot.

For those interested in the future energy mix in the U.S., it's worth reading Spectrum's story on the debate in full.

In time, scientific rigor is likely to win out—but the tenor of this clash has made it unusually, and unfortunately, newsworthy.

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