Energy is not just a physical system, it’s a social and political system too, and social and political change is unpredictable and messy.
The main barriers to reaching 100 per cent clean, renewable energy provision the world over “are neither technical nor economic; instead they are social and political”, Mark Jacobson declares finally - more than four-fifths of the way through this book.
Before seeing that, readers should have ploughed through 13 of the 15 chapters, which describe the physical and technical properties of fossil-fuel-dominated energy provision, and contrast to it Jacobson’s proposal for a system powered entirely by wind, water and solar sources (WWS).
The proposal is based on computer modelling by Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford university in California, showing that wind farms, solar panels, hydro, tidal energy and other renewable resources could produce sufficient energy to replace all fossil fuels.
The modelling is controversial: other researchers have questioned the assumptions made, especially about how electricity could be stored and transported.
Some of Jacobson’s arguments about technologies nonetheless make a refreshing change from most narratives associated with the world’s “green new deals”.
He argues against using gas, direct air capture, carbon capture, nuclear fuels and biofuels for electricity generation – all beloved of, and hyped by, oil companies, politicians and technomodernists.
But his exclusive, even wooden, focus on technologies is combined with a stubborn lack of attention to the social and political transformations needed for society to dump fossil fuels. Even when he acknowledges social and political obstructions to change, his comments on them are brief and superficial.
People need to “understand what changes they can make in their own lives”, and to support “policymakers who pass laws speeding a transition”, he writes. Those policymakers need to “understand the urgency and thus take bold steps”.
No indication of what to do about “policymakers” at whom climate scientists have been screaming, demanding action, for thirty-odd years. No clue as to why they have failed to “take bold steps”.
A few pages further on, Jacobson acknowledges that “repelling vested interests” in fossil fuel companies is “possibly the greatest challenge”. His readers probably knew that already: hundreds of thousands of teenagers have been raging in public about it for years.
Again, his recipes are embarassingly light. Ensuring that the energy transition does not damage jobs and living standards “means encouraging shareholders of fossil fuel companies to move their investments to clean, renewable energy and storage”, adopting policies to retrain workers, and making renewables-only electricity grids fully reliable. “Movement is already occurring in all three areas.”
But some movement is going the wrong way. The top five oil companies alone made $132 billion profits in aggregate in 2022; their fossil-fuel-dominated investment plans are a magnet for shareholders.
Energy is not just a physical system, it’s a social and political system too, and social and political change is unpredictable and messy.
In truth, Jacobson is not much interested in such real manifestations of how society operates. He views the gigantic transition that needs to be made as purely technological.
He contrasts fossil-fuel-dominated systems systems to his proposed 100 per cent WWS system, and strips down the process of getting from one to the other to a simple engineering job: changing the world like replacing a flat tyre or retooling a machine.
Jacobson shares the consensus view that a post-fossil-fuel energy system will require a massive expansion of electricity networks, because electricity will be used not only for the things it is used for now, but also to substitute for fossil fuels that provide heat, cooking and transport, and in many industrial processes.
But where other researchers see the expansion of electricity networks as a continuation of the long-running battle to bring electricity to hundreds of millions of people who do not have it, Jacobson views it as a technical switch-over.
Enumerating the problems with large, centralised fossil-fuel-fired power plants, he writes that: "[T]hey do not serve the 940 million people worldwide without access to electricity, and they poorly serve another 2.6 billion people who have access only to dirty solid fuels (dung, wood, crop residues, charcoal and coal) for home cooking and heating. [...] Similarly, centralised power plants can not provide power to remote military bases."
He goes on to argue: "Because WWS technologies are largely distributed (decentralised), it is possible to use them in microgrids to reduce this lack of access to electricity. A microgrid is an isolated grid that provides power to an individual building, hospital complex, community or military base....When used in a microgrid, WWS can bring electricity to people without previous access to it."
Leaving aside the undue emphasis on military bases, I was struck by Jacobson’s conclusion that: "[A] transition to WWS facilitates the creation of microgrids, and results in the use of more distributed energy sources.
"Both factors reduce the chance that severe weather, power-plant failures or terrorism will deny people energy. Fossil-fuel power plants, with or without carbon capture, and nuclear plants, do not solve this insecurity problem because these plants are large and centralised."
Let’s unpack this passage, which infuriated me for its insensitivity to social realities.
It is true that renewably-powered microgrids can bring electricity to people who did not have it before. Off-grid systems had by 2019 electrified 39 million people’s homes, the International Energy Agency recorded; limited benefits have reached tens of millions more.
And countless electricity researchers would, with Jacobson, enthuse about the integration of such microgrids into larger networks.
But Jacobson repeatedly implies that it is fossil fuels that have obstructed electricity access, and decentralised renewables that will solve the problem.
That’s false. First, because China and India in particular have in recent decades electrified the countryside, improving the living standards of hundreds of millions of people, with fossil-fuel-dominated systems.
Second, electricity access is constrained far less by “severe weather, power-plant failures or terrorism” that Jacobson refers to, than by the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority, and the economic subjugation of the global south by the rich nations. Jacobson ignores these problems.
And third, while decentralised renewables are seen by many people, this reviewer included, as the best technology to decarbonise electricity, their introduction will not by itself remove the inequalities reflected in unequal access to electricity.
What about the one-third of our fellow humans who use biofuels to cook? They are “poorly served” by the fossil-fuel-dominated system, Jacobson writes. His one-paragraph comment on what to do about this - “impoverished communities usually do not have access to funds”, governments and aid budgets may help - is limp and unconvincing.
Elsewhere he writes that biomass burning causes air pollution, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels if used to produce electricity and heat.
But the enforced poverty reflected in this phenomenon, and the reasons people are stuck on the borders of the global system of commodified energy provision, do not impinge on his view.
In reality, the challenges of superceding fossil-fuel-dominated systems with those based on renewables, and bringing about social change that ensure all human beings have electricity, non-polluting ways to cook and other necessities, will have to be tackled together.
Jacobson’s dogged focus on technologies excludes discussion of these complexities, and lends his narrative an air of false optimism.
His review of the sectors responsible for most fossil fuel use – transportation, buildings and industry, as well as electricity generation – treat them solely as technological systems.
Emissions from urban transport? Jacobson’s answer is electric and hydrogen vehicles. The results of such a shift in terms of greenhouse gas emissions have been scrutinised at length by researchers: it’s always constrained by the heavy emissions cost of building electric cars, unless and until industrial processes become zero-carbon.
And again, there is movement in the wrong direction: towards electric SUVs. Road-building, and the way that car-based systems undermine non-car transport, make matters worse.
Jacobson downplays such social and political difficulties associated with technologies he favours. For example, the electric vehicle (EV) production envisaged by the Biden administration’s “green new deal” in the US would by 2050 require an annual supply of lithium three times the size of the current world total.
US-based researchers have warned of a resurgence of colonialist extractivism to source lithium and other minerals for “green technologies”, and studied the advantages of sharply cutting car ownership and making cars smaller.
For Jacobson, by contrast, while lithium mining “causes environmental degradation”, it is not as bad as coal mining, and, besides, “traditional lithium mines will become cleaner as they begin to run on WWS energy”.
As for traffic reduction measures, these are treated as strictly separate, and secondary – relegated to a half-page section in the last chapter. The idea that motor manufacturers, construction companies and their shareholders might be part of the problem, rather than the solution, does not seem to have crossed his mind.
Jacobson displays the same insouciance about hydrogen, which in his 100 per cent WWS world will be used to fly planes, make steel, and otherwise keep 21st century capitalism looking much as it did when it used fossil fuels.
“Electrolysis is the simplest way to produce hydrogen, because it requires only an electrolyser and a WWS electricity source”, he writes.
True. But electrolysing water to produce hydrogen is very very energy-intensive. Out of every ten units of energy that you put in as electricity, you at best recover eight as hydrogen. If you then transport and store it, and reconvert it to electricity, you lose another three or more units.
This means that using precious renewable electricity to produce hydrogen, at a time like the present when most of the world’s electricity is produced from coal and gas, can make things worse, not better, emissions-wise. Nevertheless, that’s what oil and gas companies, thrashing around for survival strategies, are lobbying for, and that many governments have accepted.
Another problem that will encumber green hydrogen for years to come is the shortage of electrolyser production capacity. Expanding it to meet the European Union’s current targets, which are modest compared to the effort Jacobson proposes, would require “unparalleled progress in capacity expansion – something only feasible with wartime-like, centralised control over resources”, one group of researchers pointed out.
Jacobson knows all this. But by imagining these technologies in a vacuum, instead of in their social context, he obscures life-and-death problems.
Another example is the one-and-a-half-page discussion with which Jacobson breezily dismisses the idea that land availability might be a constraint on solar panels. He claims that “the world’s likely developable solar PV resource over land” is 1300 TW, which he says is 144 times greater than the world’s all-purpose end-use demand.
This is a view of “land” as a physical abstraction, devoid of human communities or other natural life. The real world is a very different place. For example, in north Africa, energy corporations are implementing big solar projects in a manner that threatens great social and ecological damage.
Large-scale solar will indeed be a weapon for tackling global warming, in my view, and collectively, humanity should be able to find the land it needs for it. But if we airily wave away the monstrous web of political and economic forces in which land is caught, we will only add to our troubles.
Jacobson’s final chapter, “My journey”, explains how he found his way to producing “roadmaps” to 100 per cent WWS.
He first noticed California’s dire air pollution as a teenage tennis player, entered university hoping to do something about it, opted for engineering and economics as a means to that end, and in the early 2000s learned computer modelling. Having published his first “roadmap” with Mark Delucchi in 2009, he gained a hearing from US politicians as an advocate for renewables.
But there are two striking omissions. First, in a chapter on the “roadmaps”, Jacobson does not explain that they are sketches of ideal future states of affairs, rather than signposts to getting there. That is, not really “roadmaps” at all.
The “roadmaps”, as Jacobson details them, take a top-down approach, assigning quantitative values to (i) future energy demand, (ii) that projected demand, divided into projected volumes of electricity, heat and hydrogen, (iii) projected demand reductions from the higher efficiency of these forms of energy, with a minor, secondary component from other energy efficiency, (iv) resource analysis of supply-side factors including land for solar and wind speeds for wind, and (v) “a mix, for each region of interest, of WWS electricity and heat generators”.
As far as I could see, from No Miracles Needed and Jacobson’s main research publications, this approach takes no account of the ecological costs - in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other effects - of replacing a world full of fossil-fuelled infrastructure with WWS system infrastructure.
Such costs are not included in the “resource analysis”. Jacobson and his colleagues do not attempt life-cycle analysis, which covers the material impacts of a technological process from start to finish.
This approach has been fiercely criticised by other researchers because – for all its potential for highlighting some technologies’ advantages, and bearing in mind that all models are inevitably limited in scope – it does not reflect, as other energy research models have tried to do, the problem of getting from the world we are in now, to the world imagined by the model.
That brings me to the second omission. Jacobson does not refer to the debate that raged around his work in academic journals in 2016-17. His readers would have learned far more from some reflections on this polemic than from e.g. his blow-by-blow account of his appearance on the Letterman show. (An excellent overview of the debate, by David Roberts, was published by Vox.)
Jacobson’s critics broadly agreed with him (i) that a transition away from fossil fuels is necessary, and (ii) that – even if some of them favour market regulation or other types of state intervention – capitalism is the only game in town, and that discussion has to be focused on using markets to decarbonise, and showing politicians it can be done at low cost.
Many of Jacobson’s opponents see nuclear power, gas and carbon capture and storage as key means to decarbonisation, and he largely dismissed their arguments for that reason. But the questions they raise about his methodology are compelling, and if he has anywhere written an answer to these, I haven’t found it.
In December 2015, Jacobson and his colleagues published a paper in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, defending their assumptions about how fully-renewable electricity grids would tackle intermittency - that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.
John Bistline and Geoff Blanford of the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-backed think tank, argued that Jacobson et al were far too optimistic about “the large-scale availability of energy storage, demand response [i.e. electricity network operators’ ability to ask electricity users to shift their demand around] and unconstrained transmission”.
They thought Jacobson’s methodology had underestimated the difficulties of moving large volumes of electricity over long distances. Jacobson et al rejected the criticism.
Another group of high-profile researchers, including Christopher Clack of the US government National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Morgan Bazilian of Columbia University and David Victor of the University of California, then weighed in, questioning both Jacobson’s general approach, and some specifics in a 2015 paper offering a 100 per cent WWS “roadmap” for the USA.
Clack et al insisted there was a difference between presenting a 100 per cent WWS vision as a “thought experiment”, and arguing – as Jacobson et al do – that “rapid and complete conversion” to it is “feasible with little downside”. It is important, they declared, to “understand the distinction between physical possibility and feasability in the real world”.
In a strongly-argued passage on energy storage, Clack et al pointed out that Jacobson et al’s models for the USA assume that 2604 gigawatts of storage would be built – enough to store more than double current US electricity output.
The Jacobson model envisions underground thermal energy storage (UTES) – a technology not yet proven to work at scale – being “deployed in nearly every community for nearly every home, business, office building, hospital, school and factory in the US”, Clack et al pointed out. “The relative immaturity of these techologies can not be reconciled with [Jacobson et al’s] assertion that the solution proposed [...] are ready to be implemented today at scale and at low cost.”
A response from Jacobson et al was insubstantial on these issues: “Clack et al assert that UTES can’t be expanded nationally, but we disagree”. It also focused on rebutting accusations that they had miscalculated the possible output of US hydro plants, and made other modelling errors.
In an extraordinary turn of events – almost unheard of in academic debates, however heated they get – Jacobson threatened to sue Clack et al, claiming they had “knowingly and/or recklessly published false statements”. He later backed off, saying that the legal process would be lengthy and there were better uses for his time. But the damage had been done, and the discussion ground to a halt.
In my view, some key issues underlying this discussion had been summed up by David Roberts back in 2015: a 100 per cent WWS system would “require that policy and investment decisions be approached holistically, coordinated across multiple sectors”, but that is “not the way humans typically approach big challenges”, and “engineers aren’t granted the power to redesign large systems from scratch. Energy is not just a physical system, it’s a social and political system too, and social and political change is unpredictable and messy”.
No Miracles Needed does not deal with that problem: it remains to be dealt with.
Simon Pirani is honorary professor at the University of Durham in the UK, and author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018). He writes a blog at peoplenature.org. Follow him on Twitter: @SimonPirani1.
No Miracles Needed: how today’s technology can save our climate and clean our air, by Mark Jacobson is published by Cambridge University Press, 2023.