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Celebrity professor beloved by Democrats smacked down by peers for ‘dangerous’ energy plan

Have you heard of Stanford University Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson?

He’s a popular figure among Democratic politicians in California and the U.S. Senate because the “environmental engineering” researcher is peddling the energy equivalent of magic beans: a plan to run America only on renewable fuel sources by mid-century, more cheaply than using fossil fuels.

And it’s not climate skeptics from the Competitive Enterprise Institute or Heartland Institute who are unplugging his pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about a cheap and easy way to dump to fossil fuels, which has been incorporated in state and federal Democratic legislation.

It’s his own peers in the mainstream scientific community.

New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter covers the scientific pile-on facing Jacobson, who had seemed on track to become the next Bill Nye the Science Guy (and not just because he appeared on Nye’s bizarre new Netflix show):

In a long-awaited article published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – the same journal in which professor Jacobson’s manifesto appeared [two years ago] – a group of 21 prominent scholars, including physicists and engineers, climate scientists and sociologists, took a fine comb to the Jacobson paper and dismantled its conclusions bit by bit.

“I had largely ignored the papers arguing that doing all with renewables was possible at negative costs because they struck me as obviously incorrect,” said David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, a co-author of the new critique of Professor Jacobson’s work. “But when policy makers started using this paper for scientific support, I thought, ‘this paper is dangerous.'”

The conclusion of the critique is damning: Professor Jacobson relied on “invalid modeling tools,” committed “modeling errors” and made “implausible and inadequately supported assumptions,” the scholars wrote. “Our paper is pretty devastating,” said Varun Sivaram from the Council on Foreign Relations, a co-author of the new critique.

Jacobson is fighting back before he gets his own Netflix show that celebrates vaginas, saying the PNAS critique is full of errors and its authors are “shills” for oil and nuclear power, but Porter isn’t convinced.

The columnist says Jacobson is inventing huge leaps in energy-storage capacity for “intermittent” renewable sources like sun and wind – from the 43 minutes that the 10 largest systems in the U.S. can currently store combined, to the seven weeks of stored energy that would be necessary in a fully renewable economy.

Like Bernie Sanders in a lab coat, Jacobson points to Denmark as the model for his plan, but Porter notes Denmark already has a heat transportation infrastructure – one that would have to be built from scratch in America.

Porter is pretty brutal:

A common thread to the Jacobson approach is how little regard it shows for the political, social and technical plausibility of what would undoubtedly be wrenching transformations across the economy. …

He assumes an implausibly low coast of capital. He asserts that most American industry will easily adapt its schedule to the availability of energy – unplugging when the wind and sun are down regardless of the needs of workers, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

And even after all this, the system fails unless it can obtain vast amounts of additional power from hydroelectricity as a backup at moments when other sources are weak …

It is critically important to bring this debate into the open. For too long, climate advocacy and policy has been inflected by a hope that the energy transformation before us can be achieved cheaply and virtuously – in harmony with nature.

Read the article to learn more about the hydroelectric fantasyland that Jacobson and his Democratic boosters are living in.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” Previously he led media and public relations at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, a free-market think tank. Greg is developing a Web series about a college newspaper, COPY, whose pilot episode was a semifinalist in the TV category for the Scriptapalooza competition in 2012. He graduated in 2001 with a B.A. from Seattle Pacific University, where he co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon.

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