Aspen, Energy, Environment, Michael Sandoval, National

The myth of 100 percent renewables by 2050

Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson’s “roadmaps” for states to reach a 100 percent renewable energy portfolio by 2050 has become the new benchmark for aspiring politicos who hope to chart their own political course with promises to bring their states and eventually the entire United States to green salvation.

Photo and copyright: Tony's Takes - used by permission
Photo and copyright: Tony’s Takes – used by permission

Among them, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has launched his own gubernatorial campaign in Colorado on just such a declaration, and backed it up with a federal bill, the 100 by ‘50 Act, ”that fully envisions a complete transition off of fossil fuels for the United States.” Polis is joined by Rep. Paul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) in the House and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate.

“To remain a global economic leader, we must invest in renewable energy technology and fully embrace a cleaner, carbon-free future,” Polis said. “I’m proud to introduce this bill to advance 100 percent renewable energy nationally by investing in energy generation, transmission, and storage solutions of the future, rather than throwing taxpayer dollars into the past.”

Unfortunately, the research underpinning the bill and similar efforts elsewhere, has been roundly criticized, with a peer-reviewed paper finding “significant shortcomings” and “errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions” in Jacobson’s work. The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has led Jacobson to advise the 21 authors who contributed to the peer review that he has lawyered up, rather than push back on the substantive criticisms of his work.

Christopher Clack, the paper’s lead author, told the National Review that he and his fellow co-authors “are trying to be scientists and trying to understand what we can do, and do it. And not mess around and give people wishful hopes for things that won’t happen.”

University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. said Jacobson’s response amounted to an “intimidation campaign.”

In 2013, Pielke called the push for 100 percent renewables based on hope rather than data “magic thinking.”

“You already see this when politicians endorse 100 percent renewable energy by 20XX before evidence is in that it can actually work,” Pielke tweeted in June 2017.

Icon_2016_Op_EdBut politicians aren’t the only ones with sky-high renewable aspirations that don’t match the electric generation reality on the ground.

Aspen, Colorado, for example, has been touted again and again as a city with 100 percent renewable energy. As early as 2015, headlines blared the declaration from city officials that the posh mountain resort with multi-million dollar homes and an airport where celebrities and well-heeled vacationers jet in and out on their private planes had finally reached its decade-old goal.

Indeed, as the city Utilities and Environmental Initiatives director, David Hornbacher, said at the time, “It was a very forward-thinking goal and truly remarkable achievement. This means we are powered by the forces of nature, predominantly water and wind with a touch of solar and landfill gas.”

This achievement would have made Aspen the third city to reach the lofty goal.

Not so fast.

Turns out only half of the city’s residents are served by the Aspen Electric Utility. While the city utility might be 100 percent renewable on paper thanks to wind power purchase agreements, the other half of Aspen’s inhabitants have a different energy provider, Holy Cross Energy.

Holy Cross Energy has a broad portfolio, with renewable sources like wind, solar, biogas, and hydroelectric cranking out 34 percent of the fuel mix. Natural gas contributes 5 percent, while “market sources” provided three percent of the utility cooperative’s energy and “could not be identified with high level of certainty.

As of 2016, the remainder, 58 percent, came from coal. That’s actually up from 56 percent in 2005. For Holy Cross Energy, market share for coal has remained the baseload workhorse, with coal and renewables replacing natural gas over the past decade.

So for all its bluster and claims, Aspen still has a long way to go in its roadmap to 100 percent renewable energy. But don’t think that hydroelectric power, the source that kicked off Aspen’s efforts decades ago, is part of that plan. It’s not environmentally friendly enough. ”Concern for aquatic life and low river flows” marked environmentalists’ opposition to the city’s potential third hydro project, Castle Creek Energy Center.

Right now, neither Aspen nor Jacobson’s “roadmap” should be considered actual models to follow.

“The study’s numerous shortcomings and errors render it unreliable as a guide about the likely cost, technical reliability, or feasibility of a 100 percent wind, solar, and hydroelectric power system,” researchers wrote about Jacobson’s “roadmaps.”

“None of that work holds up,” said David Victor, one of the co-authors and an energy policy researcher at the University of California at San Diego.

Nor, for that matter, could Aspen be used as a model for other cities or a statewide political platform, except for those inclined to magical thinking.

Michael Sandoval is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.


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