Friday, February 08, 2019

Energy and Bullshit Asymmetry

Have you heard of the bullshit asymmetry principle (also known as Brandolini's law)?
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
For example, Mark Jacobson et al published in 2015 with great fanfare that the US could meet all of its energy needs reliably with 100% wind, water and solar (WWS) power.  He further claimed that
No natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed. The resulting 2050–2055 US electricity social cost for a full system is much less than for fossil fuels. These results hold for many conditions, suggesting that low-cost, reliable 100% WWS systems should work many places worldwide.
It uses a new grid integration model and finds low-cost, no-load-loss, nonunique solutions to this problem on electrification of all US energy sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) while accounting for wind and solar time series data from a 3D global weather model that simulates extreme events and competition among wind turbines for available kinetic energy.
It sounds fantastic.  Who wouldn't want to go all electric, including vehicles (we can keep our cars!), and produce zero green house gases without nuclear energy?

Many progressives, including Boulder's pro-municipalization* city council, latched on to Jacobson's results. It's a foundation for AOC's Green New Deal (GND).  The California Clean Power Alliance was formed to provide this magical 100% WWS.  Likewise, the City of Los Angeles hired a consulting firm to find out if it is feasible for LADWP to go 100% WWS.

Almost immediately, scientists raised alarm bells over Jacobson's methodology, assumptions and arithmetic errors. But it didn't matter, because bullshit, once it takes hold, is hard to refute.

It took a team of 21 authors a year to refute all the flaws in the original Jacobson paper; you can read Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar yourself.  The biggest source of disagreement is future availability of water for hydropower.  Christopher Clack et al found that 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid was possible at a reasonable cost.

Like climate science, there is broad general consensus.  It's basically Jacobson and his 3 coauthors against thousands of other researchers working in the same arena.  Clack's numbers are in line with the 75-80% of most other studies.  I have studied the issue and believe the consensus.

It got ugly. Letters and papers went back and forth.  Rather than letting peer review and the scientific method sort it out, Jacobson (who was losing in the science arena) took to the courts and sued both the National Academy of Sciences (who published the evaluation) and the lead author of the evaluation, Christopher Clack, in court for libel.

It was a nuisance suit, meant to bankrupt critics in order to silence them.  Thankfully, Jacobson withdrew the suit after much bad press.

Now comes the hard part.

How do we deprogram well-meaning people from repeating Jacobson's lies and dealing with the reality of physical science and available technologies?

It's late and I will deal with the flaws in the Green New Deal another day.  I want to make it clear, I support moving much faster than we have been doing to slow down climate change.  But the GND is not the best way to do it.  We can make some reality-based amendments to the resolution.  We can be a carbon-neutral and fairer society.  We just need to have rational debates on the actual merits of the science and technologies.

* Read some background on Boulder's municipalization effort

** Numerous California cities, including mine, moved all customers into the Clean Power Alliance so we can have the consumer choice of selecting 36%, 50% or 100% clean energy.  LOL.  It's done with smoke and mirrors and paper swaps of electricity source accounting that do nothing about our underlying electricity generating capabilities.

If you want to join me, you can opt out of the Clean Power Alliance here.  Beware, they make you take a push poll meant to make you feel like a monster that wants to scorch the earth just because you don't want to buy into their charade.

*** This is the first post in a series. 

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