Colorado’s Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates Stake Energy Platform on ‘Magic Thinking’ Theory

A day after U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) launched his gubernatorial campaign, Energy In Depth highlighted how his flagship energy initiative – “getting Colorado to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2040,” as the Denver Post reports – is based on an idea a leading climate advocate has called “almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.”

Polis’ campaign is based on research by Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson – research that was met with broad skepticism when it was first released, subsequent criticism from scientists, environmental experts, and climate activists – and, just last month, a peer-reviewed paper written by 21 researchers and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America that analyzed Jacobson’s research and found “significant shortcomings,” “errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.”

The new paper didn’t stop Polis from releasing a campaign video for Independence Day that showed him declaring that he is “running for governor to achieve 100% renewable energy” – or former state senator and fellow gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston (D-Denver) from releasing an identical energy platform. But it should have.

The paper, published last week, found that Jacobson’s research “used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions,” and, as a result, its conclusions “are not supported by adequate and realistic analysis and do not provide a reliable guide to whether and at what cost such a transition might be achieved.”

“The study’s numerous shortcomings and errors render it unreliable as a guide about the likely cost, technical reliability, or feasibility of a 100% wind, solar, and hydroelectric power system,” the researchers continued. “It is one thing to explore the potential use of technologies in a clearly caveated hypothetical analysis; it is quite another to claim that a model using these technologies at an unprecedented scale conclusively shows the feasibility and reliability of the modeled energy system implemented by midcentury.”

“Our analysis suggests … that none of that work holds up,” David Victor, an energy policy researcher at the University of California at San Diego and a co-author of the new critique, told the Washington Post.

“We thought we had to write a peer reviewed piece to highlight some of the mistakes and have a broader discussion about what we really need to fight climate change,” lead author Christopher Clack, founder of the firm Vibrant Clean Energy, explained. “And we felt the only way to do it in a fair and unbiased way was to go through peer review, and have external referees vet it to make sure we’re not saying anything that’s untrue in our piece.”

“I can totally understand that emotions are high, but we have a duty as scientists to call the facts as we see them,” Victor said.

In a piece published in the New York Times, columnist Eduardo Porter catalogued the shortcomings of Jacobson’s research. “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,” Porter wrote, providing a few examples of how “Jacobson’s premise does seem a leap of faith”:

“He argues for the viability of hydrogen-fueled aviation by noting the existence of a hydrogen-powered four-seat jet. Jumping from that to assert that hydrogen can economically fuel the nation’s fleet within a few decades seems akin to arguing that because the United States sent a few astronauts to the moon we will all be able to move there soon.

“He proposes building and deploying energy systems at a scale that has never been achieved and at a speed that nobody has ever tried. He assumes an implausibly low cost of capital. He asserts that most American industry will easily adjust 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.”

“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,” Porter concludes. “But the transformation is likely to be costly. And though sun, wind and water are likely to account for a much larger share of the nation’s energy supply, less palatable technologies are also likely to play a part.”

After calling Jacobson’s plan “magic thinking” back in 2013, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. weighed in again on the discussion after the new study was released.

“On the minus side, [the 100% renewables debate is] all about political signaling & political cover, with opportunities for insight lost in the tribal affiliations,” Pielke tweeted. “100% renewable debate could have similar pathological effects if it helps to support prematurely closing off zero C [carbon] energy alternatives. You already see this when politicians endorse 100% renewable energy by 20XX before evidence is in that it can actually work.”

“In energy policy, incrementalism in deployment is not only your friend but the way that is,” Pielke continued. “Closing off alternatives is unwise & risky.”

Other researchers have issued similar warnings regarding Jacobson’s ideas over the years. Carnegie Mellon University researchers argued in 2013 that Jacobson and his co-authors “do not present sufficient analysis to demonstrate the technical, economic, and social feasibility of their proposed strategy.” Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory wrote in 2014 that it would be “dangerously risky to ‘bet the planet’ on a narrow portfolio of favored low-carbon energy technologies.” Former National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist and climate advocate James Hansen said that “suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

As fantastic as Jacobson’s research may seem, plans for achieving 100 percent renewable energy within the space of a few decades would have consequences far more devastating than purely believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

Even though Jacobson’s research claims that transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy would create millions of jobs in the process, Energy In Depth last year examined data Jacobson originally published on his website and found that his plans would actually destroy millions of jobs across the country:

“But buried toward the end of a dense Excel sheet with over 60 tabs, located on a dedicated page within a faculty website, Jacobson quantifies the exact number of job losses by sector from transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. In transportation, more than 2.4 million men and women would be put out of work. Over 800,000 people working to produce oil and natural gas would lose their jobs. Nearly 90,000 jobs connected to coal mining would be wiped out. All told, more than 3.8 million jobs would be lost, far more than the nearly 2.6 million long-term jobs that Jacobson has estimated would be created.

“In a highlighted column entitled ‘Net Long Term Jobs,’ Jacobson’s table shows a negative 1,284,030.”

Source: Energy In Depth

Upon launching his gubernatorial bid in January, Johnston said, “The question is do you have a vision for where you want to lead the state, and if so, you should show that vision to people and see if they believe it.”

Looks like Johnston’s – and Polis’ – vision is clouded by “errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.”

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