The Clean Energy Debate Is Fueling One of the Most Vitriolic Fights in Science Publishing

A Stanford scientist says one of America's best science journals published a paper "riddled with intentional misinformation" from the fossil fuel industry.

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Jun 19 2017, 7:28pm

Would it ever be possible to run the United States on 100 percent renewable, clean energy?

That's a tougher question to answer than you might think—not only do scientists disagree on whether such a goal would ever be attainable, they also disagree on what constitutes "clean energy." And the debate is getting contentious.

Sunday afternoon, Mark Jacobson, an environmental engineer and Stanford University professor, sent us a pdf with this headline:

Jacobson says his work is being unfairly and falsely attacked in the pages of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's foremost peer-reviewed science journals. It stems from a 2015 paper by Jacobson and his team, which suggested that, by 2055, it would be possible to use solar, hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal energy sources to power 100 percent of the US power grid.

Some of Jacobson's suggestions are obvious, like putting more solar panels in the desert and wind power turbines in windy areas. But the paper also suggests we should consider using natural tides in bodies of water as a way to get hydroelectric turbines spinning. It also imagines a future where geothermal energy—which is often used today as a passive way to heat and cool buildings—can be used as a way to harness electrical energy by acting as a storage medium for hydrogen gasses.

"The challenge is primarily getting many federal and state policy makers as well as national leaders" to buy into that future, Jacobson told Motherboard in an email. "Politicians haven't supported [the plan] to date because of the lobbying reach of conventional fossil fuel energy sources."

Jacobson says Clack's paper is "riddled with intentional misinformation," was written "by nuclear and fossil-fuel supporters," and is an "opinion" piece.

In Jacobson's view, that lobbying reach extends to PNAS, which published the relatively innocuous-sounding article "Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar" Monday. This paper is a rebuttal of Jacobson's plan by Christopher Clack, a former NOAA scientist and current CEO of Vibrant Clean Energy.

The thrust of Clack's paper is that meeting Jacobson's 2055 goal would require other energy sources, including nuclear and fossil fuels, which he argues can be made clean with carbon capture or sequestration: "Relying on 100 percent wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could make climate mitigation more difficult and more expensive than it needs to be," Clack wrote.

The dispute between the two teams has gotten ugly.

Jacobson says Clack's paper is "riddled with intentional misinformation," was written "by nuclear and fossil-fuel supporters," is an "opinion" piece, and said many on Clack's team "have a history of advocacy, employment, research, or consulting in nuclear power, fossil fuels, or carbon capture."

Indeed, some of Clack's team does have fossil fuel industry ties: The PNAS paper notes that "all of the authors have recently received outside support for more general research on energy systems and renewable energy," and according to PNAS disclosures, Adam Brandt has been funded by Saudi Aramco and Ford, James Sweeney has been funded by ExxonMobil, David Victor has received funding from EPRI, a nonprofit funded by the nation's electric utilities (which includes fossil fuel companies), and Jay Whitacre has been funded by Toyota. According to the journal, "the authors declare no conflict of interest."

Clack, meanwhile, told us that he wrote the paper because the original had "so many mistakes" and said he stands by his assertion that the US will never be fully powered by renewable sources.

Jacobson sent us a line-by-line rebuttal of Clack's paper, an Ecowatch article he'd written criticizing PNAS and Clack, and a paper titled "30 false and 5 highly misleading statements in the main text of [Clack's paper]."

"The limitation of nearly 100 percent wind, solar, and water is their natural variability and covariability between hours, days, weeks, and seasons," Clack told us. "When you approach 100 percent these generation sources become increasingly expensive and difficult to guarantee supply and demand."

Clack says that Jacobson's paper has erroneously been cited by policy experts as a roadmap forward; in 2015, Jacobson testified about his plan to Congress.

"The paper has been held as a rigorous scientific study to show that we can do this," Clack said. "The paper does, in fact not do this and moreover has mistakes that render it invalid. Therefore, we wanted to supply the literature with the scientific truths and give policymakers a correction to this misleading study."

What we have are two scientific teams saying the other is categorically wrong

PNAS allowed Jacobson to write a short, 500-word rebuttal to Clack's paper in this issue of the journal. Inder Verma, the journal's editor-in-chief, told us "the manuscript was reviewed by two Editorial Board Members prior to acceptance. The expert reviewers felt that the manuscript had sufficient novel information to appear as a Research Article" as opposed to a letter to the editor.

"Dr. Jacobson was offered the opportunity to respond, and the Clack et al. manuscript is accompanied by a Letter by Jacobson et al.," Verma continued. "The editor felt that the 2015 Jacobson et al. article and the Clack et al. manuscript together present arguments and counterarguments that are available for evaluation by readers."

Jacobson sent us a line-by-line rebuttal of Clack's paper, an Ecowatch article he'd written criticizing PNAS and Clack, and a paper titled "30 false and 5 highly misleading statements in the main text of [Clack's paper]."

"PNAS … decided to publish the paper as is despite the false and defamatory claims and data listed herein," Jacobson wrote.

What we have, then, are two scientific teams saying the other is categorically wrong. Because of the timescales we're talking about, it's too early to say who is painting a more accurate picture of the future: The United States will either move to an energy grid that's fully powered by renewables, or it won't.

In the end, hopefully scientific sparring matches won't matter: Either way, we've got to make sure clean energy accounts for more of our overall energy production. Right now, solar and wind power account for about 10 percent of America's total energy production, so we've got a long way to go regardless.