Another liar

Another liar surfaces, a nominee for FERC

President Trump has nominated a fossil fuel advocate, Bernard McNamee, for a vacancy on FERC. McNamee is a professional energy lawyer, and has worked for a big utility and a Koch-funded think tank. He is currently executive director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy.

He wrote an op-ed for The Hill on Earth Day, a ridiculous paean to fossil fuels. It includes this sentence (my italics):

Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how.

This is a lie. McNamee is not a fool and the carelessness explanation does not wash for the head of the DoE’s policy shop.

There is a Wikipedia page on 100% renewable energy. It is quite long and has 113 references. The phrase “100% renewable energy” gets 37,700,000 ghits on a regular search. Add “scenario” and it’s still 5,750,000. Restrict further by using Google Scholar, and the numbers are 2,050,000 and 609,000.

The incomplete Wikipedia article covers the best-known such scenarios developed by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi of Stanford. The work has gone through several iterations and now extends to 139 countries. They have set up a popular website called “The Solutions Project”. Wikipedia links to several other foundations with similar aims. It fails to mention the rival global scenarios of a team at LUT in Finland, sponsored by the German-based Energy Watch Group, restricted to 100% renewable electricity. (On a long horizon, decarbonisation calls for massive electrification, so the distinction disappears. ) There are also numerous scenarios for single countries. Many of these draw on simulations of electricity demand at resolutions of under one hour, precisely to test feasibility.

Far from not “explaining how”, the 2015 Jacobson scenario ran into a lot of flak for one detailed feature, retrofitting US hydro dams to operate in burst mode to cover gaps in wind and solar output. This was a bad-tempered dispute, with accusations of malpractice and threatened lawsuits. However the scientific process worked, and Jacobson’s latest scenario sensibly dials back the burst hydro and boosts CSP with hot salt.

An even simpler “how to” can be found in Andrew Blakers’ 100% renewable electricity scenario for Australia (paper, talk). This just relies on wind, pv solar, HVDC transmission, and pumped hydro storage. Batteries, biomass, demand response, P2G and geothermal are not included – if they work, then costs could be lower. This is striking as Australia is the driest continent, and every other region has better conditions for pumped storage.

I am not claiming that all the technical problems have been solved. Shovel-ready solutions do not exist yet for steelmaking, cement, shipping, and aviation. However, this would be an absurd demand. The earliest political horizons for carbon neutrality are after 2040, over two decades from now. Progress in the key technologies is rapid and it’s enough for researchers to point to plausible pathways.

What is striking is how limited these gaps are. We could get most of the way with today’s technology, as in the Blakers work. And in any case we are going to need massive sequestration to recapture gigatonnes of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, so keeping a little gas and offsetting with seaweed farms or something won’t be a dealbreaker.

To return to Mr. McNamee. I don’t think liars (or, best case, ignoramuses) should have posts of high responsibility in FERC or the Energy Department. Do you?

The cognitive corruption of the Trump Presidency is spreading down and sideways through the machinery of the American state like benzene in an aquifer.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

4 thoughts on “Another liar”

  1. Generally, if you want to criticize someone from a distance, you should frame their position in a reasonably generous fashion, and not the worst possible, without corroboration of the worst possible.

    If you take “meet our needs” to include all needs, then McNamee is almost certainly correct, at least for the foreseeable future. But McNamee himself says, later in the piece, “This does not mean we should not use renewable energy. Of course we should.”

    I find little support for your attack. I call “straw man argument”.

    1. Yeah, no. He argues based on -current- percentages of energy production from various sources, which effectively assumes that nothing has changed in the last 30 years. Whereas, based on -current- COSTS for new capacity, renewables are much, much more cost-effective than he’d like to pretend.

      He adduces all the benefits of fossil fuels, and NONE of the costs. NONE of them.

      His arguments could as well be used by a people who eat all their seed corn over the winter, slaughter ALL their livestock (“Hey, it’s a great, great party! All the kids are really getting well-fed! The steaks are BRILLIANT!”) and then when spring comes, they have literally nothing to plant, no cows to birth new calves, nothing.

      So no, the OP isn’t straw-manning.

    2. “If you take “meet our needs” to include all needs, then McNamee is almost certainly correct, at least for the foreseeable future.”

      Can you link to conclusive critiques of the work of Jacobson, the LUT people, Blakers and others, who find that 100% renewable energy or electricity is entirely feasible technically and economically for a whole raft of countries? Thought not. The strongest counter-attack I know of was Clack’s on Jacobson’s first cut (intended by Clack to show that nuclear energy will remain essential in a decarbonised future), and the damage he inflicted was just a few feathers, which I noted. He agrees with Jacobson that 80% zero-carbon is straightforward, so it’s an argument about technology options, and investment and policy decisions, starting at leat a decade ahead.

      I have no reason either to think that you are a $170,000-a-year senior Federal employee with a professional duty to know about this stuff and an expert staff to bring it it to your attention. But you should still follow a few links before repeating McNamee’s unsupported drivel.

      I recommend starting with Blakers as a proof of principle. His drastic limiting assumptions make for a much simpler model, and he still comes out with a mean LCOE from a 100% renewable Australian electricity system of US$70/MWh, a bit high by US standards but cheap by Australian ones. Because of the restrictive assumptions, that’s an upper limit; introduce DR, P2G, V2G, grid and household batteries, and future technical progress on geothermal, and you can work the number lower. However, you would be adding so many uncertainties as to turn the exercise into guesswork.

  2. The McNamee piece is intellectually dishonest with respect to his reference to non-energy uses of petrochemicals. For instance, he says “Moreover, nearly 100 percent of the plastics we use every day are made from petroleum — and wind and the sun cannot be transformed into plastic.” This statement is, at its heart, dishonest because it assumes that plastics are “priced right.” That is, it assumes that the price of plastic products takes into account the various negative externalities related to their production and use, including disposal, of plastic products. Of course, that assumption is false and one has to presume that McNamee knows that it is false.

    The development of alternative materials would be spurred if the price of plastic products took into account the externalities of the use of plastic. Thus, the claim that “wind and the sun cannot be transformed into plastic,” while technically correct, is misleading. The question is whether there are alternative materials which, taking into account all costs, are cheaper than plastics? The “all costs” have to include the environmental costs of producing the material and disposing of the products made from the material.

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