A near-term transition to electricity powered entirely by wind, solar, and hydro power is a “fantasy” that will not be easily accomplished, the left-of-center Brookings Institution acknowledged in a recent paper.
“The notion that a zero-carbon future is close at hand and inexpensive is certainly appealing. Climate change is one of the great challenges of our time, with its origins at the very heart of the modern economy and its worst effects global, uncertain, and delayed,” Brookings fellow Samantha Gross explained in the paper.
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“The point of the rebuttal paper is not to say that a low-carbon future is an impossible or pointless goal. Rather, the authors stress that overly optimistic analyses and assumptions can get in the way of true progress toward decarbonizing the energy system and can decrease the world’s motivation to develop new and innovative technologies,” Gross observed.
Calls for an immediate shift to wind and solar power require “heroic” technological advances that are not imminent, the paper noted.
“Meeting all U.S. energy needs using only wind, solar, and water energy requires some heroic assumptions, in the electricity sector and in other energy-consuming applications,” wrote Gross.
“Electricity is pivotal. In the electricity grid, supply and demand must be in balance at all times,” the paper explained. “Given the intermittent and non-dispatchable nature of wind and solar power, aligning supply and demand in the system relying only on wind, solar, and water power is a huge challenge.”
The key to meeting near-term emissions goals, the Brookings paper asserts, is to acknowledge and welcome the benefits provided by energy sources such as nuclear power and low-emission fossil fuels.
“All of these are practical criticisms of a near-term shift to an energy system entirely reliant on wind, solar, and water. But the deeper level of criticism is about the focus on establishing an energy system that excludes many other sources of low- or zero-carbon energy. Nuclear energy, bioenergy, and fossil fuel sources (particularly with CCS) may have roles to play in future energy systems, and excluding them a priori is likely to increase the cost of achieving climate change goals,” Gross observed.
Practicality and realism are essential to making near-term progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Gross emphasized. Absolutist dogma promoting wind and solar power as the only acceptable power sources will be self-defeating from a climate perspective.
“Thought experiments about future zero-carbon energy systems are important, to consider how an energy transition can play out and where the biggest challenges in such a transition lie. But one can’t let dogma get in the way—the world’s reaction to climate change must be politically and economically durable enough to last for generations. Unnecessarily limiting technology options or pretending that the solutions are cheap and easy is ultimately not helpful for combating the challenge of climate change.”