Debunking the Leap Manifesto 100% Renewables by 2050 demand

By: A Chemist in Langley - Wordpress

My vocal challenges to the viability of “The Leap Manifesto” have earned me some negative feedback and as such I figure it is necessary to back up my opinions with a few numbers. In doing this I will differentiate myself from the folks at the Manifesto who appear averse to presenting any numbers to support their ideas.
Now the problem with the field of renewable energy is that there are a lot of people who love to wave their hands and make claims about the future. One of the bright lights of the field, whose light unfortunately dimmed too soon, Dr. David Mackay had an expression, “It’s not so much that I’m pro-nuclear, I’m just pro math”. In renewable energy the math counts, and as this post will show the math is against the idea that we can reach the Leap Manifesto goal of 100% Renewable Energy by 2050.
Now a lot of the info in this post is cribbed from an earlier post More on 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight and the Council of Canadians “100% Clean economy” by 2050 goal. My intention on this post is to provide a lot less detail to make it easier to read and understand.
In the Leap Manifesto they only supply two references, one is to how they will achieve a “100% renewable economy by 2050”. It is:
Ironically, that is not actually the right reference. The document they provide is the supporting document for Dr. Jacobson’s masterwork. The basis for the “100% clean economy by 2050” plan is a still-draft paper prepared by Dr. Jacobson 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World (called 100% WWS hereafter). As suggested, 100% WWS provides a detailed break-out of what it would take for each country in the world to achieve 100% renewable energy (excluding nuclear power and any new hydro). You note that big proviso. Dr. Jacobson is very anti-nuclear energy and does not like large reservoir or run-of-the-river hydro so he has excluded them from the mix. Since the authors’ of the Manifesto are citing Dr. Jacobson’s work I will assume for the sake of this blog post that they feel the same way.  In Table 3 of 100% WWS the breakdown of energy sources by 2050 in Canada is presented:
  • Onshore wind 37.5%
  • Offshore wind 21%
  • Solar PV plant 17.7%
  • Hydroelectric 16.5%
  • Wave energy 2%
  • Residential rooftop solar 1.5%
  • Commercial/govt rooftop solar 1.7%
  • Geothermal 1.9%
  • Tidal turbine 0.2%
At the outset the numbers look challenging, but not necessarily impossible. Being a practical guy, I thought I should dig a bit deeper to see how these numbers pan out. It ends up those numbers are presented in an associated spreadsheet. In Table 2 of the spreadsheet is the list of new units necessary by 2050 to achieve the 100% Renewable goal. These are:
  • Onshore wind: 39,263 new 5 MW units ( + 1939 units currently installed)
  • Offshore wind: 21,555 new 5 MW units (currently no units in Canada)
  • Solar PV plant: 5122 new 50 MW facilities (currently 13 similar facilities)
  • Hydroelectric: Uses currently built facilities with efficiency gains
  • Wave energy: 27,323 0.75 MW installations (currently no unit in Canada)
  • Residential rooftop solar: 4,206,934 units (currently 2% of units installed)
  • Commercial/govt rooftop solar: 248,867 units (currently 2% of units installed)
  • Geothermal: 50 new 100 MW facilities (currently no such facility in Canada)
  • Tidal turbine: 1980 new 1 MW units (currently no units in Canada)
So let’s start with the easiest ones first. According to the plan in order to meet our goal we will need 27,323 wave devices (covering a physical footprint of about 14 km2) and 1980 tidal turbines. With zero wave devices installed to date in Canada at the end of 2015 we have to install 804 of these systems per year to meet our goal. There is one hitch to this plan. No one has yet to come up with a design for a fully-functional industrial scale wave installation. There are lots of pilot projects and one unit in Australia looks promising but before we can even start the planning process a design needs to be completed. Absent even a design for a unit it is unclear how we are going to meet our goal of 804 a year starting yesterday.
As for that footprint of 14 km2 we know that environmentalists go out of their way to encourage large industrial users to cover huge swathes of their marine foreshore with industrial power plants, so that won’t be a problem either.
As for the cost, absent a design it is hard to tell. Dr. Jacobson estimates that the wave devices will cost $130 billion (all figures US dollars) plus approximately $8 billion for the tidal units. So about $140 billion dollars to meet 2.2% of our energy needs….this stuff isn’t cheap you know.
In order to achieve our 2050 goal we also need to install over 60,000 – 5 megawatt wind turbines between today and 2050. That means 1764 a year or 5 units a day between now and Jan 1, 2050. To put the scale of this challenge into perspective: as of September 2015 British Columbia had 5 onshore wind installations with a total of 217 wind turbines and an installed capacity of 489 MW. Nationally we are 5% complete in our goal for 2050.
As one of the two coasts British Columbia would be responsible for close to half of the 21,555 offshore units needed to achieve our 100% WWS goal. As of September 2015 we had zero offshore wind facilities. Getting from zero to 10,000 in 34 years, in our regulatory environment, shouldn’t be much of a problem, heck according to BC Hydro they have up to 300 potential wind energy sites being investigated for project development. Of that group offshore represents 43 project with an installed capacity of 14,688 MW. This represents 4 percent of the 368,000 MW of nameplate capacity called for in 100% WWS by 2050.
From a cost perspective wind, while not ultra-expensive, is not cheap either. Using Dr. Jacobson’s numbers the onshore wind component will cost $273 billion dollars while the offshore wind component will cost $380 billion dollars….these numbers keep adding up don’t they?
Now the solar side is much more advanced and given the money and the will it should be possible to achieve Dr. Jacobson’s goals. You notice I said “given the money”. By Dr. Jacobson’s calculations it will only cost $527 billion US dollars before 2050.
Looking at the total math for this project Dr. Jacobson calculated that it would cost approximately $1.340 trillion (2013 US dollars) to build the new installations necessary to meet our 2050 goal. Correcting for inflation that comes out to $ 1.4 trillion U.S. dollars. Using today’s currency conversion that comes out to $1.8 trillion Canadian dollars which needs to be spent by 2050.
Now assuming we spread the costs evenly between 2016 and 2050 (34 years) that comes out to the low-low-price of $53 billion per year to build that infrastructure. Remember we haven’t considered the infrastructure necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…) or the costs to do the environmental assessments on all those projects, we are simply talking about the capital costs of the actual units themselves. Talking about environmental assessments, given Canada’s history of welcoming large industrial power facilities, I am quite certain there will be no delays in initiating the construction of all these facilities…just look at how smoothly Site C has been progressing in BC. There have been no added legal costs or anything like that have there?
Now that I have covered the power sources, I will address what I view as the biggest Achilles heel in the 100% WWS goal for Canada: power transmission. As I noted when talking about the high-speed national rail line, the Manifesto writers appear to be an urban lot and seem to have forgotten that Canada is what they call a big country. Consider that to achieve 100% clean energy in 2050 virtually every community in Canada will need to be connected to a national grid since cities like Yellowknife will need to import a lot of power in order to continue to exist. Under 100% WWS the citizens of Inuvik won’t be allowed to use diesel generators during the 6 month winter, when the ice has blocked up the coast and the wind can disappear for days at a time. They will thus have to import electricity from down south. Now I admit to having picked a couple extreme cases to make my point, but recognize that Canada’s vast and challenging geography has limited our ability to create a nationally integrated power grid. Even the most optimistic view has a new grid costing $25 billion and taking a couple decades to build. A more realistic appraisal puts the cost of a national backbone of 735 kV transmission lines at around $104 billion and taking 20 years to complete.
Once the national backbone has been built can we then start work on all the feeder lines that will have to go to every city, town and hamlet. Building transmission lines in Canada can be intensely expensive. Consider that the Northwest Transmission Line project in BC is looking to cost over $2 million a kilometer to build. Yet in order to work the 100% WWS proposal requires that these lines be built. As for the costs? If your single main line is $104 billion and we will need 10’s of thousands of kms of feeder lines then even taking into account the existing infrastructure we are talking in the low trillions to connect all our communities.
As I have said more times that I would care to admit in this blog: I am a pragmatist. As a pragmatist I tend to live by the credo “moderation in all things”. The 100% WWS model pushed in the Manifesto fails because it does not believe in moderation. It places tight, and poorly supported, restrictions on a number of important baseline clean energy technologies and in doing so results in a proposal that is ruinously expensive. Looking at the numbers above, the costs would be prohibitive for Canada consuming over $100 billion a year just for this one Demand and we haven’t yet included the high-speed railway. At the Manifesto web page they have an analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) that suggests some ideas for how can pay for the Manifesto’s demands. That document uncovers almost $50 billion/year to help pay for the demands. The problem is, as I show above, just the basic installations for 100% renewable by 2050 already devours that entire total and then some. Add in the power grid and the high-speed rail and you have more than doubled the total. The CCPA suggests that we should simply borrow to pay for this infrastructure. Can you imagine the legacy of debt we would place on our children, our grand-children and our great-grandchildren if we suggested borrowing $100 billion+ a year for the foreseeable future to fund this infrastructure? Admittedly we live in an era of low interest rates but they will not last forever. Adding several trillion dollars to our national debt is simply a non-starter.
To conclude, the truth is that while the 100% WWS by 2050 plan is clearly not possible that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to achieve its underlying goal of low or no carbon energy with a strong renewable component. I believe strongly in renewable energy, but as I have written before I believe in regionally-appropriate renewables. The problem with the proposal pushed in the Manifesto is that it is hobbled by some of the personal views of its creators. It omits some pretty obvious energy solutions like further large-reservoir hydro in Quebec, Labrador, Ontario and BC, run-of-the-river hydro across Canada and, of course, further nuclear power. A country like Canada that is blessed with an abundance of hydropower opportunities should not ignore those opportunities because the urban writers of the Manifesto rely on one engineer from California who doesn’t particularly like that technology. Put simply we cannot ignore the potential of nuclear and hydro energy in a post-fossil fuel energy mix. To summarize what I have written above: when an apparently innumerate representative from the Leap Manifesto assures you that 100% WWS is possible by 2050 the correct response is: “only in your dreams…only in your dreams”.

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