Science, Energy, and Law

This is why science can’t have nice things…

Science, Energy, and Law

From the WaPo (remember, if the link takes you to a paywall, load it in an incognito window).  I will borrow my friend Rob’s summary on this:

There is currently an important debate going on. The question is:

Can we transition human civilization to 100% renewable energy (wind, hydro, solar) using only proven technology?

It is a complicated question whose answer has tremendous implications. There is $150 trillion dollars in future investment, and $120 trillion dollars of stranded fossil fuel assets at stake. By the way, getting the answer wrong will determine what percentage of the planet is still habitable in 100 years.

A Stanford Professor, Mark Jacobson, tried to answer that question using an elaborate simulation model. To get his model to run he made alot of assumptions. Many of those assumptions have been questioned. However, the result of the study was essentially, Yes. “No natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed,” Jacobson and his colleagues wrote in 2015. Definitely no more investment in new technologies is needed. It is a popular answer because it implies that all we need is political will, and we can save the planet.

Lots of experts in energy think that this answer is totally wrong, and that many of Jacobson’s assumptions were complete fantasy. They published a paper in PNAS and… Jacobson sued them?!?

I haven’t read either paper, but everyone here knows how I feel about computational models and the assumptions that go into them, so I’m inclined to agree with Clark, et. al. that Jacobson was probably being overly optimistic in his assumptions.  That is a criticism I often make towards climate models (although my criticism there is that the assumptions are overly pessimistic).  It is a perfectly valid scientific criticism.  I really can’t stress enough how counterproductive it is to build and run a model with any kind of narrative in your head regarding the output of the model, because that will affect how you set your weights and what assumptions are made.  Of course, not having a desired outcome in your head is next to impossible, which is why your publish everything and let others play with it, etc.

As for the lawsuit, I seriously hope the courts just dismiss this out of hand.



A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget. ...more →

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11 thoughts on “Science, Energy, and Law

  1. JFC.

    This is terrible.

    I do wonder to what degree journals/societies (NOT individual authors) have opened themselves up to this by letting themselves and their outputs be captured by huge multi-billion dollar for-profit corps.

    But the way this suit is being done tells me this isn’t the right test case for that question (which I would honestly hate to see tested in this manner anyway, as I expect it would do far more harm than good).

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    • You’ve seen ExxonSecrets?
      Everyone gets paid by someone to do their research.
      If you’re especially lucky (or choose what you research with a jaundiced eye), you may even know who’s paying you.
      (You think the CIA tells someone they’re getting paid by spooks? Nahhh….).

      Oh, and it strikes me as completely hilarious when you ask questions like that — considering that the incorporated entity that I work for (theoretically nonprofit) is a multibillion dollar enterprise (judging by gross).

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      • Yes, I know all of that. And quite a bit more about the history of scholarly journals and societies, both generally and in STEM. Which had some choices they *could* have made one way or the other, and didn’t make the right ones. (There are other scholarly journals and societies who have made and/or are currently making *different* choices, physics is a good example of a field where some good choices were made, chemistry where mostly dumb ones were. Of course these choices were inflected by who was sponsoring the research, but that’s not the only factor.)

        I actually agree with you to a degree on this topic, in that if it wasn’t about something that a lot of big interests have a lot of money invested in, it’s highly unlikely the suit would even have been pressed. So perhaps in this case “let themselves be captured” is an overstatement.

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        • Maribou,
          I think the most important thing to come to terms with, is that the military and the megacorps don’t actually adhere to any sort of ethics as we understand them.

          There’s a reason Phineus Gage came up in pop culture recently…
          What do you think the non-Ivory Tower people did with that case?
          They made more cases. More specimens to study.

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  2. “As for the lawsuit, I seriously hope the courts just dismiss this out of hand.”

    Quoted for MF’ing truth.

    I feel bad some days that my research into junk like soil invertebrates and the effects of red cedar on prairie plants is so meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but at least I’m unlikely to have someone suing me because my results disagree with theirs.

    this is not how science is supposed to work. this is not how it’s supposed to work at all. If I find some finding, and a later dude finds my finding was all wrong, because xyz, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider what he’s saying. Now, maybe xyz only applies in oak forests, and I did my research in maple forests, but I’m free to do more research and maybe even try to collaborate with him to see if that’s maybe the case, because finding xyz is true of oak forests and abc is true of maple forests is actually more interesting than either “xyz is true everywhere” or “abc is true everywhere”

    I suspect it’s like fraud in science: the higher the stakes, the more likely people are to be totally stupid about things.

    As if the ‘science, it works, bitches’ non-scientist contingent wasn’t enough to get me to want to talk less about my chosen field. (I swear, I’m this close to rebranding myself a “natural historian” instead of a “scientist.” Natural historians get to have more fun, anyway.)

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  3. …so I’m inclined to agree with Clark, et. al. that Jacobson was probably being overly optimistic in his assumptions.

    This is the kind of question some folks at the various US national labs ask about the US power grid(s) regularly. The answers they get are roughly: for the Western Interconnect, almost certainly but the build out is expensive (and pumped hydro storage is helpful); for the Eastern Interconnect, probably not; for the Texas Interconnect, maybe. These seem to be pretty consistent across a variety of assumptions.

    The Western Interconnect conditions that make it feasible also seem to be consistent: (1) diverse renewable resources (all of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal); (2) geographic diversity of those resources; (3) rich resource set relative to the population; and (4) population concentrated in a small number of urbanized areas.

    Rough sanity check: the Western Interconnect already gets approx 40% of its electricity from renewable resources in wet years. That was done mostly on the basis of what was economic to develop (conventional hydro being cheap, and in places wind power is now cheaper than new natural gas generation).

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