When we last met Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, he was explaining why you shouldn’t buy a diesel car if you care about global warming.

His new myth-busting study finds the following “Total CO2-eq of Electricity Sources”:


(CSP is concentrated solar power, but I prefer solar baseload to that ambiguous acronym. CCS is carbon capture and storage, called “clean coal” by some, “clap trap” by others.)

The study, “Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security,” by the co-founder and director of Stanford’s Atmospheric Energy Program warrants a two-part examination. I will focus on electricity in part 1, but it is worth noting now that in his alt fuels analysis, cellulosic ethanol comes in last.

His basic conclusions will come as no surprise to readers (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“). But as Stanford’s summary of this important paper notes:

Jacobson has conducted the first quantitative, scientific evaluation of the proposed, major, energy-related solutions by assessing not only their potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability.

One interesting feature of this paper is that he does not merely calculate the lifecycle CO2-equivalent emissions from various energy sources, but also estimates the “opportunity cost CO2 emissions.”

Because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g., wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, etc.) exist to power the world for the foreseeable future, the results suggest that the diversion to less-efficient (nuclear, coal with carbon capture) or non-efficient (corn- and cellulosic E85) options represents an opportunity cost that will delay solutions to global warming and air pollution mortality.

Opportunity-cost emissions include “CO2 emissions of each technology due to planning and construction delays relative to those from the technology with the least delays” (sorry nuclear):


Some may not agree with these assumptions, but Jacobson’s paper was peer-reviewed, and he certainly cannot be faulted for including the important factor of opportunity cost. We have delayed acting for so long now we simply cannot afford to waste any more time misallocating resources given the speed and scale of the low carbon technology deployment needed to avert catastrophic climate impacts.

Had I been a reviewer, however, I would have faulted him for failing to discuss the relative cost and impacts of

  1. Energy efficiency (including recycled energy)
  2. Biomass power generation

One can perhaps excuse the omission of a demand-side analysis in a supply-side paper — although I would have urged that he revise the opening line “This paper reviews and ranks reviews and ranks major proposed energy-related solutions to global warming, air pollution mortality, and energy security … ” Efficiency is the major solution to all those problems.

But I consider biomass power, particularly co-firing in coal plants, to be so important that I intend to start a multipart series on that crucial near-term and medium-term climate solution very soon. Jacobson is comprehensive to a fault — literally. He opens himself up to attack for bothering to factor in “the emissions from the burning of cities resulting from nuclear weapons explosions potentially resulting from nuclear energy expansion” — especially since as his Table 3 shows, its impact on the life cycle emissions of nuclear power are negligible. He should have omitted that discussion.

The study also incorporates estimates of “leakage from geological formations of CO2 sequestered by coal-CCS” (carbon capture and storage). That is certainly more justifiable, but again, in his formulation, the leakage rates are so low, the impact is also negligible.

Jacobson makes one key point that deserves repeating over and over again. The renewable resources available to power of the planet are staggering:


That figure tells us all we need to know — the future is inevitably wind, solar, and geothermal.

All of the figures in this post (and many others) can be found here [PDF].

Finally, Jacobson, like most independent energy analysts, finds little to love in “clean coal”:

Coal with carbon sequestration emits 60- to 110-times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy, and nuclear emits about 25-times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy,” Jacobson said. Although carbon-capture equipment reduces 85-90 percent of the carbon exhaust from a coal-fired power plant, it has no impact on the carbon resulting from the mining or transport of the coal or on the exhaust of other air pollutants. In fact, because carbon capture requires a roughly 25-percent increase in energy from the coal plant, about 25 percent more coal is needed, increasing mountaintop removal and increasing non-carbon air pollution from power plants, he said.

Kudos to Jacobson for one of the most thorough and quantitative cross-cutting analyses ever done of electricity supply options. Part II will look at the surprising conclusions of his alternative fuels analysis.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.