Renewable energy, including from wind, is at the heart of a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

A scientific dispute about the future of alternative energy has ended up in a US court. Mark Jacobson, an environmental and civil engineer at Stanford University in California, has filed a libel lawsuit against the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and a researcher who published a study in the academy’s journal that criticized Jacobson’s work.

Jacobson, who filed suit in a superior court in Washington DC in late September, is seeking damages of US$10 million. He also wants the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to retract a 2017 article, whose lead author was mathematician Christopher Clack. The NAS and Clack have until late November to respond, according to court documents. Some experts are worried that the lawsuit could dampen scientific progress on renewable energies. But others defend the move, saying researchers should be able to take advantage of all civil avenues in defence of their work.

Jacobson was the lead author of a high-profile PNAS paper1 published in December 2015 making the case that the continental United States could meet nearly 100% of its energy needs using wind, water and solar sources as early as 2050. A rebuttal2 written by Clack — then at the University of Colorado Boulder — and 20 co-authors, published in PNAS in June 2017, questioned Jacobson's methodology and challenged his conclusions. The authors argued, among other things, that Jacobson’s paper overestimated the maximum outputs from hydroelectric facilities and the nation’s capacity to store energy produced by renewable sources.

In the lawsuit, Jacobson says that he alerted PNAS to 30 falsehoods and five “materially misleading statements” in Clack’s paper before its publication. The complaint states that almost all of those inaccuracies remained in the published version. Jacobson also argues that “the decision by NAS to publish the Clack Paper in PNAS has had grave ramifications” for his reputation and career.

In a letter3 accompanying Clack’s paper in PNAS, Jacobson and three co-authors wrote that Clack’s criticisms are “demonstrably false”. They maintained that their projections regarding hydroelectric power were based on an assumed increase in the number of turbines and were not a “modeling mistake”.

Conflict resolution

Some observers are disappointed to see the conflict play out in court. The diversity of engineering models that form the basis of long-term energy projections should be celebrated, not litigated, says chemical engineer Daniel Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Bringing this dispute into the court of law, regardless of outcome, is a step towards devaluing the debate of underlying engineering assumptions,” he says.

This dispute is likely to be most harmful to the scientific community, which has already been subject to lawsuits from groups sceptical of climate change,” says David Adelman, who studies environmental law at the University of Texas in Austin.

Suing a journal over a scientific disagreement is a rare move, says Adil Shamoo, a biochemist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and editor-in-chief of the journal Accountability in Research, which is published by Taylor & Francis. But Shamoo thinks that scientists should be able to sue if they feel that a paper is “reckless” or “malicious”. “I’m a great believer in using all of the avenues of a civil society,” he says.

Shamoo does think that Clack’s paper was “unduly harsh and personal”. He says that “it was not written as if it was part of a scientific dialogue”.

Clack declined to respond to Shamoo’s characterization of his paper, but says that he is disappointed that Jacobson filed the lawsuit. Clack — now chief executive of Vibrant Clean Energy LLC in Boulder — says that his rebuttal paper “underwent very vigorous peer review”, and that the PNAS editors had considered Jacobson’s criticisms but found them to be “without merit”.

Jacobson says that he “cannot comment” on the lawsuit. And a spokesperson for the NAS says that “we do not comment on pending litigation”.