Feeling gloomy about climate change? Mark Jacobson’s work might cheer you up.
The Stanford professor, who’s appeared on the David Letterman Show, leads a research team that’s figuring out what every country on Planet Earth—and every state in the Union—must do reach 100-percent clean, renewable energy by 2050. That’s a major key to slowing climate change.
Happily, Professor Jacobson’s study, dubbed “The Solutions Project,” says that America and much of the rest of the world can do it, and create millions of new jobs, without breaking grids, killing off utilities, or hurting wallets,.
Jacobson’s results list what percentage of electricity could come from turbines, solar panels, dams, and a few other clean sources to produce enough power for each state or country. America’s number is a whopper: Right now we use 3,800 terawatt-hours (a terawatt is one billion watts) of electricity annually to keep the lights—and everything else—on.
The professor’s team also looked at a wide variety of ways—all using current technologies—to cut big numbers like that down, as well as store and distribute energy in order to make 100 percent of our electricity generation non-polluting.
But what about the rest of the world’s greenhouse gas emitters—the millions of vehicles, furnaces, and factories burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow?
Jacobson’s solution is straightforward: make everything electric. Electricity moves vehicles far more efficiently than internal combustion engines, which convert most of their fuel into heat, not motion. And warming buildings with heat pumps (which these days function well in subzero temperatures) or geothermal sources avoids burning anything at all.
Universal electrification also offers a big political bonus: It would soothe utility investors’ worries about going out of business. It’s just not a problem under Jacobson’s scenario because retail electricity markets would grow spectacularly.
Professor Jacobson—who made the cover of Scientific American in 2009—spoke with Groundwork by phone after he released an updated clean energy plan for Michigan. It calls for using efficiency to cut the state’s current demand for 104 terawatt-hours of electricity each year, as well as providing power for transportation, heating, and industry with a blend of different kinds of generation—40 percent onshore wind, 31 percent off shore wind, and 26 percent solar, plus smidgens of wave, geothermal, and hydro power.
Groundwork: What gave you the idea to produce The Solutions Project?
Jacobson: We did the first one in 2009. So it’s just evolved over the years. We were looking at the impacts of different energy sources, and our 2009 paper looked at potential solutions, the impacts of different technologies on water, climate, and health. UC Berkley worked with us to develop a worldwide plan. Subsequently we developed a more detailed world plan, then a US plan, than a state plan for California and Washington…
So now we are in the middle of producing 139 country plans.
Groundwork: Has much changed since your first effort, in 2009?
Jacobson: The technology has largely been the same, but their costs have come down. There’s been some improvement in technology, but with the same ideas. This new study is not based on any breakthroughs.
Groundwork: Were you startled by your conclusion, or did you set out to find the facts that can prove you right?
Jacobson: We had to find out what the numbers actually were. It depends, in each country, on what their land area, health impacts, and resource availability were. It wasn’t certain that we’d have enough resources in each country at some points. And it’s not like there is one answer. Our goal was to find at least one answer, one mix. Wasn’t assumed where we’d find that, but we did. We did find three countries that would have a hard time getting the energy, like Gibraltar or Singapore. Maybe they’ll have floating solar panels offshore. Aside from those, every country and state has enough resources to power themselves renewably.
Groundwork: Tell us why shifting to all electricity, all by itself, saves so much energy.
Jacobson: If you electrify everything with renewable sources, you eliminate the need to mine, refine, and transport fossil fuels, which are energy intensive themselves. So that is eliminated, compared to letting the wind come to your turbine.
So you reduce your energy demand that way. But the larger thing is that, with electricity more of its energy is used to do the actual work.
Like with a car: With electricity it takes one-fourth to one-fifth the actual energy to drive because, in a regular auto, 83 percent of the energy from the gas is wasted as heat. But only 14 percent is wasted that way with electricity.
There’s not quite as much benefit in heating a building, but a heat pump is slightly more efficient than the energy used for gas or propane. That main benefit is with transportation. So there’s less benefit in heating a home; if you burn gas for heat, you use most of that heat.
Groundwork: You’ve talked about storing heat for a building during the summer, then releasing it gradually over the winter. What other energy-saving or demand-reducing tactics do you propose, and do they pay for themselves quickly, as is typical of many efficiency projects?
Jacobson: The types of heat storage we consider are water, ice, and rocks. The all reduce electricity demand. You use power to make ice, and then use that later for cooling. There’s also pumped hydro storage; concentrated solar with heat storage; and hydrogen. These are all much less expensive than batteries.
Groundwork: Is your conclusion factually controversial when it comes to the technology, or does most of the pushback revolve around the politics of making it happen?
Jacobson: The biggest reaction has been, “That’s all well and good, but it won’t ever happen because there are too many vested interested.”
We think it is technically and economically possible, but there are political and economic barriers we must overcome. So I’m an optimist.
But others say we can’t do it. Depends on whether you want to be an optimist or a pessimist.
Then there are arguments like, ‘With wind or solar, you can’t keep the grid stable.’ But we studied that and see that we can.
Groundwork: Do you think most of the investment to make this happen must come from government, or from the private sector? You say this would cost a lot of money to do, but would not affect rates very much. Explain how that is possible.
Jacobson: Most would come from the private sector, but government can be helpful with incentives. Incentives are a marginal portion; they would be very helpful for speeding up the transition. But the government isn’t going to buy wind turbines.
That funding for incentives is justified, in that the fossil fuel industry is freeloading by producing all these bad health effects that they don’t have to pay for. Really, what government would be doing is reducing costs to people. So money invested comes back several-fold by reducing other costs.
We did an analysis of converting the U.S.—the generation, storage, and transmission costs. We find because there are no fuel costs, you stabilize the price of energy. Meanwhile, installation costs have come way down, making wind and solar cheaper. When you add additional energy storage and transmission costs, you get costs comparable to what we have now. We find that direct costs—building and operating—are comparable with how we operate now, until 2050. But the direct cost is only 40 percent of the generation; the other 60 percent is health and climate costs.
So you really are reducing the cost of energy by going to wind, water, and solar because you reduce the current health and climate change costs.
Groundwork: It’s surprising that you depend so heavily on onshore wind for Michigan, given the immense productivity in the Great Lakes. Is that about cost?
Jacobson: Cost is important; so is opposition. That goes back to not having just one solution. So we picked one that works, but it’s not the only one. Likely, percentages would be dictated by costs. Onshore wind is much cheaper right now—3-4 cents. Offshore is 10-15 cents. So there are practical considerations.
Groundwork: It’s also surprising that you suggest using concentrating solar power in Michigan.
Jacobson: You do need intense sun for that, so it’s limited to the southern part of state. There are enough clear-sky days to make it effective. It’s not ideal; we don’t have CSP in New York, for example. Michigan just has better sunlight, and a certain potion gets enough for CSP. We believe if it meets criteria, we should include it.
Groundwork: The utilities claim that rooftop solar on homes and small businesses is too expensive and that solar farms or plants get way more bang for the buck. But you include that technology. Why?
Jacobson: Utility scale solar is less expensive, of course, and utilities would like to control all generation. But there are benefits to rooftop. The big one that they ignore is that you reduce demand for electricity for daytime air conditioning by a lot. That’s because the panels reduce the heat load on the buildings by blocking the sun from heating the roof, which reduces the need for the AC.
That’s a saving for other consumers, too, by helping alleviate demand problems that make the grid unstable. So that stabilization has a cost and a benefit. In fact, you get the worst outages when there’s peak electricity demand from everyone turning on their AC. This eliminates potential for outages, which has a high value that the utilities don’t even consider.
You also need fewer transmission lines from solar farms to customers, and eliminate health and climate costs. Those are valuable, as well.
So, while from a strictly economic point of view, utility scale is more efficient, distributed (rooftop) energy does help in a lot of places, especially where there is no access. You really are trading off long distance transmission with local use, and also eliminating the need for changes in land use. Big solar farms take up lots of land, but rooftop uses zero land.
So, rooftop solar panels mean zero land use, cooler buildings, and less transmission requirements.
Groundwork: What is your response to people who dismiss the technology, economics, or politics of this?
Jacobson: If they are dismissive, they are way out of touch with reality. It’s hard to reach people like that and I tend to ignore them.
Groundwork: What’s it been like for you to release this report? Are you seeing much reaction, positive or negative? And from whom?
Jacobson: It’s been 90 percent positive. But there are negative responses like we discussed earlier: This is good, but will never happen. Or they worry about grid instability.
But it certainly makes people think. It’s led to lots of people coming on board and rallying around the idea. There are now dozens of cities, dozens of companies going for 100 percent renewables. Two states—California and New York—adopted portions of these plans. Three Democratic presidential candidates adopted these goals; U.S. House Resolution 540 calls for getting to 100 percent. There’s some negative, but it’s tiny.
Groundwork: What do you want lay people to do with this information?
Jacobson: Make better decisions about what they do in their own homes, and vote for policymakers who are amenable to pushing for faster changes to renewable energy. It’s a combination of that and educating others, especially policymakers, about what is possible.