Stanford Engineers Offer Plan to Convert U.S. to 100% Clean, Renewable Energy by 2050

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One potential way to combat ongoing climate change, eliminate air-pollution mortality, create jobs, and stabilize energy prices involves converting the world’s entire energy infrastructure to run on clean, renewable energy.

This is a daunting challenge. But now, in a new study, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and colleagues, including UC Berkeley researcher Mark Delucchi, are the first to outline how each of the 50 states can achieve such a transition by 2050. The 50-individual-state plans call for aggressive changes to both infrastructure and the ways we currently consume energy, but indicate that the conversion is technically and economically possible through the widescale implementation of existing technologies.

“The main barriers are social, political, and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible,” Jacobson said. “By showing that it’s technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large-scale transformation.”

The study is published in the online edition of Energy and Environmental Sciences. An interactive map summarizing the plans for each state is available at www.thesolutionsproject.org.

 

The Methodology

Jacobson and his colleagues started by taking a close look at the current energy demands of each state, and how those demands would change under business-as-usual conditions by the year 2050. To create a full picture of energy use in each state, they examined energy usage in four sectors: residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation.

For each sector, they then analyzed the current amount and source of the fuel consumed— coal, oil, gas, nuclear, renewables—and calculated the fuel demands if all fuel usage were replaced with electricity. This is a significantly challenging step—it assumes that all the cars on the road become electric, and that homes and industry convert to fully electrified heating and cooling systems. But Jacobson said that their calculations were based on integrating existing technology, and the energy savings would be significant.

“When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39% reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050,” Jacobson said.  “About six percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity.”

The next step involved figuring out how to power the new electric grid. The researchers focused on meeting each state’s new power demands using only the renewable energies—wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tiny amounts of tidal and wave—available to each state.

They analyzed each state’s sun exposure, and how many south-facing, non-shaded rooftops could accommodate solar panels. They developed and consulted wind maps and determined whether local offshore wind turbines were an option. Geothermal energy was available at a reasonable cost for only 13 states. The plan calls for virtually no new hydroelectric dams, but does account for energy gains from improving the efficiency of existing dams.

 

The Results

The report lays out individual roadmaps for each state to achieve an 80% transition by 2030, and a full conversion by 2050. Jacobson said that several states are already on their way. Washington, for instance, could make the switch to full renewables relatively quickly, thanks to the fact that more than 70% of its current electricity comes from existing hydroelectric sources. That translates to about 35% of the state’s all-purpose power if Washington were 100% electrified; wind and solar could fill most of the remainder.

Iowa and South Dakota are also well-positioned, as they already generate nearly 30% of their electricity from wind power. California, which was the focus of Jacobson’s second single-state roadmap to renewables after New York, has already adopted some of his group’s suggestions and has a plan to be 60% electrified by renewables by 2030.

The plan calls for no more than 0.5% of any state’s land to be covered in solar panels or wind turbines. The upfront cost of the changes would be significant, but wind and sunlight are free. So the overall cost spread over time would be roughly equal to the price of the fossil fuel infrastructure, maintenance and production.

“When you account for the health and climate costs—as well as the rising price of fossil fuels—wind, water, and solar are half the cost of conventional systems,” Jacobson said. “A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilize fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems, and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science.”

Jacobson said that if the conversion is followed exactly as his plan outlines, the reduction of air pollution in the U.S. could prevent the deaths of approximately 63,000 Americans who die from air pollution-related causes each year. It would also eliminate U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases produced from fossil fuel, which would otherwise cost the world $3.3 trillion a year by 2050.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Jun 15, 2015

Plant Food does not cause climate change.

And I fail to see how burning natural gas at even 80% efficiency is worse than making electricity at 10% efficiency and sending it over the grid. And what happens in winter when there is no wind and no sun? Is freezing to death a bug or a feature?

Is this one of those "batteries not included" plans?

on Jun 21, 2015

Agreed, solar power technology today is much less efficient than natural gas technology. That's one reason it is suggested to phase it in - they're not advocating shutting down natural gas power sources overnight. Hopefully in the future solar will gain better efficiency. Will it meet or exceed 80%? Don't know.

There are sunny days in the winter in many locations. But when there is no sun we have to utilize storage or another type of power generator. Nobody is saying turn off all non-solar power generators, and live without power if the sun isn't shining. Batteries are just one method of storage.

on Jun 17, 2015

I see so many things wrong with this, I won't even try to challenge the good professor. I've worked with every type of fossil power plant over the past 35 years. and cannot imagine transitioning to solar/wind/etc to replace the xxxx gigawatt installations by 2030 or even 2050. what is he smoking? The holy grail is storage and it won't be batteries unless someone comes up with a scalable flow battery which can compete. Pumped storage is the current most viable option but is geographically limited to too few sites.

on Jun 17, 2015

"Climate Change" is a form of Capital cronyism. Money from taxpayers goes to renewable energy companies like Solyndra and the disappears before you know it and nobody pays it back. Hydroelectric is the closest to real renewable energy as long as it's not in California. The claims for all these schemes depend on Taxpayer subsidies, which are never paid back. Also because most of the renewable's are intermittent, they can't exceed 20% of the nuclear or carbon baseline without the possibility of instability and power outages. The Professor should get out into the real world and get a real job and get his hands dirty.

on Jun 21, 2015

""Climate Change" is a form of Capital cronyism."? Certainly there isn't any cronyism in status quo energy industries?

Yes some money has been lost in companies like Solyndra, but the government also subsidizes oil companies with no payback (at least, none over the table...).

Yes solar and wind sources are intermittent, but that is why storage is being developed.

Methinks you should also get into the real world and get your hands dirty, or at least research topics more thoroughly before regurgitating biased stories.

on Jun 19, 2015

Modular Nuclear power, perhaps using Thorium, will begin to roll out in 2025 or we are stuck with Coal et al.

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