In 2009, long before renewables plummeted to grid parity in some regions of the US, Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, who skews to the skeptical and highly rational, published a disruptive blueprint to combat climate change, eliminate pollution mortality, create jobs, and lower energy prices by converting the entire energy infrastructure to renewable energy. No more coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear. Gone.
In other words, he wanted to utterly transform the energy system as we know it.
No idealist, he was a scientist who had analyzed terabytes of data and saw a remote chance of avoiding serious climate change. But realistically, he wanted to start a serious science- and technology-based debate about the future.
The results were immediate. Intellectual slugfests broke out among scientific, environmental and government energy planners. It's also easy to imagine OPEC issuing its first non-binding fatwa to break his Phi Beta Kappa key.
Many scientists were critical because the plan seemed stymied from the get-go by entrenched political interests. Even former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who warned Congress a quarter of a century ago about climate change, was critical, saying that nuclear energy would be absolutely necessary. But Jacobson wasn't phased by the controversy, saying at the time:
The job of a scientist is to make sure that information is provided clearly and appropriately, so people can make a better decision.
Afterwards, once the brouhaha died down, Jacobson realized that the blueprint was too big and overwhelmed anyone who wanted to act on it. So he regrouped and set out to give it more practicality. His new and improved study has been published in the online edition of Energy and Environmental Sciences.
Now, instead of inciting violence, the plan has evolved into a detailed guide that outlines how each state can make the dramatic and wrenching transition to renewables. The study is also a clear expression of Jacobson's philosophy as a scientist.
My career has been based on trying to understand large-scale pollution and climate problems—with the goal of trying to solve them. This is the “trying to solve them” part.
Keeping his eye on practicality, there's now an interactive map at www.thesolutionsproject.org, giving visitors a glimpse of Jacobson's big picture.
What the country does with the information is still a question mark, because what finally happens will depend on societal and "political fortitude." Jacobson thinks that the US has to go big. The defining moment for the early 21st century will require a unity and sacrifice that put a man on the moon, fought World War II, and built the nuclear bomb.
A multi-year effort
Making the original plan more practical required a multi-year reboot. Jacobson and his colleagues had to take a close look at the energy demands of each state, examining four sectors: residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation.
For each sector, they analyzed the current amount and fuel used — coal, oil, gas, nuclear, renewables — and then recalculated the demand if it was replaced with electricity. The plan assumes that all the cars on the road become electric, and that homes and industry convert to fully electrified heating and cooling systems. (This hurdle falls under "the devil is in the details.") But Jacobson said that all of the calculations were based on the parameters of existing technology.
"When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050," Jacobson said in the Stanford press release. "About 6 percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current combustion energy with electricity."
Next he figured out the most efficient way to integrate power into the new grid, using only the renewable energies — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tiny amounts of tidal and wave — whatever was available to each state.
Finally, he analyzed each state's sun exposure, and how many south-facing, non-shaded rooftops could accommodate solar panels. He even developed and consulted wind maps to determine 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 find energy gains from improving existing dams.
I don't advocate
Jacobson said that several states are already well on their way to his goal. Washington, for example, could switch to renewables quickly because more than 70 percent of its current electricity comes from hydroelectric dams. Wind and solar could fill most of the remainder.
Iowa and South Dakota already generate nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind. California has already adopted some of his group's suggestions and has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.
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.
Jacobson anticipates an even bigger policy fight in the future, but he always reconfirms his role as a scientist. "I don't advocate," he says, "but there's a group of people that I’m doing science work for that is policy oriented." The Solutions Project involves scientists, business and finance people, artists and entertainers, who take clean energy plans and try to make them a reality.
What do you think of the plan?