Often, when the idea of total conversion to clean energy for the US is proposed, the chorus in return is: that's just not possible. Well, before something can be conceived of as possible, someone has to come up with a plan. And it just so happens that Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and a number of colleagues, including Mark Delucchi, a U.C. Berkeley researcher have done just that. They have surveyed America, state by state, and come up with a strategy for each state to convert to 100% clean energy. What they found is that, not only is this conversion possible, it would create jobs, stabilize energy prices, save every American money, and each year save roughly 63,000 American lives.
This is not pie in the sky stuff. Though Jacobson's plans for each state do call for significant changes to both infrastructure and the ways Americans currently consume energy, they show that the conversion to clean energy is both technically and economically quite possible using the wide-scale implementation of existing technologies.
"The main barriers are social, political and getting industries to change," says Jacobson. "One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible. By showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation." And Jacobson would know. In addition to being a Stanford professor, he is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Precourt Institute for Energy. His study is published in the online edition of Energy and Environmental Sciences. You can see the plan at www.thesolutionsproject.org.
How did they do it? Jacobson and his colleagues started by analyzing each state's current energy demands, as well as projecting how those demands will change under what the study refers to as "business-as-usual conditions" by the year 2050. They broke down this energy usage into four sectors: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation. Then they analyzed each sector in terms of the current amount and source of the energy consumed: coal, oil, gas, nuclear, renewables. After that they calculated the fuel demands if all fuel usage were replaced with electricity. This includes all cars on the road becoming electric, and all homes and industry converting to fully electric heating and cooling systems. Surprisingly, Jacobson and his team found that this step alone would create significant energy savings.
"When we did this across all 50 states," Jacobson says, "we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050. About 6 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 for the team was figuring out how to power the new electric grid using only renewable energies: wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal and wave available to each state. Key factors in this were an analysis of each state's sun exposure, and how many south-facing, non-shaded rooftops could accommodate solar panels. Also key was an analysis of each state's current and potential use of wind power including offshore wind turbines. The team found that geothermal energy was available at a reasonable cost for only 13 states. Jacobson's plan calls for almost no new hydroelectric dams, but it does include the potential for gains in energy production by improving the efficiency of dams that are already there.
Jacobson's study shows how, step by step, each state could achieve an 80 percent conversion to clean energy by 2030, and a full conversion by 2050. It also shows how several states are already well on their way. Washington state, for example already gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric sources.Iowa and South Dakota currently generate nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind power. California has already adopted some of Jacobson's group's suggestions and has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.
Though the upfront cost of conversion would be significant, wind and sunlight are free and there is no need for fuel. So, in the long run the cost would be roughly equal to the price of the fossil fuel infrastructure, maintenance and production. Also the transition would also eliminate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions produced from fossil fuel, which, if produced, will cost the world $3.3 trillion a year by 2050.
"When you account for the health and climate costs," says Jacobson, "as well as the rising price of fossil fuels, wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems. 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."