by Jesse Crabtree
In his new study posted in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Energy & Environmental Science, Stanford professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mark Jacobson, presents a plan for a 100% renewable energy-powered America by 2050. And what’s more, Jacobson believes this course of action to be not only economically feasible, but economically beneficial. Jacobson’s paper, which lays out specific roadmaps for how each state can work to achieve this goal, can be boiled down to three main ideas: exclusively build wind, solar, and hydro power plants after 2020; implement modest energy efficiency increases; and electrify everything. Although these three points are all required under Jacobson’s plan, this article discusses its most critical and ambitious goal; a complete shift to electric power.
Central to Jacobson’s report is the idea of electrifying everything. This includes fossil fuel-reliant sectors such as transportation, heating/cooling, and industrial production. Electric motors are known to run much more efficiently than internal combustion engines, which lose a great deal of energy to heat. Jacobson estimates that such a shift would result in a net power reduction of 849 gigawatts by 2050. This reduction makes up the lion’s share of Jacobson’s reductions, which call for a 39% decrease in power consumption based on projected 2050 levels. Health benefits associated with the reduced air pollution are estimated to reach $600 billion by 2050, with an additional $3.3 trillion saved from reduced global climate change. Health and climate change savings are notoriously difficult to estimate as they are based on uncertain assumptions, such as the value of a human life and temporal discount rates, but Jacobson used averages from widely the varied estimates.
Monetary estimations aside, the feasibility of this plan seems questionable. Jacobson calls for entirely new heating, drying, and cooking appliances by 2020; entirely electric or electrolytic hydrogen vessels, and electric rail and bus transportation by 2025; all-electric cars and trucks—including heavy-duty shipping trucks—by 2030; electric or electrolytic-hydrogen powered short-haul planes by 2030; and long-range electrolytic cryogenic hydrogen-powered planes by 2040. Most would claim such a shift to be wildly unrealistic, if not impossible. However, Jacobson argues that, given enough political will, no technical or economic barrier exists to prevent rapid production of these electric devices. He points to World War II, where the United states increased aircraft production from essentially zero to 330 thousand in five years. Obviously America would have to produce far more than a few hundred thousand units to meet Jacobson’s recommendations, but the implied argument appears to be that we have more time and far better production techniques than we did in the 1930s and 40s.
Jacobson’s 2050 plan appears to be less f a realistic goal and more a thought experiment, intended to show people the possibility of achieving unheard-of levels of sustainability in a relatively short timespan. Perhaps America does have the production capacity necessary to meet Jacobson’s goals, but as David Roberts of Vox.com asks, “what could create this political will, equal to what gripped the US in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack?” Jacobson’s paper may have given us a “roadmap”, but it will take a lot more to start us down that road.
Jacobson, Mark Z., Mark A. Delucchi, Guillaume Bazouin, Zack A. F. Bauer, Christa C. Heavey, Emma Fisher, Sean B. Morris, Diniana J. Y. Piekutowski, Taylor A. Vencill, and Tim W. Yeskoo. “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-sector Energy Roadmaps for the 50 United States.” Energy Environ. Sci. 8.7 (2015): 2093-117. Web. 1 Mar. 2016. <http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlepdf/2015/ee/c5ee01283j>.
Roberts, David. “Here’s What It Would Take for the US to Run on 100% Renewable Energy.” Vox.com. Vox, 09 June 2015. Web. 01 Mar. 2016. <http://www.vox.com/2015/6/9/8748081/us-100-percent-renewable-energy>.