Three times now, Mark Jacobson has gone out on the same limb. In 2009 he and co-author Mark Delucchi published a cover story in Scientific American that showed how the entire world could get all of its energy—fuel as well as electricity—from wind, water and solar sources by 2030. No coal or oil, no nuclear or natural gas. The tale sounded infeasible—except that Jacobson, from Stanford University, and Delucchi, from the University of California, Davis, calculated just how many hydroelectric dams, wave-energy systems, wind turbines, solar power plants and rooftop photovoltaic installations the world would need to run itself completely on renewable energy.
The article sparked a spirited debate on our Web site, and it also sparked a larger debate between forward-looking energy planners and those who would rather preserve the status quo. The duo went on to publish a detailed study in the journal Energy Policy that also called out numbers for a U.S. strategy.
Two weeks ago Jacobson and a larger team, including Delucchi, did it again. This time Jacobson showed in much finer detail how New York State’s residential, transportation, industrial, and heating and cooling sectors could all be powered by wind, water and sun, or “WWS,” as he calls it. His mix: 40 percent offshore wind (12,700 turbines), 10 percent onshore wind (4,020 turbines), 10 percent concentrated solar panels (387 power plants), 10 percent photovoltaic cells (828 facilities), 6 percent residential solar (five million rooftops), 12 percent government and commercial solar (500,000 rooftops), 5 percent geothermal (36 plants), 5.5 percent hydroelectric (6.6 large facilities), 1 percent tidal energy (2,600 turbines) and 0.5 percent wave energy (1,910 devices).
In the process, New York would reduce power demand by 37 percent, largely because the new energy sources are more efficient than the old ones. And because no fossil fuels would have to be purchased or burned, consumer costs would be similar to what they are today, and the state would eliminate a huge portion of its carbon dioxide emissions.
New York State could end fossil fuel use and generate all of its energy from wind, water and solar power, according to Mark Jacobson. Image: Graphic by Karl Burkart
Once again, reaction was swift. The New York Times heralded the study as scientifically groundbreaking and practically impossible. But this time Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, is digging in. He took his analysis a step further and found a surprising way to sell his plan. And he’s close to finishing a similar study for California, which will lend more depth to his vision. I asked Jacobson why he’s out to change the world, how he answers his critics and what it will take for his plans to get traction in government.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
At first glance, your proposals to convert society wholesale to renewable energy, and relatively soon, sound wild. What kinds of reactions do you get?
Mostly, it’s pretty positive. A lot of people say, “Wow, we should really make a huge effort to push this forward.” There are always naysayers who think it’s pie in the sky, that we’ll never get there. And there are people who are tied into a certain industry who push back the most. It’s almost like motherhood and apple pie, though; it’s hard to say “Oh, I don’t like it.” The real question is: How do policy makers react? Few of them say they would be against it. It’s more that they still want to push other energy sources. You need policy makers behind it, and you also need grassroots efforts.