Why did you dive down into New York State after having done the entire world?
To get any traction I figured we had to do a plan with higher resolution, because otherwise it’s just too massive for anyone to actually do anything about it. And some people in New York are really interested in coming up with a new energy plan. At first I was hesitant but then I thought it could be quite a coup, it could be very valuable. I know Governor [Andrew] Cuomo’s office is reading it.
After the global plan appeared in Scientific American a lot of people said the exercise was intriguing but it would never be taken seriously as a blueprint. What are the main obstacles to such a sweeping overhaul at a state or national level?
The main obstacles are political and social—getting politicians onboard. There are always local zoning issues. I’m sure there will be a big push by the gas lobby and the oil lobby against this.
So then how do you sell the plan?
There is a huge savings in lives. The New York plan would prevent 4,000 mortalities a year in the state due to less air pollution, and a related savings of $33 billion—about 3 percent of the GDP of the state. That resonates more with people than climate change issues. We also looked at job creation; more jobs would be created than lost.
The main criticism about heavy reliance on wind and solar power is that the sources are intermittent: the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t shine at night. Do your plans rely a lot on energy storage, which remains a tough challenge?
If you get the [power] transmission grid right you don’t need a whole lot of storage. By combining wind and solar and geothermal and hydroelectric, you can match the power demand. And if you oversize the grid, when you’re producing extra electricity you use it to produce hydrogen [for fuel-cell vehicles and ships as well as some district heating and industrial processes]. You can also spread the peak demand by giving financial incentives [for consumers to use power at off-peak times]. Some storage certainly would help; we have storage in the form of hydrogen and in concentrated solar power plants. There are many ways to tackle the intermittency issues.
The other concern that is usually raised about renewable energy is that it is more expensive than fossil fuels. What would electricity prices be like in New York?
The residential electricity cost in the U.S. on average is 13.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. In New York it’s 18.1 cents. If you look at the states that have the highest percentage of electricity generation from wind, the average electricity price increase from 2003 to 2011 was 2 cents a kilowatt-hour, whereas all the other states averaged 3.6 cents. So prices in the states that didn’t put in a lot of wind went up more.
Given the radical nature of your proposals, is it fair to say you are an advocate for renewable energy?
I’m doing the science part of it. I’m not really advocating. The job of a scientist is to make sure that information is provided clearly and appropriately, so people can make a better decision. I don't advocate. But there is a larger group of people that I’m doing science work for that is more policy oriented, the Solutions Project. It involves scientists, industrial people, business people, finance people, artists and entertainers, and some media. It tries to take clean energy plans and get them implemented.
If you’re not an advocate, what is your motivation? You’ve done this exercise three times now.
My career has always 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. If society is going to do it, at least we now know that it’s technically and economically feasible. Whether it actually happens depends on political will.