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How to Power the World without Fossil Fuels

Mark Jacobson says he can run the planet solely on wind, water and solar energy. First stop: New York State



Graphic by Karl Burkart

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.

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.

You’ve plotted a course for the world, and for New York. What’s next?

We’ve almost finished a California plan, which is similar. Ultimately, we’d like to do 50 plans for 50 states. I’ve started Washington State. The California plan should be done in two months or so. Then we have to decide what we’re going to do with it.

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