How to Run the World on Renewable Energy

Most of the time, climate science is a pessimist’s game. It’s all extreme weather conditions, melting ice caps, and cities being slowly devoured by rising tides.

What’s more, the social and political response to climate change has been lethargic, adding to the dreariness of the science. In January, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll in which Americans ranked climate change 19th out of 20 among a list of priority issues for Congress and the president.

But amid this bleak climate, a scientist has paired up with financial and cultural actors to spread a more hopeful message.

The goal of the resulting Solutions Project is to show that a world run entirely on renewable energy is well within our reach, Chief Operating Officer Jon Wank explained over the phone.

“We have the science that show it’s possible. We have a lot of business leaders we’re working with that prove this makes economic sense,” he said. “A lot of this is just getting the information out there that not only is this possible, but the future looks good.”

Five years ago, in 2009, Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineer and director of the atmosphere and energy program at Stanford, published a twopart paper that put a different spin on the conversation about climate change.

Massachusetts Plan
A graphic summary of the plan for how Massachusetts could run entirely on renewable energy. | Courtesy of Jon Wank and the Solutions Project.

In that paper, he and his co-author Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, found that a world run completely on renewable energy from wind, water and solar power could be scientifically and economically feasible by 2050. It even includes a plan for replacing fossil fuel-driven transportation to make it powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

Their research takes a comprehensive look at how that would be possible, including estimates of how much energy would come from specific sources, including two kinds of solar power, off- and onshore wind turbines, and some geothermal power plants.

Guillaume Bazouin, a researcher for the project, explained on the phone the importance of having the energy come from multiple sources.

“You can’t just pick wind or pick solar,” he said. “You have to balance the two to have credible outputs.” Otherwise, when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining, power stops flowing.

To give a better idea how this all would work on a state-by-state basis, Jacobson developed plans for every state in the U.S., detailing where each state’s energy would come from.

In Massachusetts, Jacbobson suggests most of the energy should come from offshore wind farms, one of which is already set to become the first of its kind in the U.S. off the coast of Nantucket. According to Jacobson’s plan, 55% of the state’s energy would come from offshore wind (here’s a link to a bigger version of the graphic).

Those state-by-state plans also give insight into the economic implications of a switch to running society on wind, water, and solar energy, including the jobs it would create and the direct savings on energy cost.

In the Massachusetts plan, Jacobson says the switch would create more than 100,000 long-term jobs, and people would save $2,100 annually on energy costs. That’s because fossil fuels will only become scarcer, driving up their price, while the cost of renewable energy sources like wind and solar is expected to go down.

Still, as thorough as Jacobson and Delucchi’s research is, and even though the project has produced some very nice info-graphics, 100% renewable energy by 2050 seems like a long shot.

In fact, Jacobson found that if anything is going to keep the shift to renewable energy at bay, it’s a lack of political will. Bazouin, the researcher, said one of the project’s biggest challenges is how to change the attitude toward renewable energy.

“We’re trying to say this is not an ideological issue any more,” he said. “It’s a matter of common sense.”

Jake Lucas

Hi there I'm Jake. I'm a journalism major/environmental policy and analysis minor originally from the suburbs of Chicago. I'm interested in all kinds of science, politics and economics. I also like bears, singing and podcasts. If you have any questions, tips or just want to shoot the breeze, email me at jlucas@buquad.com. Or, find me on Twitter @JakeDLucas.

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