100% Renewable Energy Indeed Possible, say Stanford U. Researchers

The world can be powered by renewable energy in 20-40 years – using technology available right now, says Stanford researcher Mark Jacobson.

In a time of catastrophe oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, and water poisoned from natural gas fracking, citizens around the world are still being told we must keep using these technologies to fuel our demand for energy.

In the past, any one of these disasters would have been enough to shut them down and pass laws to move toward clean alternatives, but not these days. We’re already giving out new permits for deep water offshore drilling and even as Japan reels under a nuclear meltdown, we make plans for new nukes.

Contrary to what the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies would have the world believe – 100% renewable energy is within our reach – all we need is the public will, which unfortunately is in short supply today.

"Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources," says Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. "It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will."

He and co-author Mark Delucchi, from the University of California-Davis, published their paper in Energy Policy – they  assess the costs, technology and material requirements to  convert our society to renewable energy. 

According to their plan, wind and solar can provide 90% of energy demand through electricity. Geothermal and hydroelectric sources would each contribute about 4% (70% of hydro is in place now), and wave/tidal would supply the  remaining 2%. 

Vehicles, ships and trains would be powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. Aircraft would run on liquid hydrogen. Homes would be cooled and warmed with electric heaters and water would be preheated by the sun. Commercial processes would be powered by electricity and hydrogen.

All new energy generation could be renewable by 2030, and all pre-existing energy production could be converted to renewables by 2050.

Because all combustion processes would be converted to electricity, including hydrogen production, the plan would result in a 30% reduction in world energy demand. Electricity is much more efficient than combustion.

They accomplish this feat without even considering reduced energy demand through energy efficient buildings and vehicles.

How do they do this cost effectively? By reducing energy demand and by factoring in the savings that would accrue through lower health care costs associated with air pollution from fossil fuels.

"When you actually account for all the costs to society – including medical costs – of the current fuel structure, the costs of our plan are relatively similar to what we have today," Jacobson says.

A major obstacle with widespread use of wind and solar energy is its variability – they don’t provide "base load" power, the minimum amount of energy that must be available to customers at any given hour of the day.

Jacobson says that can be overcome by packing them into a bundle. "If you combine them as one commodity and use hydroelectric to fill in gaps, it is a lot easier to match demand," he says.

Since wind often peaks at night and sunlight peaks during the day, they are complementary. Using hydro to fill in the gaps – as it does now – allows demand to be precisely met by supply in most cases. Other renewable sources such as geothermal and tidal power can also be used as supplements.

"One of the most promising methods of insuring that supply matches demand is using long-distance transmission to connect widely dispersed sites," says co-author Delucchi. Even if conditions are poor for wind or solar energy generation in one area on a given day, a few hundred miles away the winds could be blowing steadily and the sun shining.

"With a system that is 100 percent wind, water and solar, you can’t use normal methods for matching supply and demand.  You have to have what people call a supergrid, with long-distance transmission and really good management," he said.

Another method of meeting demand could entail building a bigger renewable energy infrastructure to match peak hourly demand and use non-peak excess electricity to produce hydrogen for the industrial and transportation sectors.

Using pricing to control peak demands, a tool that is used today, would also help.

Are Their Enough Resources to Build All This?

They also examined whether the earth has enough resources to build out a renewable energy infrastructure. They concluded that even supplies of rare earths and platinum are sufficient. Recycling could effectively extend the supply. 

"For solar cells there are different materials, but there are so many choices that if one becomes short, you can switch," Jacobson said. "Major materials for wind energy are concrete and steel and there is no shortage of those."

Jacobson and Delucchi calculated the number of wind turbines needed to implement their plan, as well as the number of solar plants, rooftop photovoltaic cells, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal and wave-energy installations.

They found that to power 100% of the world for all purposes from wind, water and solar, about 0.4% of the world’s land would be needed for solar, about 0.6% for wind. Turbines need to be spaced out to prevent interference between them.

"Most of the land between wind turbines is available for other uses, such as pasture or farming," Jacobson said.  "The actual footprint required by wind turbines to power half the world’s energy is less than the area of Manhattan." If half the wind farms were located offshore, a single Manhattan would suffice.

Only about 1% of the wind turbines required are in place now, and less than that for solar. 

"This really involves a large scale transformation," he said. "It would require an effort comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate highway system."

"But it is possible, without even having to go to new technologies," Jacobson said.  "We really need to just decide collectively that this is the direction we want to head as a society."


Adapted from article by Louis Bergeron, Stanford University News. 

Jacobson is the director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

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Comments on “”

  1. Aaron

    Brilliant research! This generation will build this now. Everyone invest, buy green energy and let’s get this built…now!

  2. DrAlexC

    Sounds wonderful, but misses the key problems with ‘renewables’ — they aren’t…

    a) energy efficiency can indeed get back much of the 57% we now waste.

    b) local solar on existing structures can indeed meet all peak demand.

    c) new storage technologies are fast approaching, including solutions for EV storage, such as the ultra-capacitor.

    d) wind/wave & massed, remote installations are wasteful in transmission (~10%) and very damaging to the local species — count the dead eagles & other birds at the bases of wind tower.

    e) wind, in particular, is wasteful of land to the tune of netting under 1/2MW/acre at peak & 1/3 of that over a good day — solar at only 20% efficiency now, easily beats wind on all counts, and has much more efficiency room to grow into. Wind has none, and a 5MW Siemens wind machine consumes 400 tons of steel, 2000 tons of coal, 1000 cubic yards of concrete, 10 acres, with added access roads, continued maintenance, plus complex control centers and storage to smooth its very messy output — http://www.caiso.com/outlook/SystemStatus.html. In European offshore wind ‘farms’ whales are even becoming confused and beaching. Wind doesn’t just need iron & coal mining, plus concrete making, it kills animals.

    So, as the Sierra Club, wise organizations are advocating two key elements: efficiency and local solar PV/water heating. The latter is termed DG for distributed generation, even falling within the approved CCA model in Calif. It builds a more robust grid, saves the permanent tax in transmission loss and avoids all the absurd subsidies & environmental impacts of wind ‘farms’, massive rural solar arrays, etc.

    There indeed are subsidized profits to be made from wind & some others, but they simply look good because of the same things that make coal/oil/gas lucrative — lack of honest, comprehensive accounting.

    And, with efficiency + DG, we have 2 legs of our future table of energy support. The third is the nuclear power we were supposed to have built out by now, but failed to complete. This, despite the very good advice JFK sought & got in 1962…

    The Chinese are now pursuing what we developed 40 years ago, so maybe that will scare us into sense, so we complete the R&D necessary to fulfill the promise of safe nuclear power sufficient for millennia.

    Oh yes, and how many US citizens have been killed by nuclear plants? Did I hear 0? And how many are killed in coal mines, oil fields, or near gas pipelines? Again, honest accounting is what adults do when making long-term decisions.

    Dr. A. Cannara
    Menlo Park, Calif.

  3. ibika

    Hi, i agree with many of the comments above from Dr cannara..but to think that nuclear eenergy is the solution is also a delusion.. what about the massive amount of resources needed to construct and manintain and then decommission the sheer number of nuclear power plants needed to fill global power requirements. we need 1) massive investments in energy efficiency. 2) massive investments in improving technology so that we dont waste up to 90% of the energy we generate through outdated technology 3) complete redesign of all human settlement to reflect a new paradigm…that energy is highly valuable and not free.. the entire society has been developed in the last 50 years on the false promise of cheap, unlimited energy.. 4) use energy intelligently: do we need to build ice rinks in dubai, hold world cup’s in the summer in Qatar, etc etc..

  4. Mitchell

    Loved this article and hope that we can make this possible by at least 2060. Being a college student I am an optimist for the future, and believe that through a little work we can create something beautiful. Even with all this turmoil in politics with Republicans denying anything to help the US be leaders in an industry that Bill Gates himself called the most promising industry for innovation and profit in the future, I still remain optimistic.

    To Dr. Cannara, I really don’t agree with nuclear. It just has too many costs, monetary and social, to be an effective energy source. Sure, the technology is there and the relative, I stress relative, safety to humans is there, but it just doesn’t make sense. Where exactly is a sustainable place to store nuclear waste? Exactly, there is no place that is really 100% safe. I don’t need to remind anyone of what a natural disaster can do to a plant (Japan). What we need is SAFE and clean energy now and for the future. Not just an alternative to get us by. That’s why proponents of NatGas say. NatGas is just oil with the same exact, perhaps escalated, effects.

    Agree with Ibika. Massive funding is needed, but we need to do most on our own. The government can only do so much. I believe renewables need to be a business funded by the people. People who believe in a sustainable and clean future. Top minds say it’s possible, so why not go for it?

    Also, there is a lack of focus among the renewable community. Although it is great to keep the ideas coming, we need to be centered around some type of idea, like energy efficiency of homes, in order to have greater successes.


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