New Plan: 100% Renewables by 2030

30521491Wind, water and solar energy can provide more than enough energy to power the world, according to a new plan proposed by two California scientists in the November issue of Scientific American.

Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and UC Davis researcher Mark Delucchi crunched the numbers and have concluded that if the world used existing technology to convert entirely to electricity (and hydrogen powered by these renewables) by 2030, the world’s power demand would be reduced by 30%, from the expected 16.9 terawatts to 11.5 terawatts.  They base this expected reduction on the premise that fossil fuel and biomass combustion are inefficient, losing up to 80% of the produced energy to heat. With energy produced by electricity, only 20% is lost as heat.

Even without this reduction in world energy needs, the two researchers assert that there is more than enough renewable energy available to meet the world’s needs (their data pegs the potential worldwide energy from wind at 1,700 TW and solar at 6,500 TW).  When difficult-to-reach areas and protected lands are excluded from their calculations, the scientists find at least 40 TW available from wind and 580 from solar.   Currently, they find, we generate only .02 TW of wind and .008 of solar.

The ambitious plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, which, when spaced appropriately would occupy 1% of the Earth’s land, and 89,000 300-megawatt photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, which would occupy .33% of the Earth’s land surface.  The plan also requires 490,000 tidal turbines; 5,350 geothermal plants; 720,000 wave converters; and 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems.  Less than 2% of these energy producing installations current exist.  The plan also requires 900 hydroelectric plants, of which 70% are currently operational.

“I know it’s possible,” said Jacobson. It’s just a question of whether people want to do it.”

Of course, overhauling the entire world energy economy in 20 years is a Herculean task to say the least, and the researchers are upfront about the obstacles their plan faces.   They concede that not only would there need to be significant political support in the form of feed-in-tariff (FIT) programs, taxes on fossil fuels, and significant investment in long-distance transmission systems, but materials availability could also be a barrier in the long term.

“It’s all a question of politcal will,” said Jacobson. “It’s not a technical problem. If we shifted subsidies to things that are clean, that’s being smart. Why invest in something that puts out more carbon and air pollution rather than something that doesn’t?”

The idea of shutting off all of the world’s coal and nuclear plants and building hundreds of miles of wind farms and solar arrays  is controversial to say the least.  Aside from (not exactly minor) political, social, and economic obstacles, there is the issue of baseload power–what’s available around the clock, rain or shine, to keep the lights on–which we currently draw primarily from nuclear and fossil fuel plants.   Proponents of nuclear power like Stewart Brand argue that until there’s a massive storage system for wind and solar energy, renewables will remain supplemental sources of energy.

Jacobson and Delucchi do address this issue in their article. “Intermittency problems can be mitigated,” they write, “by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand.”

  • RAMC

    Here’s a bunch of folks that need to get a strong dose of reality – just ain’t possible in the world we live in. The renewables may be out there, but the lack of political will and economics won’t let it happen. Did these characters just figure out that fossil fuels are inefficient? Most people I’ve run into over the last 50 years seemed to already know that. You also have to wonder if they know anything about arithmetic. They propose 3.8 million large wind turbines by 2030. That means we have to build, erect, and integrate into the power networks 520 wind units a day – yes each day! The plan also requires 490,000 tidal turbines (67 per day); 5,350 geothermal plants (about 3 every 4 days); 720,000 wave converters (almost 100 every day); and 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems (almost 233,000 every day) – Huh!!!!!!!!

  • RAMC

    There is a well-known saying – “Those who refuse to do the arithmetic are doomed to nonsense”. Although I am a life-long advocate of renewable energy, it is also obvious that we are doomed because simple arithmetic shows that the goal of achieving the lofty pipe dream by the year 2030 is not possible. The energy business of this Country is fraught with amateurs just as are the authors of this so-called study.

  • Authors

    RAMC misstates contents of the article and seems to be unaware of the world’s manufacturing capability. The article, located at

    http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/susenergy2030.html

    makes clear in the conclusion that the 2030 expectation would be unlikely but should not deter us from trying:

    “Of course, changes in the real-world power and transportation industries will have to overcome sunk investments in existing infrastructure. But with sensible policies, nations could set a goal of generating 25 percent of their new energy supply with WWS sources in 10 to 15 years and almost 100 percent of new supply in 20 to 30 years. With extremely aggressive policies, all existing fossil-fuel capacity could theoretically be retired and replaced in the same period, but with more modest and likely policies full replacement may take 40 to 50 years. Either way, clear leadership is needed, or else nations will keep trying technologies promoted by industries rather than vetted by scientists.”

    Further, the main goals of our article were to show that there is
    plenty of supply at reasonable cost, probably little materials
    issues, and that the technologies are ready and the systems can be integrated intelligently.RAMC seems to suggest that we shouldn’t try because it might be tough problem to solve but ignores the fact that, in the absence of this plan, 2.5 million people per year will continue to die from air pollution, global warming will accelerate, and we’ll need the equivalent of 13,000 more coal plants than if we implement the plan.

    Further, RAMC seems unaware that the world currently produces 200,000 automobiles every day (73 million per year) and, even during World War II, over 400 airplanes every day for over 5 years. It would seem that we could do a lot more than that 65 years later with respect to energy devices.

  • Paul S

    While I would differ as to the proposed components of the plan that Jacobsen and Dulucci have put forward, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to set our sights high, and get moving. The alternative is choas. World scientists predict our oceans will continue to acidify to the point where it may no longer be able to sustain marine life, and similarly predict that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced by rising oceans and loss of arable land.
    Compared to this, a bit of forward thinking and hard work seems an easy solution, and an ounce of prevention, compared to the alternative. To say that a change in our energy economy is not possible is to say: “It’s easier to lay down and die.”
    We have successfully created an immense war economy, and squandered a tremendous amount of time, resources and wealth to create havoc and death. How about harnessing the American spirit in an effort to create and preserve a lasting life?