Marc Jacobson has been working to take the world to 100% renewable energy by 2050, which he argues can slow down climate change and reverse some of the damage. Maria Armoudian spoke to Jacobson, co-founder of the Solutions Project, about his ongoing work to counter climate change.
Mark Jacobson is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University and the co-founder of the Solutions Project. He is an expert in environmental engineering and is the author of Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: What sort of obstacles have you seen in your work over the past ten years?
Mark Jacobson: Well there has been a lot of good progress. In 2009 we had a vision for the entire world: could we transition the world for all purposes to 100% wind, water and solar for electricity, transportation, heating, cooling, and industry? So we would basically go through each energy sector and electrify everything as much as possible, in some cases for transportation we would use hydrogen for long-distance transportation, but all the electricity would be produced by wind and water and solar power. So onshore and offshore wind, solar panels on rooftops and in power plants, concentrated solar power, some geothermal power, existing hydroelectric power, and small amounts of tidal wave power. That would be everything for all purposes worldwide. So we determined that it is technically possible to do this back in 2009. I mean, there is enough wind and solar to do this. Even the costs were reasonable even at that time, but there were social and political barriers to overcome.
Since then we have also developed plans for all fifty United States and for 139 countries and now for 53 towns and cities across North America. So recently in the last couple of years there are over 75 towns and cities and counties in North America alone have committed to go to one hundred percent renewable energy either for all their operations or for trying to convince their citizens to do it as well. In addition, there are around 140 international companies including the major companies of the world that have committed to transitioning to one hundred percent renewable energy. Two companies Google and Apple have claimed they are already at one hundred percent while several others are close. And we have several states in the US that have either passed a law or proposed laws that will result in a push towards renewable energy, Hawaii, Vermont, California, and Washington state could be about to as well. So a lot of progress has been made and there is also several countries such a Sweden, Costa Rica, Iceland that are virtually at one hundred percent renewable electricity already. But the world has a long way to go, I mean worldwide we are only four-to-five percent there, we need to go another ninety-five percent on average. But the costs of our energy have come down significantly, wind and solar are the cheapest forms of renewable energy worldwide, battery storage has come down in cost, electric vehicles are now widespread and growing and different countries are proposing to transition transportation and homes, as well as industry. So there is a lot of good news but there are still barriers because there is still a strong fossil fuel industry that wants to stay in power and they will spend a lot of money to try to lobby and influence public opinion against renewable energy. So there are still barriers and politicians still take money from these fossil fuel industries and pass laws that will make it more difficult to transition.
MA: Let’s take these apart a little bit starting with Sweden and Costa Rica. What did they transition to? What are they using for their one hundred percent renewables?
MJ: Well in a lot of cases the countries that are really far along have a lot of hydroelectric power already installed, but they are also installing wind, in some cases solar. On the case of Sweden it is more wind, and there is also geothermal, like in Iceland there is a lot of geothermal. But it is a combination of those four – wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal – but the ones that are furthest along have huge amounts of hydroelectric available and they have had it for a while, but they have then supplemented it with wind or geothermal to try to get close to one hundred percent.
MA: So the thing that is enabling those countries to go to one hundred percent now is primarily that they already had in place. So like New Zealand predominantly hydro as well and so the transition wouldn’t be as difficult to one hundred percent as a country that has largely relied on fossil fuels.
MJ: Correct. I mean you should keep in mind that these countries have a lot of hydro and it has been supplying a lot of their electric power, but electric power is only about twenty percent of all in-use energy in most countries. So to transition everything in a country you need to transition transportation, home heating, and industry to electricity and then provide the electricity as clean renewable energy. So when I say that Costa Rica is at ninety-nine and Iceland is at virtually one hundred percent renewable energy that is in the electric power sector but they still have fossil fuel vehicles and industry and those have to be transitioned. So that is going to require more wind and solar except some places like Iceland because they have capability of hydro, but a lot of places are not going to grow hydroelectric power very much although some places still can, so it is really going to be wind and solar in most places. But we have done our numbers for 139 countries which represents basically ninety-nine of the energy of the world and we find it is possible, there is enough wind and solar to satisfy all these countries many times over.
MA: So if we were going to put this into the context of the current realities that we are facing with climate – just from a common persons look across the world to see that the storms have been getting more intense and the fires have been getting more intense, these were the things we were warned about by scientists – it seems like we’re seeing some of the predictions come to fruition. Maybe we should start there, is that in fact what is happening? Is that what is behind all of this?
MJ: Yeah, well we have global average higher temperatures about over one degree Celsius than in the late eighteen-hundreds. It might not sound like a lot but an average global temperature increase of one degree Celsius really means there are extreme increases in some places like the Arctic where it is up to five degrees Celsius. And in other places there is very little increase, but the other thing is an average increase over the year really means you get more extremes of both hot and cold but they just average out to like a one-degree average worldwide and yearly, but you do get these short periods of really high temperatures and also really low temperatures in some cases. So there is this more extreme weather and that extreme weather causes more damage in terms of heat waves and fires that start in drier weather, in terms of more severe storms, more severe hurricanes, and you also get more air pollution with higher temperatures too. I mean higher temperatures increase ozone pollution in air that is already polluted and this causes more mortalities as well, higher temperatures also increase certain diseases such as malaria and dengue fever and this causes more damage. It also causes more damage to crops, the higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere result in higher carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and carbon dioxide is an acid so it causes the oceans to become more acidic so you get acidic oceans, more acidic than they were and this is killing off coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef. So there is damage to the oceans and the atmosphere in terms of pollution, weather, climate, and agriculture. And then also water supplies are in danger. People are getting heat stroke such as in Sub-Saharan Africa where temperatures are already hot but suddenly you have even higher temperatures and then with agriculture crops fail so you get famine where there is risk of mass starvation and some of this has already occurred in some places. Climate change has also resulted in war and climate refugees, people having to leave their land because it is no longer liveable. So there are all sorts of disasters occurring worldwide as a result of climate change already.
MA: And so the question then becomes if we were to take this blueprint that you and your colleague have mapped out, and say we do manage to get to all renewables by 2030 or 2050 even, how much of an impact can that make given the sort of acceleration it seems like that we are already in?
MJ: So our plans are really to transition to eighty percent of everything to clean renewable energy by 2030 and one hundred percent by 2050. We think that this can result in the slowing of global warming and its eventual reversal by 2100 and it will result more importantly in the immediate benefits to human health because there are four to seven million people dying every year from air pollution from the same fossil fuels that cause climate change. And so by eliminating these emissions so quickly you are eliminating immediately four to seven million deaths per year. But the benefit to the climate takes longer and it might not be realized until 2100 even if we eliminate all the emissions today because carbon emitted yesterday is going to stay in the atmosphere for another seventy years and so it takes time to cleanse the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases that cause warming, whereas the polluting particles that cause health impacts their elimination today in terms of their emissions will scrub them from the atmosphere quickly because particles have a very short lifetime in the atmosphere of only a week whereas greenhouse gases have lifetimes of decades, in some cases centuries. So we think we can solve the problem but it does require this rapid transition, eighty percent by 2030 and unless we do that then this warming will continue and get worse until we do decide to solve it and even then it will take a while after that for the problem to be solved.
MA: One of the things that happened after you put that report out was that there were a few people that criticised your modelling, particularly about the cost and your assertion that in the long run it is cheaper to go renewable. Can you tell us a little bit about who your critics were and why they thought your models were off, and then what your response was to that?
MJ: Yeah, we have faced a lot of critics and they generally just didn’t like the idea of transitioning so they found some reason to criticise. There were critics back in 2009 and they were saying ‘Well, the costs were way too high’, and even if that was the case the costs have come down so substantially for wind and solar and batteries and pretty much all the renewable energy systems. Right now wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new electric power, even cheaper than gas. This is why there is so much installation now even without mandates in a lot of places. So I think most people now are agreeable that renewables are the cheapest form of electric power and so the costs are reasonable. Now I think there is pushback in the sense that if we want to transition the current energy infrastructure we have to retire a lot of fossil fuel plants early and that will result in hidden costs to whoever purchased those fossil fuel systems in the first place. But I would argue the health and climate cost benefits of shutting those plants down early is far greater than the costs of the plants that is lost by shutting them down. So it is beneficial from a societal point of view to shut them down because the health and climate costs are so significant that reducing them is of paramount importance.
The other concern that people have had is well ‘Can you keep the grid stable with just clean renewable energy?’ In fact we do think we can. We have done studies on this looking at twenty world regions and with each region just producing all its energy for all its purposes with wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal wave power, but with everything being electrified, so we have the heat sector being electrified for home heating and business heating, and also industry being electrified and transportation being electrified, and we find that by using not only electrical storage but also heat storage and cold storage and some hydrogen storage, that together with the fact that wind and solar are ‘intermittent’ but combining that factor with storage and with what is called ‘demand response’ when utilities give people incentives not to use electricity at certain times of the day that we can actually keep the grid stable at low cost everywhere. And actually the problem becomes easier when we electrify all sectors because there are more modes of storage that we can invoke at that point including heat storage, cold storage, and hydrogen storage. So we think that it is not a problem and in fact places where they have increased the amount of renewables on the grid especially like in Germany for example, but also places like Iceland, Costa Rica, Norway, and Sweden, their grids are staying stable because there are many options of storage including hydroelectric versions of storage, batteries have come down in cost, in South Australia now they are putting these huge battery systems together with their wind and solar to keep the grid stable. And then there is concentrated solar power which is associated with storage, these are all existing storage technologies for electricity.
MA: So you have also said that the biggest barrier is really people’s perception that it is too hard. Simultaneously in the US of course, there is also Donald Trump in the Presidency who seems to actively be trying to cripple the renewable industry and the efforts of states like California to move closer to renewables. How are you dealing with this given your efforts? I know you have created this non-profit solutions organisation to try to move this along but you have got to sort of deal with the politics as well.
MJ: I think in the case of the United States, the Trump Administration have been more pro-fossil fuels and less pro-renewables. That has actually galvanised a lot of people at the state and local levels to act and has actually pushed forward one hundred percent renewable energy plans at the state and local levels even further than probably if he wasn’t pushing for coal and oil and gas. I mean, if there is a silver lining at the end of this bleak tunnel, there is this strong movement, and in fact this is culminating in California where SB100 is a bill that has passed the state senate and is now going to be voted on by the assembly and is likely going to pass soon and will mandate that California will go to one hundred percent renewable by 2045 and it will for sure be signed by the governor too. But also at city levels, lots of cities are now committed to going to one hundred percent renewable energy. In fact there was a worldwide poll in thirteen countries of about 26,000 people and about eighty-percent of the people want one hundred percent renewable energy, so this is a lot of people who want this to move forward. There are going to be people who are against it and who have a lot of financial backing but there are so many more people who are for it and ultimately because of the low cost it will move forward. I mean in the United States, nine of the top ten states with the highest fraction of electricity from wind are all Republican states, these are states that voted for Trump, so they do see the economic benefit of wind power for example because it is so cheap and that doesn’t stop them from putting it up. And even with Trump’s support of coal, the fact is coal is dying and coal plants are being shut down, so he can say all he wants but the fact is it is such an inefficient industry and a costly industry that it is dying on its own.
MA: So in terms of the industries themselves and Trump’s attempts to prop up those industries and attack the renewable industries – I know Obama had but some things into place to support some of the renewable industries growth to expand across the United States – how are the renewable energy companies doing in the face of this?
MJ: Well I think like any industry there are companies that are doing well and there are many that are not and closing down, so I don’t know on a day-to-day basis how they are doing, but I do know that solar is really going strong worldwide and there is a lot of development going on. So these are good signs, but I think you will always find examples of some companies who are not doing well and others that are.
MA: And there is the Solutions Project that you are involved in, what would you like people to know about that?
MJ: So the Solutions Project is a non-profit that I helped co-found in 2011 with actor Ruffalo, director, director Josh Fox, and businessman Marco Krapels, Basically the idea was to take the energy plans that we had been developing for states and cities and now countries and to try to educate the public and policymakers about them to really engage the public and to try to work with the public to actually help implement the plans in places such as inner-cities and rural areas – but really everywhere. So the idea is one hundred percent renewable energy for one hundred percent of the people to make sure no one is left behind in the transition and to try to benefit everyone through a transition. And so the Solutions Project has also done a lot in galvanising other non-profits, and in fact there is a network of over seventy non-profits that are on board with one hundred project clean renewable energy and a lot of this has been galvanised through the Solutions Project There are also other organisations such as Greenpeace and 350.org and many others that have been strongly involved as well.
MA: Now I know that when you look internationally there are some countries that are still working towards some transitions but maybe at a pace that is not really going to get us there super-fast either. People frequently talk about China and India. What do you know that is happening there in the transition?
MJ: Well in many developing countries there is a lot of movement towards renewable energy which is good. Some of them like China has huge growth, I mean they are putting up more wind and solar than the US, but they are also putting up a lot of coal too, so this is a problem. I think that they are going to accelerate in putting up more renewables, and I know India has a huge commitment for solar in particular which I see as a positive step. I know some countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, I mean Egypt is putting up one of the largest solar farm in the world right now and Saudi Arabia has commitments to put up a lot of solar. But there are many countries that are moving forward because they just realise that this is so necessary and inexpensive and it is a way for them to provide energy security as well. So there is an incentive set up for many countries to transition but again every country has its own barriers, lobbyists and what not. It does require this sort of international effort to transition and it requires policies but individuals. I mean individuals can do a lot on their own in each country, but you need a combination of what individuals do and strong policies to be put in place. And this really is the goal of our energy plans that we have developed for each country and the idea is really to give confidence to the people in each country that this is possible and then hopefully policymakers will then take that and try to implement some of the goals. But, of course, they will have to decide themselves what the best way to implement the goals are. I mean we are basically providing an end goal for each country but it is up to the country to decide how to get their most efficiently. And in the end the energy systems will look different to what we propose but our idea is here is one possible way to get to one hundred percent renewable energy, there are probably lots of ways to do it, but this just gives people confidence to try one way.
MA: And so generally speaking would you say you remain optimistic about being able to reverse some of the climate effects given that it looks like that we are cooking the planet?
MJ: Yeah, I mean I am optimistic there is a solution. Whether we implement it on time is a different question. But I mean optimistic we will eventually transition to one hundred percent clean renewable energy in most of the world, if not all the world. I think there is a bandwagon effect where it is slow at first and then some changes occur in some places and then other places see they are losing out by not changing themselves and so they jump on board. So I think this is why California passing SB100 will be very important, I think this will spur on other states and countries to go and pass their own laws to go there as well because California is now the fifth-largest economy in the world in terms of GDP and so if they can do it then that will spur on other locations to do it as well.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.