How to save $23 trillion per year: 100% renewable energy for the world

Political obstacles would make this plan difficult to implement, but a solution to global warming is technically and economically feasible.

SOURCEWeather Underground
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a 2017 New Year’s resolution I’d like to see the nations of the world adopt: an immediate international effort to invest in a world where 100% of our electricity will be generated by wind, water, and solar power by 2050.

Figure 1. Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stanford addresses an audience in San Francisco at the annual meeting of The American Geophysical Union on December 17, 2016.
Figure 2. The total surface area (in square kilometers) of the Earth including oceans (large blue circle) and land surface area of the 139 countries studied (pink circle) are compared to the areal footprint of the renewable energy systems (beyond what was installed as of 2015) needed to provide 100% of power by 2050 in Dr. Jacobson’s road map. The plan requires approximately 653,200 square km offshore wind turbines, 1,105,000 square km of onshore wind turbines, 87,410 square km of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and 260,500 square km of photovoltaic and concentrated solar power (CSP) systems run by utility companies. For hydropower, no new installations are proposed, so the additional footprint is zero. About 1% of the world’s land area would be needed for the power systems proposed. Image credit: Dr. Mark Jacobson, Stanford.

Such an effort is technically and economically feasible, and has been championed by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson since 2009. His latest research on the subject was laid out in a series of talks last month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of The American Geophysical Union – the world’s largest conference on climate change. During his talks, Dr. Jacobson outlined a plan to power 139 nations of the world for all purposes – including electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry, and agriculture/forestry/fishing – using a mix of approximately 37% wind, 58% solar, 4% hydropower, and 1% geothermal, wave, and tidal power. He argued that his plan would:

  1. Replace 80% of business-as-usual power by 2030, and 100% by 2050
  2. Reduce power consumption by 42.5% because of electricity’s better work:energy ratio, efficiency, and lack of mining needed
  3. Create 24.3 million more jobs than lost
  4. Eliminate 3.5 million premature air pollution deaths per year and save $23 trillion (7.6% of GDP) in air pollution health costs per year by 2050 (for comparison: the World Bank estimated in 2016 that air pollution in 2013 killed 5.5 million people, with non-health care costs of over $5 trillion)
  5. Save $28.5 trillion per year in avoided climate change costs by potentially keeping global warming 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels
  6. Reduce war by creating energy-independent countries
  7. Decentralize energy production, thereby reducing power outages, terrorism threats to energy installations, and energy poverty

OK, this New Year’s resolution does not come cheap. The up-front cost of such an energy system is $124.7 trillion for converting the 139 nations of the world Dr. Jacobson studied. However, it’s critical to consider the savings, not just the costs. He estimates that by 2050, a $85 per person per year savings in electricity costs will be realized using a 100% wind, water, and solar powered world compared to the current business-as-usual system. This does not include the savings due to reduced air pollution and reduced climate change costs, which would be an additional $5,800 per person per year.

His road map to a 100% renewable energy future uses existing generator technologies, along with existing electrical transportation, heating/cooling, and industrial devices and appliances. Electricity storage is done using existing storage technologies – Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) with storage, pumped hydroelectric storage, and existing heat/cold storage technologies (water, ice, and rocks). No stationary storage batteries, biomass, nuclear power, carbon capture, or natural gas are required. No new dams would be needed, but existing dams would by made more efficient. Aircraft flying less than 600 km would be electric, and those flying longer distances would be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. He modeled the seasonal and daily variation in solar energy and wind power in the 139 countries, with storage, and was able to show that the power grid was stable – the load on the grid matched the electricity supply. The 2.5 million wind turbines required would cause approximately a 0.6% reduction in world’s average wind speed, which he argued should not cause major disturbances to the weather. Dr. Jacobson acknowledged that political obstacles would make his plan difficult to implement, but stressed that a solution to global warming is technically and economically feasible. A detailed discussion of his plan is here.

Get the fossil fuels out of climate policymaking:


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.