New study outlines path to 100% renewables in all 50 states 

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wind, water and sunlight could meet demand for all energy — not just electricity — in every state by midcentury, according to a new report.

The study, published yesterday in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, concluded that the path to a cleaner future is technically feasible and affordable and would save thousands of lives from avoided pollution and averted disasters stemming from greenhouse gas emissions. All the while, the jobs created in the renewables sector would more than offset layoffs from shuttered coal mines and dismantled nuclear power plants.

Though every state has a different starting line — Washington state, for example, generates more than 70 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric power, compared to Illinois, which gets 43 percent of its electricity from coal — researchers said there are ways for all of them to get to a zero-emissions energy system at an aggressive pace: 80 percent renewables by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

Mark Delucchi, a co-author and a research scientist at the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that the study emerged as a thought experiment, looking at energy instead of just electricity to find a path toward a zero-carbon emissions future for all economic sectors. “The motivation was that we wanted to see in a nutshell: Could the very cleanest system, the one with the most energy benefits, could it be feasible?” he asked.

Delucchi and his collaborators examined every state across the country, looking at where they drew fuel to drive their cars, heat their homes and power their factories. They then calculated the energy demands if all of these processes ran on electricity and found that the switch to electricity would cut power demand by 39 percent by 2050.

The team then examined renewable energy resources in each state, adding up sunlight and rooftop space for solar panels, windy knolls for turbines, rivers for dams and pockets of underground heat for geothermal generators.

Calculations showed that by using no more than 0.5 percent of any state’s land for wind turbines and solar panels, every state from California to Connecticut could feasibly make the shift to renewables.

A road map without nuclear and biofuels

The state-by-state analysis projected gradual improvement in energy technologies, but the study is not betting on a miracle 30-pound battery that gets 300 miles of range, charges in 10 minutes and costs $300 or a penny per kilowatt-hour solar panel.

The researchers acknowledged that the upfront installation costs would be high but said that since sunlight and wind are free, the solar panels and wind turbines would soon pay for themselves. The switch would obviate coping with volatile energy prices and fuel security issues.

“We also add on to that the avoided climate change damages and avoided air pollution damages,” Delucchi said. “Those latter external costs are not trivial.”

The report estimated that a business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions scenario for the United States would cost the world $3.3 trillion in damages by 2050. Switching to renewables, however, could avoid 62,000 deaths per year from air pollution, saving the economy $600 billion annually.

The team excluded nuclear power and biofuels from their list of proposed solutions for fossil fuels. Delucchi explained that nuclear energy costs are rising, while renewable energy costs are dropping, and waste storage, financing and perceptions of risk continue to haunt the nuclear industry. Biofuels, meanwhile, remain contentious in terms of net energy produced, environmental impacts from changes in land use and their overall benefits for the climate.

“Wind, water and solar provide more unambiguous climate, energy and global security benefits with essentially zero problems,” Delucchi said.

Another report released today by the Brattle Group, commissioned for the Advanced Energy Economy Institute, found that a high level of renewables could be integrated into the electrical grid without compromising stability. The report cited Texas and Colorado as cases in point.

Germany, which saw its share of renewable energy approach 30 percent last year, also managed to maintain the most reliable electrical grid on the continent (ClimateWire, Nov. 3, 2014).

The question, then, is how to get states to adopt an ambitious road map to renewables.

“We have these technologies; we just need to implement them,” said Mark Jacobson, another co-author of the Energy & Environmental Science study and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

Though market forces may eventually recognize the benefits of renewable energy, wind, water and solar power will still need a policy push if they stand to make a dent in rising global temperatures, Jacobson said. “There will be a natural transition [toward renewables], but it will be too slow to create the change by the time it’s needed,” he said.

Tactics like renewable portfolio standards, efficiency mandates and electric vehicle incentives at the state level could all push fossil fuels off the energy market.

“Each state would have to develop its own process to get there,” Jacobson said. “The implementation would have to be state by state because the national government is paralyzed.”

A reality in 15 years?

Federal policies like the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which will require states to come up with their own strategies for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power sources, could also play a role.

But Jacobson cautioned that the carbon-cutting approach could backfire. A carbon capture and sequestration system for a coal power plant could bring the facility into compliance with the new greenhouse gas rules, but such systems can degrade a power plant’s output by 25 percent or more, requiring more coal to be mined, transported and burned to generate the same energy output.

The better approach, according to Jacobson, is to stop burning coal, oil and natural gas altogether. “We need to eliminate combustible fuels,” he said. “We need to actually change the energy infrastructure.”

Jacobson and Delucchi’s assessment joins a swath of recent reports looking at the feasibility of switching to renewable energy systems. Earlier this year, the French energy agency, ADEME, released a report outlining how the country could get to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The Chinese government also found that the country could get a big chunk of its energy from renewables in the same time frame (ClimateWire, April 21).

Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford who was not involved in this study, said the road map to renewables for all 50 states shows that completely switching to renewables is within the realm of possibility.

“We can have modernity, and we can have renewable electricity,” he said. “Whether we can do it in 15 years is the most relevant question.”

Though renewables have proven themselves on the grid, there are still technical challenges in getting every car, truck, motorcycle, cargo tanker and airliner to run on electrons. “These are going to be harder,” said Koomey.

Electric cars powered by batteries and fuel cells are gaining ground on the market, but simply getting a one-man electric airplane across an ocean remains a dicey proposition (Greenwire, June 1).

Nonetheless, advocates argue that the study shows technology isn’t the obstacle it once was to a clean energy future.

“Really, I would argue it shows that there is way more than one path to getting to a cleaner future where we’re not living under a threat of the worst consequences of global warming,” said Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The challenge is we’re going to take the steps necessary to get there.”