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10th June 2015

A plan to convert USA to 100% renewables by 2050

Engineers at Stanford University have developed a state-by-state plan to convert the USA to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050.


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At the G7 summit in Germany this week, world leaders agreed to phase out fossil fuels by 2100. However, some countries may be able to achieve this target earlier than others. Indeed, a new study led by Stanford University outlines how each of the 50 states in the USA could achieve such a transition by 2050.

Mark Z. Jacobson – professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford – and colleagues including U.C. Berkeley researcher Mark Delucchi, demonstrate 50 individual plans, calling for aggressive changes to both infrastructure and the ways America currently consumes energy. While it may sound like a radical idea, their research indicates that the conversion is technically and economically possible through the wide-scale implementation of existing technologies.

"The main barriers are social, political, and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible," said Jacobson. "By showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation."

Jacobson and his colleagues looked at future trends in energy use for residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors. Their research examined how the integration of zero-carbon, fully electric technology could affect energy savings in vehicles, homes and workplaces.

"When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050," Jacobson said. "About six percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity."

Next, the team calculated the renewable energy resources available for each state by analysing sunlight exposure, wind maps, geothermal sources and determining whether local offshore wind turbines were an option. Geothermal energy was available at a reasonable cost for only 13 states. Their plans call for virtually no new hydroelectric dams, but do account for energy gains from improving the efficiency of existing dams. The report lays out individual roadmaps for each state to achieve an 80 percent transition by 2030, and a full conversion by 2050.

Several states are already on their way. Washington state, for instance, could make the switch to full renewables relatively quickly, thanks to the fact that more than 70 percent of its current electricity comes from existing hydroelectric sources. Iowa and South Dakota are also well-positioned, as they already produce nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind power. California already has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.

No more than 0.5 percent of any state's land would need covering in solar panels or wind turbines. The upfront cost of the changes would be significant, but wind and sunlight are free. So the overall cost spread over the long term would roughly equal the price of the fossil fuel infrastructure, maintenance and production. The plan also addresses the issues of base load and intermittency (a criticism that is frequently levelled at renewables) by using a combination of storage systems and demand response, with support from non-variable energy sources such as hydro and geothermal, to fill temporary gaps in supply from wind or solar. All in all, this new grid would not only be reliable, but actually more reliable than today's grid.

"When you account for the health and climate costs – as well as the rising price of fossil fuels – wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems," he continued. "A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilise fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science."

If the conversion is followed exactly as his plan outlines, the reduction of air pollution in the U.S. could prevent the deaths of approximately 63,000 Americans who die from air pollution-related causes each year. It would also eliminate U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases produced from fossil fuel, which would otherwise cost the world $3.3 trillion a year by 2050.

The study is published in the online edition of Energy and Environmental Sciences. An interactive map summarising the plans for each state is available at www.thesolutionsproject.org.

The USA currently produces 15% of the world's carbon emissions. An even bigger emitter is China, of course – responsible for 29%. While the sheer size and growth of China may appear daunting, it is actually a world leader in terms of clean energy investment. Last year, a report from WWF-US indicated that China could make a similar transition to that illustrated here, with potentially 82% of its electricity generated from renewables by 2050.


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