NEW YORK — As worry grows over climate damage caused by carbon-based fuels like gas, oil and coal, some environmental engineering experts, such as Stanford University’s Mark Z. Jacobson, are offering new plans for energy independence via renewable power sources. Jacobson became the rare engineering professor to appear on a network TV talk show when he was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman on CBS in October. He was there to discuss his studies finding that wind, water and solar energy could rapidly replace all but a tiny fraction of fossil fuels, both in the U.S. and worldwide, and in a relatively short two or three decades.
“The technologies we’re focusing on are the cleanest, and therefore the most sustainable, in terms of improving human health, reducing climate impacts, reducing water supply impacts, but also providing energy-price stability,” Jacobson said in an interview. “The fuels we’re looking at, like wind and sunlight, have zero cost, and as a result, the only costs really are the installation costs.”
In their latest report, published in the journal Energy Policy, Jacobson and co-authors at Cornell University and the University of California, Davis, map out how New York State could transition to wind, water and solar power by 2030. They calculate there would be enough energy left over to power every vehicle in the state as well, and that 4,000 fewer people would die each year from disease caused by air pollution in New York State. The plan calls for producing electricity with thousands of new wind turbines, most of them offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, in addition to solar and photo-voltaic power plants, rooftop systems on 5.5 million buildings, geothermal plants, devices for capturing tidal and ocean wave power, and additional hydroelectric plants. All together, 1 percent of New York's land would be used.
“The electricity would be used directly, but also used to produce some hydrogen, so instead of having vehicles run on gas or diesel, they would be electric vehicles or some hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles,” Jacobson said. “Instead of having heating by natural gas or oil, we’d have air-source and ground-source heat pumps, and the same thing for water heating. Also, industrial processes would be run by electricity and some hydrogen, and this would eliminate all the emissions associated with fossil fuels.” Jacobson earlier issued a detailed transition plan for California, and plans to produce similar analyses for all the states. They follow his 2009 proposal for a worldwide conversion, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables, published with co-author Mark A. Delucchi in Scientific American and Energy Policy.
“That was a nice theoretical study,” he said, “but for the whole world and the whole U.S., trying to do a conversion on those scales is not so tractable, and that’s why we started going into the state scale.” Columbia University’s Vasilis Fthenakis, a senior research scientist in the department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, published a similar plan for the U.S. in Scientific American in January 2013. His study emphasizes building solar and photo-voltaic power plants in the sunniest parts of the U.S., and using new high voltage direct current lines to transmit power long distances.
Overall, Fthenakis said, Jacobson’s is a good “aspirational” plan, and in New York State, he said, it made sense to focus on wind energy. “We don’t have a fundamental difference in what he proposes,” he said, but added that massive offshore wind technology has not yet been tested over the long-term. Such a plan likely also would face public resistance from beachside communities, he noted, and the initial costs would be high. Jacobson, however, believes the obstacles lie mainly in vested political interests.
“There are a lot of industries that look unfavorably upon this plan, because they don’t benefit from it,” he said. “We’re excluding fossil energy, so gas, coal and oil, but we’re also excluding nuclear power and biofuels, even technologies such as coal with carbon capture, because they’re not as good as what we’re looking at.”
Nuclear energy is excluded, Jacobson said, because of the growing energy costs in mining and refining uranium, a non-renewable resource, and the risk it could add to nuclear weapons proliferation. “Plus, one-and-a-half-percent of all nuclear reactors ever built have melted down to some degree, and this results in risk for another type of disaster, which you don’t have with wind or solar power,” he added.