A study points the way to a renewable energy reliant United States in just 35 years (Credit: Shutterstock)
By Chris Wood
A team of researchers led by Stanford University's professor Mark Z. Jacobson has produced an ambitious roadmap for converting the energy infrastructure of the US to run entirely on renewable energy in just 35 years. The study focuses on the wide-scale implementation of existing technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal solutions, claiming that the transition is both economically and technically possible within the given timeframe.
As a starting point, the researchers looked at current energy demands on a state-by-state basis, before calculating how those demands are likely to evolve over the next three and a half decades. Splitting the energy use into residential, commercial, industrial and transportation categories, the team then calculated fuel demands if current generation methods – oil, gas, coal, nuclear and renewables – were replaced with electricity.
That already sounds like a mammoth task, but its true complexity comes to light when you consider that for the purposes of the study, absolutely everything has to run on electricity. That means everything from homes and factories to every vehicle on the road.
As it turns out, while the calculations might be complex, the results are extremely promising.
"When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050," said Jacobson. "About 6 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."
In order for each state to make the transition, it would focus on the use of the most easily available renewable sources. For example, some states get a lot more sunlight than others, some have a greater number of south-facing rooftops, while coastal states can make use of offshore wind farms, and for others geothermal energy is a good option.
Interestingly, the plan doesn't involve the construction of new hydroelectric dams, but does call for improved efficiency of existing facilities. It would also only require a maximum of 0.5 percent of any one state's land to be covered in wind turbines or solar panels.
The team looked at all of the above before laying out a roadmap for each state to become 80 percent reliant on clean, renewable energy by 2030, with a full transition achieved by 2050.
Some states are more prepared to make the change than others. For example, Washington state already draws some 70 percent of its current electricity from hydroelectric sources, and both Iowa and South Dakota use wind power for around 30 percent of their electricity needs.
So what would all of this cost? Well, according to the research, the initial bill would be fairly hefty, but thanks to the sunlight and wind being free, things would level out in the long run, roughly equaling the cost of the current infrastructure.
"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," said Jacobson. "A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilize 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."
Not only would it be economically viable to make the switch, but it would also have some significant knock-on health benefits, as approximately 63,000 people currently die from air pollution-related cases in the US every year.
The researchers published the results of their study in the journal Energy and Environmental Sciences. There's also an interactive map available, detailing how each state would make use of available renewables.
Source: Stanford University