Kate Mackenzie Q&A: Mark Jacobson on 100% renewable energy

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor of engineering, has drawn a lot of attention with the article he wrote together with Mark Delucchi for Scientific American last year, about how the world could move to 100 per cent renewable power.

He spoke to FT Energy Source about the political, financial and other barriers to a mass transition to renewable power — and whether there is a role for carbon pricing.

Jacobson and Delucchi’s outline focuses on wind and solar — supplemented by smaller amounts of geothermal and marine energy.  It’s not the first to look at making a big switch to low-carbon energy; a recent study co-authored by McKinsey for example found the cost of Europe reducing CO2 emissions by 80 per cent would cost no more than business-as-usual; while a paper by PriceWaterhouseCoopers on 100 per cent renewables for Europe and North Africa was also reasonably optimistic on costs. German physicist Gregor Czisch is an early advocate of 100 per cent renewables.


- What are the main things that have changed since you wrote the article?

Most of the response has been positve – some has also been negative, mostly from industries that weren’t included. But the positive response has been international – Australia, Europe. In the US there’s been interest as well. In general most people have been supportive or agreeable, that it comes down to being a practical issue of being a long-term change that needs to occur. Individuals can make their own small changes but it really requires nations to make changes IN legislation. And for every individual law, there are people who fight against it.

It’s a long legislative process.

- It’s quite a big battle, isn’t it?

Yes, but there has been progress. If you look at wind and solar- wind is growing very quickly. For four years in a row it  has been the second-largest new source of electric power in the US, so it is growing on its own. Wind has increased more than coal but less than natural gas during this period.

Elecric vehicles – there are now a lot of them on the road; I have one, so I know it can be done. The technologies are there and certainly you don’t need so much legislation because the vehicles, once manufactured, will penetrate into the mainstream, but it’ll be a slow process. You can add new electric power and replace retiring electric power with new technologies, but replacing the old electric power takes more time — for example, new coal plants are the same cost as new wind, but old coal plants, because they don’t have to meet clean air requirements, are a lot cheaper, and as a result there’s no incentive for them to go out of business. So that requires either policies to mandate that they be eliminated or policies requiring their emissions be clean up to drive up their costs, and increase the likelihood that they go out of business.

Right now we’re inching along with new renewable energy generation, but we’re also getting new natural gas generation, and those new plants will be around for a while.

- You focus on wind and solar, because they’re most developed. Do you think there is too much faith placed in technological breakthroughs?

That’s a danger, because we can’t delay implementation of large-scale renewables. We can’t use the excuse, “in 10, 15, 20 years we’re going to get a new technology so let’s hold the fort till then,” since in the meantime, the Arctic ice will melt and air pollution mortality will accumulate.

Think of the proposed “breakthroughs” . The ones we’ve heard about, we already know are not very good. For example, with CCS, you don’t reduce the mining or transport of coal. In fact, all plans suggest you increase the energy required, so that means more coal, 25 per cent more, and as a result 25 per cent more pollution of chemicals aside from co2.

With biofuels, you’re always going to be putting out more pollution than real renewables such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal, and wave power, so no matter how efficient you make the production of the biofuels, you still produce more pollution. Even with the best biofuel in the world, you’ll never come close to reducing air pollution as much wind or solar.

- What about cellulosic biofuels?

Just to give you an idea, if you don’t account for land use change you could theoretically reduce carbon emissions by 50 per cent with cellulosic ethanol but you still produce the same or higher air pollution mortality as gasoline. If you do include land use change you theoretically increase carbon emissions by up to 50 per cent while also causing the air pollution damage mentioned. Land use change does occur.. so the carbon could be somewhere on the order of gasoline. Whereas wind energy reduces over 99 per cent of carbon and air pollution without any uncertainty with respect to land use change.

Any other biofuels such as algae is not as good as cellulosic. It’s still not going to be as good as a 99 per cent or higher reduction in air pollution and carbon as wind.

But the question is, why do you want to waste your time on that, why waste your time on biofuels, where the air pollution is the same or higher than fossil fuels — so people will stil die? It just seems a waste of effort. Internal combustion engines are only 15 – 20 per cent efficient, so it just makes sense to use electricification, plug-to-wheel efficiencies of electric vehicles are 75-86 per cent.

- But the infrastructure required for electric vehicles is very challenging…

I think the biggest challenge is bringing a large number of electric vehicles to market, but that is beginning to happen.  For most people it would be a lot easier to have an electric vehicle. Just to give you an example, if you live in a house or live in an apartment complex where you can plug it in, you never have to go to the gas station – it eliminates that one annoyance in your life, so as a result you don’t don’t have to inhale hydrocarbons waiting for your gas tank to fill. On long trips – I’ve made several to Sacramento, 120 miles away – this particular car has a range that’s 240 miles – I can just plug it in at a motel room through the window; I’ve done this at three places. And this is without infrastructure! The first time I had to look at how to do it. But after that it was easy. And the car breaks down less [than an internal combustion engine vehicle] since it has so few moving parts.

Everyone I talk to wants one, but not everyone can afford them at this point – that seems to be more the problem, but I think that is changing quickly.

- Some renewable technologies are very water-intensive – such as concentrated solar, which features in your proposal.

There are two types of concentrated solar; one that uses water cooling and one that uses dry air cooling. The water-cooled, per Kwh, requires about the same amount of water as a nuclear plant or coal per Kwh, however the dry-air cooling requires hardly any water, except for cleaning — the cost of that is that you lose about 4 per cent of the energy generated.

- Are lifecycle emissions well enough understood for your assumptions?

I relied on other people’s research for the lifecycle numbers, it is a difficult field because you have to account for the building of a plant, the operation of a plant, the decommissioning, the fuels, and you have to account for all sorts of processes that go on. It is a difficult field, but there are people who specialise in it.

- And solar and wind always stack up better?

For real renewables, the only carbon cost is the manufacturing and installation of the device in the first place and the decommissioning at the end of its life, but there’s no continuous cost over the lifetime, whereas coal or shale gas or any fossil fuel out there, requires continuous mining cost, thus continuous carbon emissions over time.

- The land required for renewable power generation is controversial. Do you believe there’s enough?

The wind and solar energy available in usable locations over land — are vastly higher than what humans could possibly need.

In terms of space required, it is necessary to differentiate between footprint – land or water physically touched by the devise – and spacing – land or water between devices. The spacing is larger. For example in the US, if you wanted to power an all-electric vehicle fleet with wind, we would need only one to three square kilometres in terms of the footprint, if you physically pack the 73,000 – 145,000MW turbine towers required next to each other. But the spacing is larger – about a third of South Dakota, or one-half of one per cent of US land area. For comparison, it’s 30 times less land area than corn ethanol, and 40 times less than cellulosic ethanol, which would amount to 20 per cent of the whole US, including Alaska. It’s an incredibly different size.

Solar has a larger footprint, but smaller spacing than wind. But all the numbers are small considering you’re eliminating all your global warming and air pollution. You could power all your world’s energy supply from real renewables – using only about 1.2 per cent of the world’s land for spacing. More than half of this land is open space that can be used for multiple purposes. Also, much of this infrastructure can go over the ocean instead, requiring no land.

- Does marine energy have a place already, given how undeveloped it is?

Yes there are wave devices and tidal devices, but they’re pretty small scale at this time, so in our plan, they’re proposed at only 1 per cent of the overall solution each because mostly they are newer technologies, and the conditions of the ocean are a little rougher than FOR offshore wind above the ocean. The technologies are there, but they could be improved.

The others, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal — those are pretty advanced I’d say, tidal and wave are newer; but they do exist, they can play a role. From a technical feasibility view, there’s enough resource for them to play a role. The one thing that is inhibiting now is that the costs are higher now.

- There are some recent studies out of the UK and Europe looking at upfront costs of a large-scale switch to renewables. This seems to be the big issue..

Upfront costs are high for all technologies, including coal, gas, and nuclear. In terms of overall costs per unit energy generated, however, land-based wind and geothermal are fairly low at this time, solar is more expensive. However, the total costs to society for solar and the others are lower than for all fossil fuels. Specifically, the health and environmental costs of fossil fuels through higher medical costs from pollution, higher insurance premiums for health care, higher environmental cleanup costs, higher severe storm damage are all costs to society that need to be accounted for.

- Are you an optimist?

I know that a large scale conversion to a clean energy economy be done, if we all came together and agreed to do it.

It can be done and it wouldn’t be a detriment to society in terms of draining the resources of society. If you think of all the money that would be spent on a new infrastructure, it wouldn’t just disappear into a hole, it would go into the economy. Even the upfront cost – somebody’s getting that money. All it’s really doing is shifting funds from one group to another groUP rather than represeinting a loss. I’m optimistic it’s technically feasible, not so optimistic on people coming together and agreeing on things in a particular way, though we have seen some movement on that. People are talking about restructuring the grid now, which is the biggest challenge- it’s a political, a zoning issue, in that a lot of people don’t want transmissions in their backyard. Yet a large scale conversion definitely should be done.

- Do you get discouraged?

There is an increase in investment in renewable energy systems,  but there is also increased funding for carbon capture, ethanol, biofuels, and nuclear – none of which are so good as what we could have if we converted to real renewables.

- Do you belive in pricing carbon, or prescribing the cleanest technologies?

Both – we need to go for the cleanest technologies, but one way to do that is through a market mechanism. There are many options, including direct subisdies, and carbon pricing. One example is a revenue-neutral carbon tax, where  you tax all the sources that do emit carbon, and you take that money and give it to industries that are the ones you want to favour, which are the cleanest, so there’s no net loss of funding, or no net tax, but there’s a shift of tax – that really cracks the market.

Right now we don’t have a free market, we have a free-loading market where the fossil fuel companies pollute the air, and get subsidies from the government. Subsidies should be given for a benefit, not to  allow people to damage other people’s health. But the fossil fuel companies are taking subsidies and at the same time damaging people’s health, including killing them. In the US, 50,000 to 100,000 people die each year [from fossil fuel pollution], and worldwide, it is 2.5 million people per year. So if you correct that  externality by taxing those companies for that cost to society, and shifting to clean technologies, that’s a correction of the market, I think.  The feed-in tarrifs have also worked well in Germany, where they specified technologies and required payments from the utilities to people who built those technologies and installed them; so that’s been a hugely successful programme in installing solar in a place that doesn’t even have the best solar resources.

- But is Germany, for example, the best place to install a lot of solar power?

That raises a larger issue. When you have a bunch of small  countries near each other, the biggest challenge is matrhcing hour by hour demand, so the best way to do that is to combine different renewables together, because you can use hydroelectricity in particular to fill the gaps not filled by the other renewables. But in order to do this on a large scale, you need to combine all the renewables together. In Europe, [distribution is different], so you want to have the renewables connected as much as possible. For example, connecting solar from the south, wind from the north and west, and hydroelectric from the north.

But despite Germany not being the most optimal place to produce solar, they have increased the manufacturing capacity to produce solar, so  even if their demand slows down, then German solar companies are available to fill in the demand for solar in other countries. Also, their feed-in tariff has raised awareness so much – I think 39 countries now have one.

Related links:
A gameplan for getting to 100% renewables - FT Energy Source
Europe’s energy in 2050 – cutting CO2 by 80% no more expensive than business as usual - FT Energy Source