Mark Jacobson at AGU: Envisioning the Renewable Planet

April 30, 2012

Mark Jacobson is a Stanford engineer actively engaged in envisioning the future.  He’s been getting a lot people’s attention since  producing the cover story of Scientific American 3 years ago, outlining a plan to move the planet completely to renewable sources of energy by 2030.

Since then he has been fleshing out the details of how intermittent sources can supply base load power.

That was one of the questions I asked him to address when I caught up with him briefly after his presentation at last December’s AGU conference in San Francisco. Since it resonates with the new video that will be coming out this week, now seems as good a time as any to post the short interview.  Link to the landmark Sciam article below – pdf here. 

Scientific American – Plan for a Sustainable Future:

Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.

Is it feasible to transform the world’s energy systems? Could it be accomplished in two decades? The answers depend on the technologies chosen, the availability of critical materials, and economic and political factors.

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Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will require 16.9 TW of power as global population and living standards rise, with about 2.8 TW in the U.S. The mix of sources is similar to today’s, heavily dependent on fossil fuels. If, however, the planet were powered entirely by WWS, with no fossil-fuel or biomass combustion, an intriguing savings would occur. Global power demand would be only 11.5 TW, and U.S. demand would be 1.8 TW. That decline occurs because, in most cases, electrification is a more efficient way to use energy. For example, only 17 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline is used to move a vehicle (the rest is wasted as heat), whereas 75 to 86 percent of the electricity delivered to an electric vehicle goes into motion.

Even if demand did rise to 16.9 TW, WWS sources could provide far more power. Detailed studies by us and others indicate that energy from the wind, worldwide, is about 1,700 TW. Solar, alone, offers 6,500 TW. Of course, wind and sun out in the open seas, over high mountains and across protected regions would not be available. If we subtract these and low-wind areas not likely to be developed, we are still left with 40 to 85 TW for wind and 580 TW for solar, each far beyond future human demand. Yet currently we generate only 0.02 TW of wind power and 0.008 TW of solar. These sources hold an incredible amount of untapped potential.

Wind supplies 51 percent of the demand, provided by 3.8 million large wind turbines (each rated at five megawatts) worldwide. Although that quantity may sound enormous, it is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year. Another 40 percent of the power comes from photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants, with about 30 percent of the photovoltaic output from rooftop panels on homes and commercial buildings. About 89,000 photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, averaging 300 megawatts apiece, would be needed. Our mix also includes 900 hydroelectric stations worldwide, 70 percent of which are already in place.

Only about 0.8 percent of the wind base is installed today. The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth’s land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. The nonrooftop photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants would occupy about 0.33 percent of the planet’s land. Building such an extensive infrastructure will take time. But so did the current power plant network. And remember that if we stick with fossil fuels, demand by 2030 will rise to 16.9 TW, requiring about 13,000 large new coal plants, which themselves would occupy a lot more land, as would the mining to supply them.

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7 Responses to “Mark Jacobson at AGU: Envisioning the Renewable Planet”


  1. Have they got a ball park figure for the emission footprint for the switch over would be?

    • rwpikul Says:

      Using high-carbon energy sources, (i.e. coal for electricity, tar sands for petroleum): Less than the displacement from the first year of operation.

      There is also the option of using things like ‘solar breeders’, which dedicate the energy from early production runs to making more renewable capacity.

  2. witsendnj Says:

    Is this the same Mark Jacobson who published the research indicating that ethanol makes more ozone than gasoline?

    http://ciitn.missouri.edu/cgi-bin/pub_view_project_ind.cgi?g_num=12&c_id=2008002

    “As Mark Jacobson’s research suggests, ethanol increases the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. Like gasoline, when ethanol is burned, large amounts of vapor are produced. As this vapor diffuses and is exposed to sunlight, it is converted to acetaldehyde. With the accumulation of acetaldehyde, ozone levels intensify. Ozone, a reactive molecule that corrodes living tissue, has been linked to damaged forests and respiratory complications among humans.”

    Also, did you ask him about what clean fuel can power air travel? Seems to me we need to have a change in the mindset that takes air travel for granted, if it’s true that one flight cross-country is the same as driving an SUV every day for two years. Something about the CO2 being released high in the atmosphere.

    In the age of skype, conferences that require plane flights should be unnecessary, and vacations and other trips could be made by rail.

  3. danolner Says:

    People getting on and doing work like this: absolute heroes.

  4. Mike Says:

    A few years ago, Melbourne University produced a detailed plan on how Australia could switch to 100% renewable energy in only a decade. The plan was fully costed, taking into account all of the technical, logistical, fiscal and social implications. The only thing preventing this sort of plan being put into action is political will. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qImNRuV4G0Q

    With Australia’s next government most likely being a conservative which plans to cut the carbon tax and remove the new mining superprofits tax, tha chances of them investing in a renewable future is zero.


  5. [...] Post went on to interview Mark Jacobson, subject of my yet again fortuitously-timed interview posted monday, of Dr. Jacobson speaking at last year’s AGU conference. To get a sense for what scientists [...]


  6. [...] a plan in Scientific American a few years ago for powering the entire planet on renewable energy. I interviewed him at AGU in 2011, and he’s continued to refine and update his concepts in recent [...]


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