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Another Blueprint for 100 Percent Renewables by Mid-Century

Herman Trabish's picture
Greentech Media

Herman K. Trabish, D.C., was a Doctor of Chiropractic in private practice for two decades but finally realized his strategy to fix the planet one person at a time was moving too slowly. An...

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  • Mar 13, 2014

The clean energy sector is awash in scenarios that suggest that 100 percent of our energy needs can be met with renewables. While the realities of implementation are far more difficult than the reports suggest, these models can serve as a helpful exercise in imagining what is possible.

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has recently released some new calculations. He concludes that, by 2050, onshore and offshore wind, utility-scale and rooftop PV, concentrated solar power, geothermal, wave, tidal and conventional hydropower can meet 100 percent of U.S. energy demand.

To get there, all new generation must come from what Jacobson calls the wind, water and sunlight (WWS) electric power technologies by 2020, according to The Solutions Project study. At least 80 percent of existing energy must then be replaced by WWS by 2030 for the U.S. to reach 100 percent renewables by 2050.

“Every new power plant should be a clean renewables plant,” Jacobson said. “If every new car sold today was an EV, in fifteen years almost every car would be electric.”

On average, renewables plus achievable energy efficiency could cut total energy demand 37.3 percent, the study concludes. Over 85 percent of that would be from electricity use. The build-out would take about 0.65 percent of U.S. land, according to the scenario.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), and hybrids would make up the transportation fleet in 2050; the hydrogen would only be produced from WWS-generated electricity; trucks and buses could be hybrid BEV-HFCVs or pure HFCVs. Jacobson said buses could be solely BEVs if fast battery swapping or supercharging becomes available.

Jacobson’s conclusions are similar to the findings of work done by University of Delaware researchers in 2012.

The plan eliminates nuclear energy because of its energy intensity and time horizons. According to Jacobson’s analysis, the fossil fuels used in mining and uranium refining are nine to 25 times the amount used by wind energy per unit energy produced. In addition, a nuclear facility takes ten to nineteen years to get into operation, while WWS projects take only two to five years.

Liquid biofuels are not included because “the effective cost of a liquid biofuel is four to five times that of the electric power needed to move an electric car the same distance.”

The resource mix would be different state by state, as reflected in studies focusing on California, New York, and Washington and by an interactive U.S. map created for the new report.

The California mix is 55 percent solar and 35 percent wind, Jacobson said. The bulk of the solar would be commercial, industrial and government-scale installations and utility-scale projects. Another 10 percent would come from residential rooftops.

“That requires 19 million systems averaging 5 kilowatts each. But there are only 11.5 million residential rooftops of all kinds, including single and multiple unit structures. By 2050, there will probably be 17 million,” Jacobson said. “The bottom line is that we are saturating the rooftops, especially because not all homes will accommodate systems.”

Also, he added, rooftop solar is presently more expensive than utility-scale solar. “But our plan is flexible. If that changes, there can be more rooftop solar. We have laid out just one scenario. Others are possible, as long as they are based on wind, water, and solar.”

Jacobson’s work includes a list of recommended policies that would support getting to 100 percent renewables, but leaves the final decisions and options up to each state’s leadership.

Nationally, the plan would create an estimated 5.1 million construction jobs and 2.6 million permanent annual jobs. “We are extremely confident there will be net job gain nationally because jobs in renewables are local,” Jacobson said. “Solar construction produces far more jobs per kilowatt-hour than traditional generation.”

Jacobson’s projections for 2030 suggest that the cost advantages will go to renewables. The levelized cost of energy for WWS technologies are expected to be $0.07 to $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, including the cost of local new transmission, Jacobson’s research concludes. Fossil fuel LCOE projections fall in the $0.12 to $0.16 per kilowatt-hour range, excluding externalities.

The cost of new long-distance transmission is projected to be $0.01 per kilowatt-hour for HVDC lines of between 1,200 and 2,000 kilometers.  

“Because the fuel costs of fossil fuels rise over time, whereas the fuel costs of WWS energy resources are zero, WWS energy in 2050 will save the average U.S. consumer $3,400 per year compared with the 2050 energy cost of fossil fuels,” concludes the study.

To get to these savings, aggressive policies need to be put in place immediately, Jacobson said. When the prices come down, the policy impacts can be reduced.

“This is technically and economically feasible,” Jacobson said. “It just requires overcoming political barriers. People can do things like using energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, weatherizing, buying an electric car, and putting solar on their roofs. They can also push their local governments for policies that help form their energy future.” 

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Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 16, 2014

1, Got the idea from searching the internet (where I also learned ohm’s law).

2, How could lower prices be “political”? Anything political will usually cost more to the entire populace. In return, a small minority recieves the benefit of that political action (subsidy).

3, You can’t conserve and tax your way out of fossil fueled depletion into an overheated biosphere. Please count me out!

4, Only the least expensive, most abundant source developed at a planetary scale will allow the descendants any future at all.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 16, 2014

“and the CPV guys that do use triple junction have nearly zero market share (CPV pioneer Amonix went bankrupt).”

I think this is a good example of a casualty of government interferrence that Nathan has pointed out.  The Chinese put cost reduction of PV into hyperdrive through massive subsidies.  That killed CPV just as it was getting some traction.  The benefit of CPV is reduced land use due to its high efficiency.  Ultimately it appears that that could end up being double that of even crystalline silicon cells.  But it is unclear that there is a path to CPV revival and it may end up relegated forever to the betamax scrap heap. 

Nathan, this was intended as a reply to your comment. 

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 16, 2014

…no progress in bringing the super high cost triple junctional 40% efficient space-grade technology down to earth for flat-panel arrays…
With increasing market volume, production automation increases and prices come down orders of magnitude.

We have seen that with semiconductors / computer chips. The price for a transistor went down ~ nine orders of magnitude (a billion times) since the sixties. This is similar technology.
Similar materials, similar small volumes of material, etc.

‘ordinairy’ solar cells show the same very long term trend;
– price reduction of 8%/year per KWh
– yield increase ~0.5%/year (yield=percentage solar radiation/energy converted into electricity).

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 16, 2014

2, How could lower prices be “political”?
Some countries even subsidize car fuel greatly!

4, Only the least expensive … will allow the descendants any future…
Narrow thinking. It excludes new nuclear as that is ~3 times more expensive than wind + solar + storage/renewable burning.

Check all (near ‘invisible’) subsidies for the new NPP at Hinkley and compare with German FiT’s, etc.
London city financial analysts declared Hinkley: “economically insane”.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 17, 2014

..fossil fueled depletion into an overheated biosphere…
Denmark plans to reach zero fossil in 2050. Without nuclear.
As far as I know, it is the only significant country with such secenario.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 16, 2014

Actually, the Jevons effect has been proven correct from a thermodynamic viewpoint [see: Garrett, T. J. (2011). Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?. Climatic change104(3-4), 437-455.], so what the Wikipedia article is actually pointing to is the effects of taxation rather than efficiency. And there’s no doubt that a pigovian tax would reduce energy use, but (as stated above) it would also have economic impacts. So I don’t see anything here to change my viewpoint.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 16, 2014

Whoa, nellie. Solar cannot downregulate AT ALL. And suddenly downregulation is NUCLEAR’s problem if we build a lot of solar? I don’t think so.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 16, 2014


Our challenge is to tie it all together so that we can decorrelate the sources.  This allows for higher capacity credits, in other words, in aggregate the intermittent sources are much less intermittent.  It also would allow the best sites to be utilized nationwide.  For example, the best of the great plains sites are barely touched and they offer capacity factors in the 50% range.  And off shore on the east coast is comarable.  If tied together I would offer that the line between intermittent and predictable gets pretty blurry.  True, it is not dispatchable.  But I think there is a sad irony that there are so many free market capitalists on the board until it challenges their notion of centralized power the way it has always been done.

Why exactly is it that a residential user should get the same reliability as a semiconductor fab without paying for it?  Why should I not be rewarded if I am willing to conserve at peak and why, why, why is it that I am required to subsidize the pig down the street who is unwilling to curtail their load out of laziness.  It is amazing how selective folks are about letting the market decide.  If we want to let the market decide we need a smart grid with real time pricing.  And if we want high penetration of renewables we need a super grid.  I think it is sad that so many shrink from that task and call it too hard, too complicated, something that we cannot do.  This in the country that brought us the moon, the Internet, nuclear energy and the microchip. 

Thank goodness for Elon Musk, while all the naysayers are jabbering, he just goes out and does it. 

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 16, 2014

Electricity delivered by one or few big power plants is intermittent.
The power plant can fail in a second and 1GW falls away, and then the second plant of 1GW can fail.
That is real intermittency, which require huge over-capacities in the grid.

That cannot happen with the thousands distributed solar and wind plants. Their produced electricity volume will always in- & decrease slowly and highly predictable with the moving sun and the changing weather. Weather & sun forecasts are accurate nowadays, especially if some hours in advance.

For this to be true, no huge grid is necessary.
Distributed production on an area of e.g. 100x100mile is enough.
So to my opinion wind and solar should be called (highly predictable) variable and not intermittent.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 16, 2014

The electricity market is guided by politics & government. In Germany, USA, etc.

That guidance should create directives that stimulate smart grid developments, which a.o. facilitate spreading peak use, etc. as it that is clearly more economic.

It is a misunderstanding that a high penetration of renewable requires a super grid. Waste and synthetic renewable fuel burning, in addition to (pumped) storage, is capable to fully compensate for the variation in solar+wind production.
The grid only needs some adaptation if electricity is generated at other places.
So in Germany a few high capacity North-South lines are need.

More renewable do require more intelligent pro-active grid management. But for that we have nowadays excellent, not even expensive, tools.

The idea that nearly all electricity generation should be dispatchable hence power plants, is out of date.
In Germany grid management can decrease production of wind parks, etc. which goes very fast.
And there is hydro & storage to meet sudden increase of demand.
Btw. Good pro-active grid management knows when demand increases.

Agree, it seems many parts in USA lag behind, sticking to old obsolete concepts, while in advanced countries such as Denmark and Germany a beneficial paradigma change is implemented.
A typical example:
Once USA was very efficient. Now a rooftop solar panel installation cost in USA roughly twice as much as in Germany, while installing the same Chinese panels. Cause: unnecessary bureaucracy and inefficiencies in USA.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 16, 2014

I have to disagree with you on that.  Our primary load is on the east coast of the United States.  Our primary wind resources are off shore and in the central part of the country.  This is easily visualized using this graphic.  I wrote up a more detailed description here that also shows the mismatch in best sites and transmission access.  On shore wind on the east coast is only enough to power around 4% of the US requirements.  On an energy basis, Texas alone could generate enough and Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota each come very close – see the table in the link above.  Obviously it is more complicated due to the variability but it provides a sense of the mismatch of load and source.  But the point is, the high capacity factor opportunity is in the central part of the country and the load is weighted towards the coast.  This is good news bad news.  The bad news is that to get the benefit if the high CF resource you have to build substantial transmission upgrades.  The good news is that the sources are geographically distributed so that they are statistically decorrelated thus smoothing the variability. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 17, 2014

Simalar materials, but not not similar physics. However, if the panels and storage achieve just one order of magnitude in combined lower cost, they will be very worthwhile and will disprove the high costs, that respected scientific minded people imagine (and see as reality now)!

Statements like “solar cells can follow Moore’s law” is not credable because transistors can be shrunk almost all the way to the quantum (and then surpass that, even?) on a chip, but you can’t “expand” the amount of sunlight available past just half an order of magnitude (theoritically, using all the wavelengths). Now, you can do that a “billion times over” (excuse the exaggeration) by use of concentrating devises but they, then require all the extra infrastructure support, cleaning, land and so on. Keep up the support for solar but it is not your job to disclude other sources that can help to transition from coal.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 17, 2014

Weather & sun forecasts are accurate nowadays, especially if some hours in advance. For this to be true, no huge grid is necessary.”

I hate to be a nit pic, but that is exactly what the forcast will mandate. SUPERGRIDS, because the nature of intermittency (and darkness) demands large regional expanses! No matter what, we should invest in a stronger grid. If we want to charge a few billion electric cars, globally, to displace oil from whatever clean sources necessary to get off of coal… then we need a stronger grid. The delivery system already concieved, tested, proven and even time tested, at the speed of light, mind you. Pure and simple!

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 17, 2014

So, as nuclear cannot down regulate so much, it will have to take substantial more losses as it has to continue with production while the whole sale price is <$1/MWh.
Hence the P&L picture will take nuclear out.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 17, 2014

When you adapt many facts so much that it becomes ridiculous, yes.
…Vermont Yankee comes to mind, might have been saving lives for 60 years were it not for appeals to fear and ignorance.“.
The operator said it closed VY because of the losses and no improvement visible in next years.
Despite the huge accident and waste liability subsidies that US law grants to NPP’s.
So only plain economics.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 17, 2014

Nixon killed the Thorium development, Reagan pretty much killed renewables and IFR was killed during the Clinton administration.  All were mistakes. 


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 17, 2014

…”solar cells can follow Moore’s law” is not credable…
Financially they did follow Moore’s law during the past ~35years. And financial is the thing that matters most regarding solar cells.
Why no longer?
Especially since so many great  improvements wait for implementation at industrial scale.
Even ‘simple’ things such as thinner wafers, implying less material needed.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 17, 2014

The accusation that Chinese PV factories are highly subsidized is promoted by US and EU. It is the basis for the dumping argument (WTO), and generated some support for high import taxes (~45% here in the EU).

However that accusation has litte substance, and PV prices in many markets outside EU and USA are now substantial lower…
China started a procedure at WTO, claiming no dumping at all. But that takes years…

That type of non-trade practice by EU & USA is unproductive for the welfare of general population.

I think that by the time PV panels reach ~28% yield, double junction PV panels will become the standard. Those may raise the yield towards ~40%.
Some experts think that present single junction cells can even reach ~32% using light tunneling, etc by e.g. nano-paint.
As PV panels have no moving parts and may last a century or so, I think CPV will become obsolete being too expensive. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 17, 2014

We need to be replacing coal NOW! At least they have plans to do so by then (better than the US, etc).


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