Is a 100% clean, renewable energy future by the year 2050 possible? On EcoJustice Radio, Stanford Professor Mark Z Jacobson went into the details on why the most efficient and socially and environmentally just way is to transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear to Wind, Water, and Solar energy solutions.
Subscribe to EcoJustice Radio:
A Renewable Energy Transition: Clean Air, Low Carbon with Wind, Water, Solar with Mark Z. Jacobson
Is a 100% clean, renewable energy future by the year 2050 possible? Our guest, Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobson proposes that the most efficient and socially and environmentally just way is to replace fossil fuels through a combined implementation of Wind, Water, and Solar energy solutions.
Are these solutions perfect? No. However, when compared to other so-called energy solutions like nuclear, biofuel, biomass, waste to energy, and hydrogen (just to name a few) these three (Wind, Water-Geothermal, Solar) show significant promise. As our guest explains, real solutions must always be BOTH clean and renewable, rapidly deployable, low cost, and carry with them very few side effects.
In this interview, Professor Jacobson responds to his detractors and also debunks some myths, while getting at the solutions. What about the intermittency of wind and solar? Is there enough battery storage? Are wind turbines dangerous to wildlife? What is the real cost of battery mining and disposal? Why don’t small nuclear reactors make the cut and how are they dangerous even to global security? How do the proposed costs-benefits of these solutions pencil out when compared to other options and the fossil fuel industry?
In his latest book, No Miracles Needed, How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air, Professor Mark Z Jacobson lays out a clear framework based on peer reviewed studies, and he does so in a way that is easy to understand. Professor Jacobson has developed computer models and roadmaps that illustrate how countries, states, cities, and towns can transition to 100% renewable energy for all their energy needs. He is a man with a clean energy plan, one with a stable and efficient grid that would provide reliable electricity at lower cost while creating new jobs.
The Climate Crisis
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Jessica Aldridge, EcoJustice Radio: I just want to lay the groundwork a little bit to describe the climate crisis that we’re facing. Can you briefly describe the major problems we’re facing with air pollution, global warming, and energy insecurity, knowing that that is not a brief conversation, but for today’s show to just set it up for us.
Mark Z Jacobson: I’ll try to be brief. Well, I look at it from three points of view. One is air pollution. One is global warming. And the other is energy and security. So 7 million people die from air pollution each year. Hundreds of millions more are ill. These are all preventative deaths and illnesses. 90% of these deaths and illnesses are due to energy and mostly combustion from energy. And 20% of the deaths are children under the age of five years old. And the same sources of air pollution also cause global warming. Global warming is the increase in the average temperature around the Earth near the surface since the mid 1700, since the Industrial Revolution started. And it’s distinguished from what’s called the natural greenhouse effect. I mean, carbon dioxide, water vapor, they are in the natural atmosphere.
Before humans came around, the temperature of the Earth is much warmer than it would be without natural greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So, historically, we’ve had a natural greenhouse effect. And historically, temperatures on Earth have been higher than today. 4.6 billion years ago, when the Earth was formed, it was molten. There was much higher temperature than today. 100 million years ago, there was the last ice free Earth. And dinosaurs are roaming around the Earth. But people did not live back then.
Now we have 8 billion people on the Earth and most of them live near the coastlines. And we have not only a warming of the Earth right now, the Earth is about 1.1 degrees Celsius above that from a natural greenhouse effect. And we’re concerned that the temperature is going to increase within a decade or so to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the background, above the absence prior to the Industrial Revolution. And that is a concern because we’re already seeing significant damage worldwide. More extreme storms, more intense air pollution, more wildfires, droughts, floods, sea level rise. I mean, if all the ice on the Earth melted, sea levels would be about 60 to 70 meters higher than today. And that would flood about 7% of the entire coastline of the world. And most people live along the coast.
But we also have an increased disease, famine, heat stroke, heat stress, losses in agriculture, deaths of coral reefs, which are already occurring. There are a lot of impacts of global warming. Energy insecurity is the third problem we’re facing. And this is due to several issues. One is that fossil fuels are limited resources. They will run out at some point. Oil, gas and coal each have a different deadline before they run out. And when they run out, we’re going to have social, economic, social and political instability and ultimately chaos unless we have an alternative.
If we go to wind and solar, for example, that’s what’s called distributed energy. So when an individual wind turbine or solar panel goes down, it hardly affects the entire grid. So more distributed energy actually creates more stable energy supply in terms of less risk of blackout due to terrorist attack or just, uh, accidental power plant failure, for example. Anyway, those are the three main problems that we’re trying to solve and that we need to solve immediately.
We need to solve every year, 7 million people die from air pollution. So we need to solve that problem yesterday. Global warming, we need to avoid 1.5 degrees. Global warming, we estimate we need to eliminate 80% of all emissions by 2030 and not 100% by 2035 to 2050. And that’s enormous task and requires a lot of willpower and energy and security problems. Well, those will be solved when we solve the climate and air pollution problems because these all go hand in hand.
The Wind-Water-Solar World
Jessica Aldridge: Okay, your book highlights what your studies show are the best energy solutions versus impacts. The three best technologies that came out on top to tackle pollution and the climate crisis issue that we are facing. Those were wind, solar, and water, also known as hydroelectric [and geothermal]. I’d like to break down each one of these in a moment and explain why they proved to be the best solutions. And then further in today’s conversation, I want to discuss what technologies did not fully pan out, such as nuclear. So let’s start with wind. How does wind work? How is it stored? Uh, why is it important?
Mark Z Jacobson: Well, I’ll just say all these technologies, wind-water-solar technologies, they all take energy to build the wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and also geothermal as part of the water as well. But when they’re running, they don’t have emissions. Wind turbines have no emissions of any gas or particle during their operation. And same with solar panels, they don’t have any emissions. Uh, hydroelectric dams, they don’t have any direct emissions. Some people argue, well, there’s some emissions because biological activity is going on in the water behind the dam that results in some methane, and that depends on the location, but it’s pretty minor compared to other sources of emissions from other types of technologies.
These wind-water-solar technologies were all chosen [to replace fossil fuels] after an evaluation of them versus nuclear, versus coal, with carbon capture, versus bio-energy. And the wind-water-solar technologies were found to be the best in terms of their impacts on the environment and even on the grid, and on their energy security. — Mark Z. Jacobson
But these technologies were all chosen after an evaluation of the wind-water-solar technologies versus nuclear, versus coal, with carbon capture versus bioenergy. And the wind-water-solar technologies were found to be the best in terms of their impacts on the environment and even on the grid, and on their energy security: So, no air pollution deaths associated with it, no climate warming emissions. Very little impact on the environment, very little land requirements for wind. It’s actually the smallest footprint on the ground of any energy technology by far, far less than nuclear power. It’s like 1000th land area required compared with nuclear because it’s basically a pole on the ground. And so there’s difference between what’s called footprint and spacing. Spacing is land between wind turbines.
But that space can be used for multiple purposes. Ranch land, farmland, grazing land, open space, or could be even used to put solar panels on. Anyway, so little impact on the environment, little impact on air pollution, little impact on climate, and also creates energy security, because every country in the world can power itself with just wind, water, and solar.
Jessica Aldridge: And you had mentioned earlier geothermal, and we didn’t touch on it too much. What is a geothermal energy source?
Mark Z Jacobson: Well, there’s geothermal electricity and heat. So geothermal is heat from the ground. And so if you go deep in the ground, there are hot rocks, especially near volcanoes, for example, you have really hot rocks. And so with a geothermal electricity plant, you drill two holes, and then one hole, you send cold water down. And then that water gets heated up by these hot rocks. And what comes up is either steam or hot water that produces steam. And that steam then runs a steam turbine to generate electricity. So the temperature has to be a certain high enough temperature to produce electricity. Now, for wells that are not so hot, you can use that heat just for heating buildings, for example. So heating buildings is pretty common, uh, taking heat from the ground and capturing and sending it through pipes to buildings. So, uh, that’s two types of geothermal. But what I was referring to before is geothermal electricity.
Jessica Aldridge: What about when people say that there are impacts to wildlife, like birds and bats and things of that nature, when it comes to wind?
Mark Z Jacobson: Now, in terms of birds, wind turbines kill fewer birds than coal plants or gas plants by far, per unit energy, one 10th in the US. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service says that wind turbines kill about 500-600,000 birds a year. Sounds like a lot, but electrical towers, communication towers, they’re, like, ten to 50 million birds a year. Buildings are about one billion birds a year. Cats are like three billion birds a year. If we’re not outlawing cats, in fact, there are about 100,000 birds a year are killed by duck hunters. Nobody’s proposing to get rid of all the duck hunters. it’s really a red herring, so to speak, because, again, per unit energy, fossil fuel power plants actually kill ten times more birds than wind turbines, not only due to the air pollution, but due to the buildings and due to the mining for coal or nuclear or uranium, for example. Just the devastation of the countryside due to mining.
Questions About Solar Batteries and Storage
Jessica Aldridge: Before we go to the break, what about solar energy technologies? How is that stored? Because one of the biggest push-backs that I get is that there is not enough storage to maintain the electricity that’s generated. And is that true? If so, how do we get there to have enough storage? Is it feasible?
Mark Z Jacobson: Well, right now, storage, the background grid right now with fossil fuels, needs storage. Because if you have flat supply from coal, well, the demand varies. So you have to meet the difference between that flat supply and the variable demand. And so that’s done today with hydroelectric power and natural gas. So in our future, wind, water, solar, world, we would still use hydroelectric power for backup, just like we do today. But we’d use batteries as well. And some other types. There are other types of electrical storage.
So batteries replace natural gas, basically. And that’s what they’re doing in California, southern Australia. Natural gas is being replaced by batteries. In addition, even though the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine. If you combine wind and solar, they’re very complementary in nature. When the wind is not blowing during the day, it’s often sunny and vice versa. And so you combine wind and solar, and then you use hydroelectric to fill in the gaps. And with batteries, you can add that as well. And also by interconnecting wind and solar over large distances, when the wind is not blowing in one place, it’s often blowing somewhere else. Same with sunlight, connecting them together, it smooths out the overall supply of energy. And then finally, you use what’s called demand response, the grid. The demand for energy varies daily, and grid operators can give people incentives to do that right now, to not use electricity at certain times of the day. Like, I have three different electricity rates during the day, and it’s cheapest at night, most expensive in the afternoon, and it’s in the middle, in between. So I charge my car late at night when the electricity price is lowest. That’s called demand response.
Jessica Aldridge: Okay, Mark, we were just talking about electrical option for clean, renewable energies. And one of the concerns that does come up a lot is that the ecological damage that can occur from electrical batteries, from the mining of electrical batteries, as well as the disposal of this lithium and other precious metals. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Mark Z Jacobson: Yeah, so the mining for wind-water-solar world will include mining lithium for batteries. You’ll also need some rare earth elements for, like neodymium for permanent magnets in wind turbine generators, for example. And you also need steel and concrete, for example, for the construction of things. But the overall mining is trivial for wind-water-solar systems. Absolutely trivial compared to the mining today for fossil fuels. Right now, in the United States alone, we drill 50,000 new oil and gas wells every year. There are 1.3 million active oil and gas wells and 3.2 million abandoned ones. Worldwide, there are 29 million abandoned wells. We’re talking about a few tens of wells, not 50,000 new wells every year, not even 1,000 new wells every year. It’s like less than it’s on the order of 0.1% of the mining compared with the current fossil fuels.
Not to say that we shouldn’t be careful about that mining of for lithium, for example. But all batteries are 100% recyclable. Companies are currently recycling Sonnen, who builds a 15,000 cycle battery. They recycle 100% of the components of the battery. There are companies like Redwood Materials, which is a spin off of Tesla, that they recycle up to maybe somewhere between 97% and 100% of all the material and batteries. And also solar panels are being recycled now, too. So there is recycling in terms of lithium.
“There’s actually a way to produce lithium that doesn’t require any mining, or any new mining, I should say. That is like in the Salton Sea in California, there are estimates that that may have enough lithium alone in the salt and sea to supply 40% of the world’s lithium. And there are already geothermal electric power plants there, and they bring up a brine from deep down that contains lithium.” — Mark Z Jacobson
There’s actually a way to produce lithium that doesn’t require any mining, or any new mining, I should say. That is like in the Salton Sea in California, there are estimates that that may have enough lithium alone in the salt and sea to supply 40% of the world’s lithium. And there are already geothermal electric power plants there, and they bring up a brine from deep down that contains lithium. And without any new mining, it’s possible to extract lithium from that same brine with no new mining at all. Then there are other mines that are 100% renewable electricity.
And that’s the goal of our wind-water-solar world, is to make the world 100% renewables. So there are actually mines being built, one in Texas, one in Canada, and one or two others in the world, that are going to run on 100% renewable electricity. So among these recycling, which will supply a lot of lithium in the future when we after these batteries run out and by the way, batteries do last quite a while. I mean, I’ve had an electric car since 2009, and I’m still on the first battery pack. So that’s 14 years. And it’s only lost about 25% of its charge in 14 years. It was expected to only last seven years. So it’s actually lasting much longer.
I mentioned a 15,000 cycle battery that’s on and, well, 15,000, if you cycle a battery once a day, that would be 365 cycles a year, right? Ten years, 3,650 cycles. So 15,000 cycles. Well, that’s almost 50 years. These batteries are getting to last water cycles, and so I’m very optimistic about that.
Problems with Biofuels
Jessica Aldridge: There are other technologies that did not make the cut. Uh, what were the implications by which you were comparing the technologies? And then we’ll get into those that did not make the cut.
Mark Z Jacobson: Well, the best technologies are those that are both clean and renewable. So wind, water, solar, they, um, don’t have no emissions of air pollutants or greenhouse gases during their operation. What’s not good is if it’s renewable, but not clean. So, for example, a biofuel like ethanol, used for vehicles, like gasoline, is just replacement for gasoline. You still burn it and it still produces pollution. Regardless of its carbon impacts, it’s still producing air pollution that people die from, people become ill from, so that doesn’t meet our criteria.
In addition, it hardly reduces carbon, according to many studies, because it takes a lot of energy to convert a crop such as corn. It takes a lot of energy to produce a crop such as corn to a fuel such as ethanol. And then you can’t even pipe ethanol around and pipes like you can with oil and gas because it corrodes the pipeline. So you have to train, truck, and barge it around. And you have even more emissions anyway, when you account for all the emissions associated with cultivating corn, fertilizing it, watering it, transporting it, refining it, and then transporting it more. And you find out that you’re hardly reducing any carbon dioxide, in some cases, you’re increasing it, from some studies. So we don’t approve of using bio-energy where you can burn that energy. Nuclear power is another one, even though it’s lower emissions than natural gas, for example. Uh, it takes so long I want.
Jessica Aldridge: Hold on to the conversation about nuclear. And just, uh, before we close out the break to talk about some of the implications that you were using, um, some of the others, it’s not rapidly deployable, low cost, and very few side effects, right?
Mark Z Jacobson: Yeah. Okay. So the criteria, we need things that are low cost, rapidly deployable, and clean and renewable, and also don’t take up rapacious amounts of land. I mean, biofuels take up a huge amount of land as well. Take up 20 times more land than a solar panel to produce the same energy, for example. So biofuels are going to use a lot of water as well. So we’re not including biofuels in our plans.
The Wrong Solution: Small Modular and Large Nuclear Reactors
Jessica Aldridge: Mark, we were just speaking to those technologies that did not make the cut. And one of those, as we’ve mentioned, is nuclear power. It is very popular among many politicians, uh, some people within the environmental community. And there’s this argument being that the new nuclear options can be made safer and smaller. Those are also known as SMR — small modular reactors. Why does nuclear not make your list for clean, renewable options that will get us to 80% clean energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050?
Mark Z Jacobson: Yeah. So let’s start, first of all, with traditional nuclear reactors, and then I can go to small modular reactors. So right now, it takes between 17 and 21 years in Europe and the US to plan, construct, and operate a nuclear reactor. There are only two reactors being built in the US. They’re both in Georgia. They’re on years 17 and 18. They’re costing $34 billion for 2.2 gigawatts. That’s about $15.2 per watt. So the cost is enormous. For comparison, solar and wind are one dollar per watt. When you actually count for the how much energy output of the nuclear plant versus the wind or solar, we’re talking about seven to eight times the cost per unit energy generated of a new nuclear plant versus new wind or solar. So wind and solar also take between six months and three years to between planning and operation. You can put a rooftop solar system on within six months, for example. So six months to three years versus 17 to 21 years? I don’t think so. Or it’s also something that costs seven to eight times more per unit energy.
In addition. And then same thing with plants in Europe: Flamanville, France, Olkiluoto in Finland, Hinkley in the UK. These are all 17 to 21 years between planning and operation. In addition, nuclear has weapons proliferation risk. Five countries have developed weapons secretly under the guise of civilian nuclear energy programs. Meltdown risk: 1.5% of all nuclear reactors ever built have melted down to some degree. Uranium mining has a risk, as 10% of all underground uranium miners have died of lung cancer. These are above and beyond smoking, lung cancer deaths. Waste issues: You have to store the nuclear waste for 200,000 years and takes a lot of energy and cost to store that. And also, nuclear is not carbon free. I mean, you have all the time lag between planning, operation, that extra 15 to 20 years of planning to operation emitting CO2. In the Vogtle plant in Georgia, they’ve laid enough cement so far to create a sidewalk from Miami to Seattle. And all that cement created carbon dioxide that’s gone in the air. And they haven’t generated a single kilowatt hour of electricity, but they’ve been emitting for the last ten years of construction, huge amounts of CO2. So you have to account for that additional CO2 from the background grid. That’s a lot of CO2.
In addition, nuclear power plants emit water vapor because they need cooling water to keep them cool. So water vapor is a greenhouse gas. They emit direct heat to the air. It’s called anthropogenic heat. Just like when you drive your car, you’re emitting heat as well. This is a contributor to global warming. When you add all these things up, we’re talking about emissions of carbon dioxide that are nine to 37 times that of a wind turbine per unit. Electricity generation still better than natural gas, but not as good as wind or solar by far.
Wind-Water-Solar, when compared to other energy solutions like nuclear, biofuel, and hydrogen, show significant promise. As @mzjacobson explains, real solutions must always be clean, renewable, rapidly deployable, low cost, with few side effects.
YouTube: https://t.co/l3thYnwmCu pic.twitter.com/SzhGgPiNBi
— WilderUtopia (@WilderUtopia) March 27, 2023
Jessica Aldridge: I was going to ask the small modular does everything that you just said also apply to the small modular reactors as well?
Mark Z Jacobson: Yeah. So small modular reactors? Well, they’ve been planning and testing and trying them since 2015. First of all, they had small modular reactors back in the 1950s. They decided to go to big ones because the small ones were too expensive. It’s better to get economies of scale with large ones. Now somehow they think that going to small ones is going to be cheaper than big one. That’s just not the case. You actually have economies of scale, and it’s cheaper for these big reactors. No evidence it’ll be smaller. In fact, all the cost estimates so far indicate that their costs just keep rising for the small modular reactors, they’ve been planning them since 2015.
The first one for testing won’t even be available until 2030. So that’s too late. We need 80% of the problem solved by 2030. And you won’t even have a test reactor available until 2030. And that’ll probably get delayed. So we’re talking we don’t know if it’ll be any faster than these large reactors or less expensive. Some of them will lead to more weapons proliferation. Because you have smaller reactors, they’re going to ship them around the world. Right now, there are only 30 countries or so that have nuclear energy facilities. With these small modular reactors, you can ship them to any country. And so countries that receive them will then import uranium to run these reactors. And some of these countries will develop nuclear weapons secretly under the guise of the civilian nuclear energy programs. So it’s just a greater risk.
Some of the reactors, they claim to have less waste, radioactive waste. However, that’s because in those reactors, they’re refining the uranium to a greater extent. And when you have more refined uranium, you’re closer to weapons grade uranium. So it’s much easier to convert that uranium to nuclear weapons. And then you still get the uranium from underground. The other reactors that don’t refine the uranium more, they still have waste issues, the meltdown issues, we don’t even know. So there’s no proof whatsoever that these small molecule reactors will be any better. Chances are they’ll be worse in terms of the energy security, primarily because you can ship them around anywhere in the world. So it’s much easier to extract weapons from them.
Jessica Aldridge: And it just sounds like to me that we’re taking all this money because they’re expensive. The small and the big ones are expensive. It doesn’t matter. And we’re going to take all that money that we can invest in solutions that we know work now, that we can get a turnaround now on.
Mark Z Jacobson: Imagine every wind turbine you put up today. You’re displacing fossil fuel, and you’re saving people’s lives immediately. If you’re waiting around, if you have something that’s not going to be available for 10, 15, 20 years, that means we’re going to be killing people for 10, 15, 20 years. But that money could have saved a lot of lives immediately, or much quicker. Not immediately, but much faster, uh, by investing in renewables that could displace fossil fuels, uh, on a very short time scale. So it’s really just not very smart to invest in these technologies that we don’t even know will work. And instead of trying to invest in things we know work — wind-water-solar — we need to deploy, deploy, deploy as fast as possible, keep our eye on the ball, and focus on what works and what can be implemented quickly.
Mark Z. Jacobson is Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, and Director of their Atmosphere/Energy Program. His latest book is No Miracles Needed, How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air.
Jessica Aldridge, Co-Host and Producer of EcoJustice Radio, is an environmental educator, community organizer, and 15-year waste industry leader. She is a co-founder of SoCal 350, organizer for ReusableLA, and founded Adventures in Waste. She is a former professor of Recycling and Resource Management at Santa Monica College, and an award recipient of the international 2021 Women in Sustainability Leadership and the 2016 inaugural Waste360, 40 Under 40.
- Public course on 100% renewables: Clean, renewable energy & storage for a sustainable future: https://online.stanford.edu/courses/xeiet100-clean-renewable-energy-storage-sustainable-future
- New book: “No Miracles Needed”: https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/WWSNoMN/NoMiracles.html
- Stanford Solutions Project infographic map https://sites.google.com/stanford.edu/wws-roadmaps/home
Podcast Website: http://ecojusticeradio.org/
Podcast Blog: https://www.wilderutopia.com/category/ecojustice-radio/
Support the Podcast: Patreon – PayPal
Guest: Mark Z. Jacobson
Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Host and Producer: Jessica Aldridge
Engineer and Original Music: Blake Quake Beats
Originally Published 20 February 2023, Updated 26 March 2023