In some parts of New England, towns are committing to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Burlington, Vermont was the first city in the United States to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Others are following suit, including Hanover, New Hampshire. And there’s a useful tool for places looking to make the transition. “The Solutions Project” has a “vision” for each state in the country for what a switch to 100 percent renewables could look like.
Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson is a co-founder of the Solutions Project. We asked him to join us as part of our series “The Big Switch,” to discuss what it takes for towns, cities, and states to make the transition.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
John Dankosky: You specialize in developing road maps for transitioning to 100 percent clean renewable energy. Could you talk first about some of the challenges for a town or a city or a state or even a whole country to make that kind of a transition?
Mark Jacobson: First of all our plans are really to transition all energies. That’s electricity, transportation, heating-cooling, industry. First of all, to electrify everything and then provide that electricity with clean renewable energy. So we develop plans for all 50 United States and for now 139 countries of the world and also for individual towns and cities. And these are technical and economic plans and so we do find in every location that we’ve looked that it is technically and economically possible to transition to just clean and renewable energy, namely wind and water and solar power. But really getting the information to people is a different story. I mean we really need people to understand what we’ve done and to know what is possible. We really need a transition rapidly such as 80 percent conversion of everything worldwide within 12 years by 2030 and 100 percent no later than 2050 but ideally 2040 or 2045.
And so how do you get that rapid of a change? That’s really the challenge, to do a rapid transition because I think ultimately people will transition to electricity and clean renewable energy because it’s cheaper. It saves money. It creates jobs, reduces air pollution, reducing health problems, reduces climate problems, creates energy security so there are so many benefits. But what’s to motivate people to transition so quickly? And there is some transition that’s quick because wind and solar for example are now the cheapest forms of electric power in the United States, by far, but that doesn’t mean the gas plants are just going to go away or even coal plants. So you do need policies put in place. I think that’s the most challenging part is to get policies put in place in every state and locality to speed up a transition to clean renewable energy.
What’s the best way to set policy so that we can quickly get to a place in which we’re not relying on coal but also on natural gas power plants as opposed to some of the other ways that we can generate renewable energy?
Renewable portfolio standards are I think very good ideas and most states have some renewable portfolio standard. That means that in their electric power sector, the state has to generate a certain percent of their electricity from clean and renewable energy by a certain year. Now most recently, while Hawaii in 2015 passed a 100 percent law that 100 percent of their electricity has to be clean and renewable by 2045, California just passed a similar law that has the same deadline of 2045 for 100 percent effectively clean and renewable energy with 60 percent by 2030. Vermont has a 70 percent law by 2035. So there are several states that have aggressive renewable portfolio standards. New York, in fact, has a 50 percent one.
The federal government has a lot of subsidies for fossil fuels through the tax code and through direct subsidies and we need to eliminate those. But there’s a lot that can be done at the state level and also at the local level. There are over eighty-five towns and cities across the United States right now that have passed resolutions or regulations requiring 100 percent clean and renewable energy for either their city operations or for all operations. But it’s really basically renewable portfolio standards or some kind of direct subsidy system.
A few weeks ago on our show, we talked about Kansas and what we here in New England can learn from their switch to wind power and, in many ways, the political conversation there has been motivated less by concern over climate change than just by economic gains of using wind power. Is this one of the ways Mark in which you feel like we can get people across a very divided nation to get behind the same idea that maybe in some places we want to switch over because we think it’s good for Mother Earth and in other places just because it’s good for our pocketbook. But one way or another we can make people understand that this is something that probably we should be doing.
That’s right. Right now there is a transition underway, it’s just not fast enough and that transition is occurring in a lot of states where you wouldn’t think. In fact, nine out of the ten top wind states are all Republican states in the United States because that’s where the wind is fast and it’s so cheap and solar too is growing significantly and it doesn’t really matter which party you’re affiliated with. It’s cheap. There was a public opinion poll in thirteen countries 26,000 people recently that found that 82 percent of the people in these 13 countries including the United States wanted 100 percent clean and renewable energy.
But the same poll found that only 66 percent of the people believed that global warming is a severe international problem. So even though that’s not good news that 34 percent of the people didn’t believe in global warming, the fact that more people actually believed in clean renewable energy than global warming is an encouraging sign because that means you don’t have to believe in climate change to want to transition to clean and renewable energy. There are so many other benefits. And they actually identified in the poll what some of those benefits were like it brought more national security, created jobs and the costs are down, and so there’s an economic benefit to that.
Are you hopeful we get to this goal that you have in mind?
I am. I’m definitely certain we will get to the goal eventually of getting to entirely if not virtually entirely clean and renewable energy. The only question is, how long it takes, because if we don’t incentivize things or put policy strong policies in place that could take fifty years to get there and that’s too late for the main problems we’re trying to solve. But I know it’s possible to get there much faster because the technologies are literally here right now I mean 95 percent. There are a few technologies like a long distance commercial aircraft running on hydrogen fuel cells and batteries for example that aren’t there yet but they’re expected to get there by 2035, 2040 and within the next five years, we will have electric commercial aircraft that go at least 1500 kilometers with 50 passengers.
I know we have the technologies to do virtually everything we need to do right now and it’s really a question of implementing them and putting strong policies in place and educating people about what are the benefits versus costs of doing it, we’ll find that the benefits just so far exceed the costs in terms of job creation, lower direct cost of energy, improved health, energy security and just the fact that you have more distributed energy so you have less breakdown of the entire grid instead of having centralized power plants that can each go down and take out a third of a city, you have more distributed energy that is more secure in general.