Sunset windmills: Beverley Goodwin
If the United States wanted to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, there's an actual, feasible plan it could follow. Last Saturday, at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago, Stanford University scientist Mark Z Jacobson put forth a detailed proposal on how to achieve to this renewable energy future. In short, the plan is full of wind. And water. And sun. But mostly wind.
Clean coal, nuclear power, natural gas and anything utilizing food products like corn and soy are conspicuously absent from the plan. These alternative energy sources are just not clean enough and/or require giant swaths of land to produce enough energy to make it a feasible power generator. Wind, solar or power generated by water means are not only clean, but don’t require as large of a geographic footprint, hence, the focus of his plan.
Besides the obvious benefits of reducing pollution, Jacobson’s proposal is actually thrifty too. Not only will his plan save the lives of an estimated 59,000 Americans a year, who currently die from air pollution and related health problems from current energy production methods, but the estimated costs each person will save on healthcare a year averages at $3,100. (There’s a reason people who live next to current dirty energy plants have higher rates of asthma.) In addition to less medical bills, each person would save $3,400 on energy costs because cleaner energy is more efficient and that means you’d have to generate less energy to meet current energy demands. (There is less energy going to waste.)
Jacobson’s team has uploaded an interactive infographic on thesolutionsproject.org, detailing, among other things, how each state would generate their energy. For example, if Mississippi was all wind, water and solar energy, the state would need to generate 37.6% less energy than it does now. Other fun factoids display the amount of jobs that would be generated in each state should they adopt Jacobson’s plan, like 171,600 construction jobs and 81,300 operation jobs would be created in Illinois if it was implemented in the state.
Under Jacobson’s plan, Florida would get 53% of its energy through solar plants, and Montana and Idaho would rely on energy from hydroelectric means (30%), but most states would be reliant on wind power. Illinois would generate 60% or more of its power through wind plants as would Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas. In fact, practically every state in the US would use wind power under this proposal.
Sure, the cost of implementing Jacobson’s plan would have some immediate financial costs (namely, the building of all these wind and solar plants), but these are offput by the future benefits, namely, healthier people with more money in their pockets. Oh, and let’s not forget about that whole cleaner planet aspect.
One of the most common arguments against the mass adoption of clean energy is the cost. Opponents claim it's more expensive than, for instance, coal. This is just not true. “Today, onshore wind, geothermal, and hydro are already cost competitive or less expensive than conventional fuels, particularly when health and climate costs of conventional fuels are accounted for,” Jacobson wrote. He continued:
The reason is that WWS [Wind, Water, Solar] stabilizes prices because they have zero fuel costs, whereas fossil fuels have continuous and rising fuel costs over time. This is why the cost of electricity in the 10 states in the U.S. with the highest fraction of electricity from wind has gone up only 3 cents/kWh from 2003-2013, whereas it went up 4 cents/kWh in all other states and 17 cents/kWh in Hawaii, which had only a small percent of WWS in its portfolio during that period.
Okay, so this plan saves lives and money… are there any drawbacks at all? Well, wind turbines and related power plants do kill birds and bats. Bats seem especially affected by wind turbines, with anywhere from 600,000 to 900,000 bats killed a year by the giant turbines. The low air pressure created by the rotating wind turbine blades causes the lungs of the bats flying nearby to explode, leading to fatal internal bleeding, a condition called barotrauma.
But bats get killed by air pollution too, noted Jacobson in an email, and in fact, “wind turbines kill 1/10th the number of birds and bats per kilowatt hour compared with natural gas and coal…so, the installation of wind turbines will reduce bat mortality rates by a factor of up to 10 if wind replaces coal or natural gas.” In short, fewer bats would die in the future if we switched to cleaner energy.
To combat this problem of dead flying animals, both the government and wind turbine manufacturers have been testing different methods involving radar and ultrasonic acoustic equipment that would reduce bat and bird deaths. So far the results have been “encouraging.”
Why so much emphasis on wind power, though? Can’t we just do more solar panels, like on every household and office building roof?
Not really. Jacobson explained that “we have saturated roofs significantly by state, so there is not a lot more that could be added,” except for canopies over parking lots. “It is necessary to have both wind and solar because there are lots of days when solar is low, particularly as one goes further north."
No, the biggest obstacles to implementing a plan like this are purely political—getting thousands of wind turbines on the ground would require heavy investment, either from government or industry. And right now, entrenched utility companies, the fossil fuel industry, and the politicians who back them have little interest in a clean energy renaissance. Which is too bad—as Jacobsen shows, a healthier, cleaner-powered nation is possible.