California Will Run on 100 Percent Clean Energy by 2050, Stanford Professor Says

"I know it's possible!" Mark Z. Jacobson told me.

The entire state of California can—and will—get 100 percent of its energy from wind, water, and the sun in a matter of decades, according to a Stanford professor who just published an extensive report outlining the state's renewable power potential. 

"There's about a 95 percent chance that [California] will be powered by 100 percent clean energy" by 2050, Mark Z. Jacobson told me in a phone interview. 

Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, is the lead author of  a new paper published in the journal Energy that outlines how the Golden State can meet all of its energy demands with wind turbines, solar panels, tidal generators, hydroelectric dams, and geothermal power stations by midcentury. And zero fossil fuels or nuclear power. Previously, Jacobson has outlined how to do the same, in broader strokes, for the entire world.

The  authors propose creating in California "a long-term sustainable energy infrastructure that supplies 100% of energy in all sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) from wind, water, and solar power (without fossil fuels, biofuels, or nuclear power), and hence provides the largest possible reductions in air pollution, water pollution, and global warming impacts."

That roadmap includes building a vast number of renewable power generators: It anticipates 15 million rooftop solar installations, 25,000 wind turbines, 1,200 large-scale 100 MW solar plants, 75 geothermal plants, 5,000 wave devices, and 3,400 tidal turbines. It also necessitates improving energy efficiency and building out a smarter grid. 

With all of the above, Jacobson says, California could meet its entire projected energy demands for 2050, even when the state will be more populous and demand more power. The state would run on 55 percent solar, and 35 percent wind, with the rest comprised of a combination of water and geothermal power. Coal, gas, and nuclear would be phased out entirely.

Image: Jacobsen, Energy

All told, the capital investment necessary to install the proposed 603 gigawatts of new clean power capacity would be $1.1 trillion—a sum that seems enormous, until you consider the economic benefits. The authors note that the clean energy plan would pay for itself in just seven years, thanks to reduced air pollution, new jobs, fuel savings, and mitigated climate impacts. 

According to the author's calculations, 12,500 premature air pollution deaths would be prevented if California were running on clean power, and $103 billion in healthcare costs saved annually. The 220,000 net new cleantech jobs (the figure accounts for those lost in the fossil fuels sector) would generate $12 billion each year. Finally, the reduced emissions would stave off climate impacts like coastal erosion, and save $48 billion. And after seven years, we're in the black. 

"I think the most interesting finding is that the plan will reduce social costs related to air pollution and climate change by about $150 billion per year in 2050, and that these savings will pay for all new energy generation in only seven years," study co-author, UC Davis's Mark Delucchi,  said in a statement. Another benefit: It wouldn't take up that much real estate, either. 

"There're no technological and economic limitations," Jacobson said, "It's a matter of political will."

Therein lies the obstacle. Critics have called Jacobson's previous plans impractical—he has also designed blueprints for a worldwide clean energy transition, as well as a similar plan for New York State—and there's no doubt plenty will wave off his work as utopian scheming.

Jacobson isn't deterred. He doesn't just think his plan is possible; he thinks it's plausible. Perhaps taking some lessons from his experience with the worldwide clean power survey, by narrowing the focus to the state level—where there's no climate change-denying Congress to block action—he thinks his team has increased the chances of kickstarting a clean energy revolution.

Anybody should like this plan. There's no downside.

"I know it's possible!" Jacobson says. "If we were looking at the US level, I'd be very skeptical. But we're looking at states." And once one of these states undertakes the transition, "you'd have a bandwagon effect. I'm optimistic that state-level change is possible." Which is, in part, why he chose California for his study.

"People in California are amenable to these kinds of changes; in other states they'd be less amenable," he added. But it should be alluring to states of all political persuasions.

"This proposal doesn't focus on climate—though it would benefit climate tremendously—but anybody should like this plan," Jacobson told me. "There's no downside."

Still, there's immense political and corporate opposition. Entrenched oil, gas, and coal interests—among the most powerful in Washington—would fight tooth and nail with its very existence on the line. Pundits will call it infeasible, even with climate scientists warning over and over again that we're approaching the  brink of potentially catastrophic global warming

So what would Jacobson say to these critics, the standard bearers of the status quo, who say such a transformation just isn't possible? 

"I'd say there's an information gap. I don't find statements like that very credible; they don't have the information at their fingertips," he said. "I'd say we've looked at the statistics, we've looked at the numbers, and we can do this."