Earth, wind and fire? Try solar, wind and water.

By Sarah Kollmorgen

Imagine 3.8 million wind turbines stretching across the landscape.

That’s how many turbines – generating 5 MW of electricity each – it would take to power the world, said Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson.

Altered photos by Andreas Demmelbauer, lamoix and Heath Alseike.
Photo illustration by Sarah Kollmorgen; original photos by Andreas Demmelbauer, lamoix and Heath Alseike.

Jacobson sees this as quite feasible, considering the number of warplanes manufactured during WWII, and the fact that turbines only need to be replaced about every 30 years. Jacobson went further and made the case that the entire United States could be run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. He spoke on a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Jacobson’s panel explored different aspects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades, including evaluating energy efficiency, comparing types of energy plans and implementing renewables, in an effort to examine the most feasible ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

“None of this is going to be easy to do,” said Peter Loftus of Primaira LLC. Loftus said the planet will need nearly twice as much energy by mid-century as we use now due to population growth, especially in Asia and India. To implement a successful energy plan that removes any credible energy option, such as nuclear power, would decrease that plan’s chances of success, Loftus said.

However, Jacobson envisions an energy future run entirely on wind, water and solar power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

“It’s not rocket science to solve the reliability problem,” Jacobson said about the argument that renewable energy is not reliable enough for widespread use. “It’s an optimization problem.”

To prove the country can run completely on wind, solar and water, Jacobson and his team created an energy plan for each state. An interactive map showing details of each state’s plan– including the number of wind turbines to be installed, the number of jobs that would be created and the amount of land needed, will be launched on The Solutions Project website (thesoultionproject.org) next week.

Beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Jacobson noted a few other benefits of a renewable energy plan.

“You could actually dissipate a hurricane,” he said. “You can reduce up to 80 percent of the storm surge” due to offshore wind turbines. Jacobson also noted how using wind, water and solar would greatly decrease the 60,000 deaths per year in the United States due to air pollution.

Issues with energy transmission, lobbying and policy are the greatest obstacles to a 100 percent renewable future, he said.

Panelist Stephen Brick, of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, proposed a more moderate implementation of renewable energy. “A high renewable situation is possible,” he said. “But is it desirable?”

Brick said carbon performance, cost, reliability and broader environmental impacts all needed to be considered before a renewable-heavy plan is implemented. “We don’t get a do-over.”