“Combustion is the problem – when you’re continuing to burn something, that’s not solving the problem,” says Prof Mark Jacobson.
The Stanford University academic has a compelling pitch: the world can rapidly get 100% of its energy from renewable sources with, as the title of his new book says, “no miracles needed”.
Wind, water and solar can provide plentiful and cheap power, he argues, ending the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis, slashing deadly air pollution and ensuring energy security. Carbon capture and storage, biofuels, new nuclear and other technologies are expensive wastes of time, he argues.
“Bill Gates said we have to put a lot of money into miracle technologies,” Jacobson says. “But we don’t – we have the technologies that we need. We have wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, electric cars. We have batteries, heat pumps, energy efficiency. We have 95% of the technologies right now that we need to solve the problem.” The missing 5% is for long-distance aircraft and ships, he says, for which hydrogen-powered fuel cells can be developed.
Jacobson’s claim is a big one. He is not just talking about a shift to 100% renewable electricity, but all energy – and fossil fuels still provide about 80% of that today. Jacobson has scores of academic papers to his name and his work has been influential in policies passed by cities, states and countries around the world targeting 100% green power. He is also controversial, not least for pursuing a $10m lawsuit against researchers who claimed his work was flawed, which he later dropped.
Jacobson divides approaches to the energy transition into two camps: “One says we should just try everything – they’re the ‘all-of-the-above camp’ – and keep investing huge amounts of money in technologies that may or may not be available to work in 10 years. But 10 years is too late.” Carbon emissions must fall by 45% by 2030, scientists agree, to keep on track for no more than 1.5C of global heating.
His camp takes a different approach, Jacobson says: “Let’s focus on what we have and deploy as fast as possible. And we will improve those technologies just by deploying, bringing better solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles and so on. Some people just don’t realise the speed that we need to solve these problems, especially air pollution – 7 million people die every year. We can’t wait.”
However, there are major barriers to a rapid rollout of a 100% renewable energy system, he says: “The No 1 barrier is that most people are not aware that it’s possible. My job is trying to educate the public about it. If people are actually comfortable that it’s possible to do, then they might actually do it.”
He adds: “The policy of all-of-the-above is also a big barrier to a transition. In the US, for example, in the recent [climate legislation], a lot of money was spent on carbon capture, small modular nuclear reactors, biofuels, blue hydrogen. These are all what I consider almost useless, or very low-use, technologies in terms of solving the problems. And yet, a lot of money is spent on them. Why? Because there are big lobby groups.” Another barrier is funding the upfront costs of renewable energy in poorer countries – rich countries need to help, he says.
Jacobson believes progress towards a 100% renewable energy system can be fast: “The goal is 80% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. But, ideally, if we can get 80% by 2030, we should get 100% by 2035 to 2040.”