How do we fix it?

A Way Forward

Could the U.S. really phase out fossil fuels and rely only on wind, water and sunlight for power? It’s unlikely but possible, scientists say.

Picture of Henry Ford

Economies of scale  Mass production drove down the cost of Henry Ford’s Model T by 62 percent. Experts hope that growing demand for energy from wind and solar projects will have a similar effect, making the costs of each competitive with fossil fuels.

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By Craig Welch

In just a few decades the United States could eliminate fossil fuels and rely 100 percent on clean, renewable energy. That’s the bold vision of Mark Jacobson, a Stanford engineering professor who has produced a state-by-state road map of how the country could wean itself from coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power.

By 2050, Jacobson envisions the nation’s transportation network—cars, ships, airplanes—running on batteries or hydrogen produced from electricity. He sees the breezes gusting across the Great Plains powering vast stretches of the country’s middle while the blazing sun helps electrify the Southwest. He pictures New England capturing its legendary offshore winds. “There’s no state that can’t do this,” Jacobson says.

Today only 13 percent of U.S. electricity comes from renewables. Achieving Jacobson’s goal would be on par with simultaneously undertaking some of the nation’s most ambitious endeavors: the Apollo program, the interstate highway system, the nuclear bomb, and the military’s World War II arsenal. This transformation would cost roughly $15 trillion, or $47,000 for each American, for building and installing systems that produce and store renewable energy.

Picture of Henry Ford

A common goal  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. built an arsenal of more than half a million armored vehicles, ships, and aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress, made by Lockheed-Vega in California. Similarly, an arsenal of renewable energy projects could be rapidly built.

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What would it take? Seventy-eight million rooftop solar systems, nearly 49,000 commercial solar plants, 156,000 offshore wind turbines, plus wave-energy and geothermal systems. Land-based wind farms would need 328,000 turbines, each with blades longer than a football field. These farms would occupy as much land as North Carolina. Of course, producing fossil fuels gnaws through land too. In the past century prospectors drilled nearly 2.5 million oil and gas wells across the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. The wells, pads, roads, and storage facilities built in that region from 2000 to 2012 take up more ground than New Jersey. Replace fossil fuels with renewables, Jacobson suggests, and all that land could be reclaimed.

For now, he says, momentum is growing. Thanks in part to government subsidies and large-scale production, costs are falling. The amount of power generated nationwide by wind and solar increased 15-fold each between 2003 and 2013. This summer President Barack Obama moved to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and Hawaii committed to having all its electricity provided by renewables by 2045.

Picture of Henry Ford

Audacious engineering  NASA scientists in Cleveland, Ohio’s Supersonic Wind Tunnel prepare to test a Saturn I booster model. The 1960s’ Apollo program showed that a national commitment can yield great technological feats.


Still, many experts aren’t convinced. “It has zero chance,” Stephen Brick, an energy fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says of Jacobson’s plan. Political, regulatory, and social barriers are huge, especially in a nation where the energy infrastructure—and much of its political influence—is rooted in the oil, gas, and coal industries. Some critics are concerned about whether the resulting grid would be reliable. And neighborhood battles would likely erupt over wind farms and solar panels. Even outspoken scientist James Hansen, who warned Congress a quarter century ago about climate change, insists that nuclear power is essential to rid the country of fossil fuels.

Yet Jacobson’s work at least offers a starting point. Scientists and policymakers may keep arguing about solutions, but as Obama points out, the nation must continue its march toward a clean-energy future—even if it’s not yet clear precisely how that will look in 35 years.“If we don’t do it,” he said this summer, “nobody will.”

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