U.S. Energy Demand Can Be Met with Renewables Only

In 2050, by the time I turn 70, this world may finally become "a better place." Or at least the United States can. According to Mark Jacobson, professor of Civil & Environmental Studies at Stanford, each of the 50 states has a capacity to support their energy systems using the most clean of the renewable sources: water, wind, and sun – without resorting to nuclear energy or biofuels. The calculations that Jacobson put together with his Stanford team show that a 100% offset can be reached by 2050 if we start now. This super-ambitious plan can be found on the website of The Solutions Project, a non-profit group started by Jacobson along with entrepreneur Marco Krapels and filmmaker Josh Fox.

Is this goal commercially attainable? Lazard’s report on prices in the energy sector in 2014 apparently answers "yes" to this question. Even today, some renewable sources – such as onshore wind or hydroelectric, – can successfully compete with natural gas.

2014 Unsubsidized Levelized Costs of Energy (cents/kWh)
Wind onshore 3.7-8.1
Wind offshore 11-21.4
Geothermal 8.9-14.2
Hydroelectric 4-6
CSP with 18 hr storage 11.8-13
Utility-scale solar PV 7.2-8.6
Commercial rooftop PV 12.6-17.7
Residential rooftop PV 18.0-26.5
Gas combined cycle 6.1-8.7
Gas peaking 17.9-23.0
Advanced pulverized coal 6.6-15.1
Diesel generator 29.7-33.2

Source: Lazard, 2014

The entire transition project may cost the nation about $16 trillion, which, in the long run, is cheaper than continuing business as usual. As Jacobson explains, this $16 trillion price can be paid off in 30-35 years with a cost of a kilowatt hour just about 11-12 cents. The electricity price on your utilities bill may well be less than that, but it doesn't include the price that you pay for your gasoline, which you should factor in, since the 11-12 cents transition toll includes the transportation sector. The rise in your real current energy bill then may be pretty tangible, because even $3 per gallon is three times more expensive than the equal amount of green energy1.

Already today wisely allocated renewable energy production helps save money. “Actually, five states that already have a prevalent share of renewables, have their electricity costs stable, in fact – declining, in the recent five years,” Jacobson says. In the next five years, as clean technologies become more and more affordable, the price difference between fossil fuel energy and renewables is destined to increase. To illustrate this trend, let’s take Lazard’s reports issued in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and follow the dynamics of the unsubsidized levelized costs of two popular types of energy: the onshore wind and the gas combined cycle. In 2014, onshore wind energy became almost 10 cents cheaper, while natural gas costs remained unchanged.

Unsubsidized Levelized Costs. Onshore Wind vs. Gas Combined Cycle, 2012-2014 (cents/kWh)
2012 2013 2014
Wind onshore 0.48-0.95 0.45-0.95 0.37-0.81
Gas Combined Cycle 0.61-0.89 0.61-0.87 0.61-0.87

Source: Lazard, 2012, 2013, 2014

Besides the high costs, renewable energy is often blamed for being an unreliable solution due to the intermittent character of the electricity production. Jacobson's research busted this myth. The scholars combined water, wind, solar and hydro energy production potential with the hourly power demand cycles throughout the country, and discovered that most of this demand can be satisfied with renewables. “And, as our 6-year model shows, with 100% renewables and existing storage solutions, along with appropriate demand-response management, we can match the U.S. load perfectly,” Jacobson says.

So, renewables are an economical and reliable alternative solution to burning fossil fuel, that lacks only some political will and financial plan to get implemented. If we start today, then, according to The Solutions Project, by 2050, 50.2% of energy demand will be met by inexpensive wind generation (including 31.1% onshore wind, 19.1% offshore, 0.5% wave-tidal energy). Solar energy will be able to provide 45.4% (38.2% – utility-scale solar, 7.2% – rooftop solar), hydro – 2.7%, geothermal energy – 1.2%. There should be no room for fossil fuels, except for a room in a museum of natural history.

  1. Since 1 KWh equals 3 electric vehicle miles traveled (evmt), and 1 gallon, on average, lets you drive 25 miles, the price per mile would be 3.8 cents (11.5/3) for an electric vehicle, and 12 cents (300/25) for a gasoline one. Obviously, using renewables sourced electricity for transportation is three times cheaper than using the cheapest gasoline these days.