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California Could be Powered Exclusively by Renewables

Photovoltaic power station at Furnace Creek Ranch, in Death Valley, California
The photovoltaic power station at Furnace Creek Ranch, in Death Valley, California, makes use of just one of the many abundant natural resources that could generate all of the energy needed to power the State of California—without the use of fossil fuels—according to a new report. Researchers are investigating each state to determine if this can be accomplished nationwide. Wikimedia Commons/spg solar

Researchers develop a roadmap to meet the state’s sizeable energy needs exclusively with solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal power.

August 5, 2014—Building on past research into the economic and technical feasibility of supplying the entirety of the world’s energy needs via wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), have published a report on how that goal might be reached in the state of California.

The paper, A Roadmap for Repowering California for All Purposes with Wind, Water, and Sunlight, was published recently by the journal Energy. The authors note that although WWS energy is more expensive to generate today, by 2030 economies of scale could actually make it much less expensive.

According to lead author Mark Z. Jacobson, Ph.D., a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, the research began in 2009 with a straightforward question: is it possible to power the world with WWS sources alone?

“[We wanted] to see if, theoretically, we could convert everything to wind, water, and solar power. Are there any materials limits, or cost limits, or supply limits? Is there enough wind in the world, solar in the world?” Jacobson recalls. “The conclusion was, yes. If we wanted to do it, we could do it. There is enough wind, there is enough solar power. We can make the grid reliable. There are enough materials.”

In 2011, Jacobson and coauthor Mark A Delucchi, Ph.D., a researcher at UC Davis, examined the question in greater detail, specifically looking at the United States. “To actually implement something, those geographic areas are too large,” Jacobson says. “We decided to go down to the state level because it’s a little more tractable, depending on the state, to actually make a change.”

Earlier research into the WWS potential in New York State has informed the energy debate as leaders weigh the role that hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas will play in the state’s energy future. California was the next logical step, Jacobson says, because of the state’s large population and high energy demand.

The researchers found that California has more WWS resources than it would need to meet its energy demands by 2050. The state already has a robust network of hydroelectric power plants that in 2007 generated 14.5 percent of the state’s electricity. Geothermal provides approximately 5 percent more. Solar resources are abundant in the state, as is both onshore and offshore wind.

The research includes a detailed economic analysis that notes that the shift to WWS would eliminate approximately 413,000 existing jobs, largely in the fossil fuel industry, but create approximately 442,200 jobs during the extensive construction phase required for such the switch and an additional 190,600 permanent jobs for operation of the new facilities.

The research indicates that currently the cost to generate electricity via WWS in California is 12.1 cents per kWh, compared to the 9.7 cents per kWh of conventional fuels. Jacobson says those figures don’t reflect the health and climate costs of fossil fuels, however, which the research quantifies at 5.3 cents per kWh.

By 2030, the picture changes significantly, in large part because linear extrapolation indicates a maturing WWS manufacturing sector will drive costs considerably lower. By that time, the research forecasts that the cost to generate electricity via conventional fuels will be 15.7 cents per kWh; more, if the projected 5.7 cents per kWh of health and climate costs are added in. That compares to just 6.2 cents for WWS, with no health or climate additions projected.

“Right now, it’s more expensive on average, but by 2030 it will be extremely cheaper if you look at the cost trends,” Jacobson says. “The key factor, though, is there is zero fuel cost for the wind, water, and solar. Whereas, [with] conventional fuels the capital costs will only rise because they have already reached their economies of scale.”

Beyond the economics, such a plan will face political and social obstacles, Jacobson acknowledges. The existing power systems have strong vested interests and significant lobbying power. Additionally, the public perceptions of alternative energy tend to focus on the limitations of a single technology rather than the possibilities of an interconnected grid of different technologies.

“When people just look at wind alone or solar alone, they say the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. But we don’t look at it like that. We look at it as an entire system of all renewables together as one commodity,” Jacobson says. “People in the public are not aware of what is possible. There is a whole role for educating the public.”

The team is essentially finished with roadmaps for all 50 states and hopes to publish those within the next year.

“There will definitely be a different mix for each state,” Jacobson says. “We develop one scenario for each state of what it could look like, based on limitations of resources available—how much wind they have in the state and [how much] solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric.”



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