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Fifty-States Plan Charts a Path Away from Fossil Fuels

Is there a realistic roadmap to 100% renewables?

Renewable energy sources, which today account for less than 10 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S., are considered by many too expensive and too unreliable to scale up rapidly and replace coal, oil, and natural gas. That’s not so, according to the Solutions Project, a group of scientists, activists, and celebrities that this week released a report that lays out individual plans for all 50 states to reach 100 percent renewable energy for all purposes: electricity, transportation, heating and cooling, and industry.

“There are so many claims made about energy, and when you actually look at the numbers, 99 percent of them don’t pan out,” says Mark Jacobson, the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford and the head of the team that devised the plans. “What we’ve shown is that all the claims that moving to 100 percent renewables is just too expensive, it’s impossible, the lights are gonna go out—they’re just not true.”

Entitled “50 States 50 Plans,” the report is certainly bold, not to say fanciful. There are some eyebrow-raising projections: Georgia, for example, which has a coastline about 100 miles long and a total area of more than 59,000 square miles, would get 35 percent of its energy from offshore wind—none of which has been developed to date.

Alaska, which has a fragmented power system due to its immensity and the remoteness of many communities, would get 70 percent of its energy from wind, both offshore and onshore.

The political barriers are also formidable. Ohio, for instance, recently froze its renewable portfolio standards, effectively halting state-mandated goals for renewable energy programs. Overcoming the policy barriers, acknowledges Jacobson, will be hard but not insurmountable: “We believe that if people have this information, if they’re aware of what the real costs and benefits are, things will be a lot easier.”

In an era of political gridlock and bitter arguments over climate change, that might sound naïve; and it’s easy to dismiss programs like the Solutions Project (whose board of directors includes, along with Jacobson, actor Mark Ruffalo and filmmaker Josh Fox) as exercises in unlikely hypotheticals. But the 50 States plan joins an expanding shelf of reports and studies that indicate that transforming our energy system is less daunting than it appears. Also this week, the Advanced Energy Economy Institute, a climate-focused nonprofit, released a report produced by the Brattle Group that examined utility initiatives to integrate renewable sources into the power grid, in order to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The study focused on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the nonprofit grid operator that serves 24 million people across the state, and the Colorado unit of Xcel Energy, the Minneapolis-based utility that serves nearly five million customers across nine Midwestern and Western states. The conclusion: “ERCOT … and Xcel Energy Colorado have managed to successfully integrate increasing amounts of variable renewable energy resources at costs that have generally been small to modest.” (For more detail on Xcel’s project and the technological challenges involved, see 10 Breakthrough Technologies: Smart Wind and Solar Power.”)

Reaching renewable energy at penetration levels of 10 to 20 percent, on average, and in some cases above 50 percent, is possible, the study found.

Fifty percent is one thing; 100 percent in 35 years is another. Undeterred, Jacobson plan to produce full-renewables plans for 135 countries around the world by November—in time for the next U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

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