No miracle tech needed: How to switch to renewables now and lower costs doing it

The world is experiencing unprecedented fuel price increases, energy blackmail between countries, up to 7 million air pollution deaths per year worldwide and one climate-related disaster after another. Critics contend that a switch to renewable energy to solve these problems will create unstable electricity grids and drive prices up further. However, a new study from my research group at Stanford University concludes that these problems can be solved in each of the 145 countries we examined — without blackouts and at low cost using almost all existing technologies.

The study concludes that we do not need miracle technologies to solve these problems. By electrifying all energy sectors; producing electricity from clean, renewable sources; creating heat, cold, and hydrogen from such electricity; storing electricity, heat, cold and the hydrogen; expanding transmission; and shifting the time of some electricity use, we can create safe, cheap and reliable energy everywhere.

The biggest reason for the cost reduction is that a clean, renewable energy system uses much less energy than does a combustion-based energy system. In fact, worldwide the energy that people actually use goes down by over 56 percent with an all-electric system powered by clean, renewable sources. The reduction is for five reasons: the efficiency of electric vehicles over combustion vehicles, the efficiency of electric heat pumps for air and water heating over combustion heaters, the efficiency of electrified industry, eliminating energy needed to obtain fossil fuels, as well as some efficiency improvements beyond what is expected.

On top of that, a new system also reduces the cost per unit energy by another 12 percent on average, resulting in a 63 percent lower annual energy cost worldwide. Adding onto that health and climate cost savings gives a 92 percent reduction in social costs, which are energy plus health plus climate costs, relative to the current system.

The energy-producing technologies considered include only onshore and offshore wind electricity, solar photovoltaics for electricity on rooftops and in power plants, concentrated solar power, solar heat, geothermal electricity and heat, hydroelectricity, as well as small amounts of tidal and wave electricity. The most important electricity storage technology considered was batteries, although pumped hydroelectric storage, existing hydroelectric dam storage and concentrated solar power electricity storage were also treated. We found that no batteries with more than four hours of storage were needed. Instead, long-duration storage was obtained by concatenating batteries with four-hour storage together. In a sensitivity test, we found that even if battery prices were 50 percent higher, overall costs would be only 3.2 percent higher than their base estimate.

We also considered seasonal heat storage underground in soil plus short-term heat storage in water tanks. Seasonal heat storage is useful for district heating. With district heating, heat is produced and stored in a centralized location then piped via hot water to buildings for air and water heating. The alternative to district heating is using heat pumps in each building. The study found that the more district heating available, the easier it was to keep the electric grid stable at lower cost since it reduced the need for batteries to provide immediate electricity to heat pumps. Batteries are more expensive than underground heat storage.

We found that the overall upfront cost to replace all energy in the 145 countries, which emit 99.7 percent of world carbon dioxide, is about $62 trillion. However, due to the $11 trillion annual energy cost savings, the payback time for the new system is less than six years.

The new system may also create over 28 million more long-term, full-time jobs than lost worldwide and require only about 0.53 percent of the world’s land for new energy, with most of this area being empty space between wind turbines on land that can be used for multiple purposes. Thus, we found that the new system may require less energy, cost less and creates more jobs than the current system.

Another interesting finding was that, with a fully renewable system, charging battery-electric vehicles during the day was less expensive for the grid than charging them at night because day charging matched well with solar electricity production.

According to Anna von Krauland, a Stanford Ph.D. student who participated in the study, a main implication is that it “tells us that for the 145 countries examined, energy security is within reach, and more importantly, how to obtain it.”

It’s important to note that we did not include technologies that did not address air pollution, global warming and energy security together. It did not include bioenergy, natural gas, fossil fuels or bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture, direct air capture of carbon dioxide, blue hydrogen or nuclear power. We concluded that these technologies are not needed and provide less benefit than those we included.

Finally, our findings contend that a transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy in each country should occur ideally by 2035, and no later than 2050, with an 80 percent transition by 2030.

Mark Z. Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. His work forms the scientific bases for the U.S. Green New Deal. He is also the author of a book and textbook on transitioning to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. He is co-author of the new study “Low-Cost Solutions to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Insecurity for 145 Countries,” which includes summaries for each country and an infographic map.

Tags batteries clean energy Climate change Electric vehicles Energy Renewable energy solar wind

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