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Scientist to Policymakers: Clean Energy Could Fuel New York by 2050

‘No need for any type of fossil fuel,' says lead author of new report. Wind, water and sunlight could supply all New York state's power.

Mar 21, 2013
Workers installing solar panels on a roof near Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

By 2050, New York State could run entirely on energy produced from wind, water and sunlight. That radical finding, which goes further than any other clean energy plan envisioned for New York, comes from a peer-reviewed study published last week in the journal Energy Policy.

The 13 scientists who wrote the report analyzed the technical and economic feasibility of meeting the state's energy needs solely through renewable energy. They concluded that moving to renewables would stabilize energy prices, decrease power demand through efficiency and reduce health impacts from air pollution.

Lead author Mark Z. Jacobson spent more than two years figuring out the details of the proposal, which includes wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal energy but no fossil fuels or nuclear power. Biofuels are used as a transitional power source and eventually phased out.

Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has spent his career studying air pollution and climate change. Fifteen years ago, he switched from researching large-scale problems to examining their solutions.

In 2009, he co-authored a report on how to power the world with renewable energy by 2030. That study was featured on the cover of Scientific American just weeks before the failed UN climate conference in Copenhagen.

The New York study uses some data from the 2009 report but delves into much greater detail on the required changes in infrastructure, the cost and jobs created, and policy recommendations.

Jacobson spoke with InsideClimate News about his inspiration for the study and what he hopes policy makers can take from it. A spokeswoman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told us that the governor's office is reviewing the report.

InsideClimate News: What prompted you to write this paper?

Mark Jacobson: Well, we'd done a previous plan to repower the world's energy infrastructure [with renewables]... and as part of that plan, we also did an analysis for the United States. But to actually implement something like this, we're figuring it has to be done on a smaller scale at first, and then build up rather than trying to do the whole world at once and then go down.

It just happened that we met some people who are interested in New York's energy policy, including the actor Mark Ruffalo, director Josh Fox, some bankers and a lot of other people who are in financing and industry [and] NGOs ...They were aware we'd done these large-scale plans, and they asked, 'Well, is it feasible to do a plan for New York?'

At first I said—because I knew how much work it takes—I said 'Oh not really, I'll write a paragraph, somebody else can do it.' But then I got inspired, and that same night I realized to get started it wasn't as difficult as I'd anticipated, because we'd already done this world plan and the U.S. plan, so it was really trying to shrink it down to the scale of a state, and also to get new data from the state. So that night I wrote a draft of the plan. It was about 20, 21 pages.

ICN: You wrote the first draft in one night?

Jacobson: Yes ...I started writing this one paragraph, and then I just said what the heck, and I realized I could do it, and I really became inspired, and said 'Wow I wish I could do this, this is so cool. This would be incredibly important to do.'

I figured I had all the information at my fingertips and it would take somebody else a long long time to put all this stuff together ... so I wanted to do it, actually, once I got going.

But it took two years after that to really finalize this plan. I got lots of people to review it, to contribute, to look at additional issues that I hadn't covered initially. I got a lot of students involved who did research projects on different aspects of the plan. A lot of people reviewed it, in addition to the people who were authors on the paper.

ICN: You said part of the inspiration came from Josh Fox and Mark Ruffalo, both well-known opponents of hydraulic fracturing. Did they influence your decision to exclude natural gas from the New York plan?

Jacobson: In our world plan [from 2009], we'd already excluded natural gas. The world plan is based on wind, water and sunlight, and there was no room and no need for any type of fossil fuel. So even though they're [Ruffalo and Fox] against natural gas, it wasn't like we had to change anything we were doing to accommodate that viewpoint.

There's a lot of anti-natural gas activity going on in New York, but my philosophy was, nobody cares or really wants to listen if you're going to complain about something. You have to have an alternative to propose, and so I preferred to focus on the positive of what you could do with wind, water and sunlight, not with what you can't do with natural gas or nuclear or oil or coal or anything else.

And that's not based on just advocacy—it's based on the science. If you trace back to how this all evolved, before the 2009 Scientific American article was published, I published a paper called Review of Solutions to Global Warming, Air Pollution and Energy Security, in which I actually reviewed many different types of energy sources in terms of about 12 to 14 externality impacts [such as the effects on human health and climate change].

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