If you already knew about (or read our item on the perils of fracking), you may well be asking yourself: If this method of extracting natural gas is not the answer to our energy needs— and if nuclear is not either— then what to do?

This seems like a good time to remind that there are some intriguing ideas out there. One place to start is an essay by two professors, Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, published in Scientific American a little over a year ago. It’s “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables.” By 2030.

One of the great things about Scientific American, besides the articles, are the lively and thoughtful debates that take place in the comments, with knowledgeable readers sharing their information and the authors responding.

Whatever you think of the practicality of the approach these two men take, at least it’s a start to a conversation we need to have—right now.

Here are excerpts:

…Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.

…In our plan, WWS [wind, water and solar] will supply electric power for heating and transportation—industries that will have to revamp if the world has any hope of slowing climate change. We have assumed that most fossil-fuel heating (as well as ovens and stoves) can be replaced by electric systems and that most fossil-fuel transportation can be replaced by battery and fuel-cell vehicles. Hydrogen, produced by using WWS electricity to split water (electrolysis), would power fuel cells and be burned in airplanes and by industry.

Even if demand did rise…WWS sources could provide far more power. Detailed studies by us and others indicate that energy from the wind, worldwide, is about 1,700 TW. Solar, alone, offers 6,500 TW. Of course, wind and sun out in the open seas, over high mountains and across protected regions would not be available. If we subtract these and low-wind areas not likely to be developed, we are still left with 40 to 85 TW for wind and 580 TW for solar, each far beyond future human demand. Yet currently we generate only 0.02 TW of wind power and 0.008 TW of solar. These sources hold an incredible amount of untapped potential.

… Only about 0.8 percent of the wind base is installed today. The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth’s land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. The nonrooftop photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants would occupy about 0.33 percent of the planet’s land. Building such an extensive infrastructure will take time. But so did the current power plant network. And remember that if we stick with fossil fuels, demand by 2030 will rise to 16.9 TW, requiring about 13,000 large new coal plants, which themselves would occupy a lot more land, as would the mining to supply them…..

WWS technologies generally suffer less downtime than traditional sources. The average U.S. coal plant is offline 12.5 percent of the year for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Modern wind turbines have a down time of less than 2 percent on land and less than 5 percent at sea. Photovoltaic systems are also at less than 2 percent. Moreover, when an individual wind, solar or wave device is down, only a small fraction of production is affected; when a coal, nuclear or natural gas plant goes offline, a large chunk of generation is lost.

…Today the cost of wind, geothermal and hydroelectric are all less than seven cents a kilowatt-hour (¢/kWh); wave and solar are higher. But by 2020 and beyond wind, wave and hydro are expected to be 4¢/kWh or less.

For comparison, the average cost in the U.S. in 2007 of conventional power generation and transmission was about 7¢/kWh, and it is projected to be 8¢/kWh in 2020. Power from wind turbines, for example, already costs about the same or less than it does from a new coal or natural gas plant, and in the future wind power is expected to be the least costly of all options. The competitive cost of wind has made it the second-largest source of new electric power generation in the U.S. for the past three years, behind natural gas and ahead of coal.

Solar power is relatively expensive now but should be competitive as early as 2020….

These are serious people proposing serious, if extremely bold and challenging, solutions. It’s not enough to pooh-pooh such ideas, to  poke holes. They need to be treated as seriously as the current plan. Which is extinction.

Image Credit:  (http://www.scientificamerican.com)


  • Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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Brian Mcgee

As somebody going to school for this very issue and an area that i know very well these writers have some alright ideas but are also relatively stale. I wrote a 8 page paper on the political problems facing “alternative” energies. My professor who was one of the founders of the sierra club, he was also asked to write an 80 page energy plan for the Obama administration published my work and said it was one of the best pieces he’s read on the problem. Enough about me.

These people have a heavy emphasis on wind but wind farms changes wind patterns and can causes change in weather. At their hyper level it would greatly disrupts birds migration flights which in turn as we know has a HUGE impacts on agriculture. Wind can only be done in moderation other than that we truly don’t know how bad the affects would be. We need a SENSIBLE amount of all renewables. Also his take on electric heating sounds like a GE wet dream but is hardly needed, geothermal would take care of heating mostly. There isn’t a silver bullet.

There are 2 major Strains of thoughts on the energy future being discussed this convo is only one of the ways. Its the big business/big government way, what these readers are not putting forward is that to transfer the energy would require a DC super grid. AC electricity can not be transfer at any great distances, for that you need DC pipelines. He largely glossed over this fact but he really just sounded unaware of it. The other way is too have a distributive grid that would be localized to the geography. Every place would have all the different types of renewables but different areas would just have more of one kind than the other(the plains states would still have some solar just not as much). This would allow house holds to be able to be “off the grid.” Which is a nightmare for wall street & for government but in these days of libertarian conservativism is actually much more realistic than getting a hard core tea party Arizonian rancher to sell their land to government so they can take over power. Also the land needed crosses through many public land for wild life preservation & will put conservationists against energy environmentalists. That division will allow the fossil fuel companies to keep on the same path.

Europe is already starting with this plan, the mega solar farms in N. Africa will ship the power back to Europe via DC pipelines. This comes with a great cost how ever, you are putting energy solely into the hands of big business & big government(true thats where its at now but a change would be nice). A simple google search will get you more info on the euro, sahara desert solar farms. #Algeria

How ever remember this, Europe is operating under a much more top down system and their(France’s) influence over Algeria is massive to say the least. In reality France still pretty much dictates what Algeria can or can not do. Frances military is huge in Algeria.

The political & financial aspects of a DC power grid is next to impossible, i could copy & paste my paper but this topic is much harder than many passer byers on the left care to think about. Just look at all the problems the Blythe Solar farm is having(if any of y’all even know what that is).

The oil companies have already said publicly that we will have 100% renewables in 100 years(which means we can do it much faster but are already waving the white flag of surrender), they know its coming its just a matter of when & how.


Tesla conducted successful experiments in wireless AC power transmission (using high voltage, low current, I believe) over some significant distances. Perhaps a grid of these kinds of transmission stations could solve the transmission problems. The question, then, is who builds, pays for, and owns the power transmission.

Andrew Bacon

That sounds painful. I just visualized giant lightning bolts arcing through the sky between transmission towers. That’s not how it works, right? Cause if so, I’m not really that into it.


this was attempted but Westinghouse and other Utility companies, and the US government had it shut down and silenced.

Brian Mcgee

yeah but with tesla wireless AC power, even he noticed the rapid decline in power in a matter of short distance. Tesla’s response was to simple push out more & more so its so powerful it wouldnt matter. However with what we’ve learned about houses living under power lines it doesnt seem like a good idea to make the whole planet live under power lines. #IQ #birth defects

But also keep this in mind the biggest holders of renewable energy patents are the big oil companies ie exxon & shell. People will often criticize the inventors for selling to the oil companies, which i think is wrong. One of my guest teachers at my school sold a battery to what he latter found out was exxon mobile. The oil companies set up fake non profits & LTD’s to act as ghost entities. They act as if they’re actually gonna bring your product to the market however once you sign on the dotted line, the communication breaks down and the whole nonprofits & LTD’s just disappears along with your product(some will just stone wall each case is different).

If one becomes an environmental inventor you’ll have no idea of who your allies are. Its riddled with dead ends & rabbit holes. inventors that have come to teach to my class that have spent their whole life in school and in the lab have FBI records a mile long. Why? These are nerds but they’re being followed and kept tabs on? And harassed? visible following nerd inventors is a means to intimidate, they dont need to keep any tabs on them and if they did. Visible following them is just simple intimidation.

Well welcome to the fascists states of america, where private business runs our government for profit and we pay the tab.


That’s strange, I always thought that as any person who has had a basic physics/electric enginering course, let alone a degree that AC is better for covering ground than DC.  

This is quite visible in our current day electricity network: which is powered by relative few power plants  transporting their electricity over quite enormous distances in …. AC. 

If DC would have been implemented  we all would need our own local powerplant. There have been some case studies about systems in which DC was implemented (Denmark) in which this has been done in the first part of the 20th century.

So i don’t really get your post: How can a person that doesn’t know such basics on electricity generation write such influentual papers(maybe you just mixed up AC/DC :-))


The subsidies for fossil fuels are 12x what they are for renewables. This situation reflects the political power the families that live off these subsidized shareholdings get given to them by SCOTUS in the USA. They block competition from new competitors with new and better technologies. This is not democratic capitalism. It is totalitarian “political capitalism” like in the 1880s. SCOTUS goes along with it despite their rights in Marbury vs Madison to challenge every law that violates equal protection of property rights. We can’t forget the $1.2T military budget, most of which is about bases to protect natural resource access and shipping lanes through Suez, Gibraltar, Hormuz, Malacca, Panama, soon Black Sea and Bosphorus, for these subsidized shareholders who don’t even have to pay progressive taxes to the American people they treat as chumps.




Brian Mcgee

I agree 100%, however short run election cycles means that anything but the status quo must be eased in. Too dramatic and the next election cycle they’d be voted out for if we did it all at once there would be growing pains. Until the economy got de-toxed

Patti Davis

What do you think?


The widely quoted study by Jacobson and Delucci has received a pretty withering critique by Barry Brook here http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/11/03/wws-2030-critique/ . The key point here is that the sun isn’t always shining, nor the wind always blowing, making Solar and Wind extremely intermittent, and not viable as a source of social base power. (Hydro is better, but is not something that can be found in most places).

Jacobson and Delucci make their scenario look realistic in terms of TW output by employing fuzzy math. Essentially they count as output the capacity of solar paneling and wind turbines built, not factoring in how to date on average both solar and wind (in a given day, or a given hour) only receive a tiny portion of this capactiy factor. (I think it’s like 12% on average, and in some seasons its below 1%.)

I encourage all who are seriously interested in this question–as we all should be–to check out the Delucci and Jacobson study and then read the Brave New Climate critique paper for yourselves.


actually, the authors address this issue pretty directly both in their paper and in their response to comments.

Brian Mcgee

That argument doesnt hold weight and i’m no fan of their plan. I’ve already read the 1st for school and after reading their response its clear they’re making political argument. This plan still sucks, read up on “distributed energy grids.” Too much to explain here


For renewables to be effective, we need energy efficiency first. Just a small example: if you have good insulation in your abode, you can heat it with just the waste heat from human activity, lights, cooking etc. Maybe a very small source of heat in a cold climate. And your need for cooling in hot months will drop dramatically as well. Then more expensive energy from renewables becomes cheap. A south facing window and insulation is a great deal compared to a big heating system and years of heating oil purchases.

Check out the Rocky Mountain Institute and Amory Lovins:



Present cost of energy (Coal, Natural Gas) is 6.5 cents per 1 kilowat per hour. Wind and Solar costs 24.6 cents per Kwh.

Solar Air Conditioner

So many new plans and ideas were around to save our planet, but I don’t after some small discussion, everything get vanished. This issues was here sometime back and now again it came back, but still this time, nothing has happened.