Interview with Mark Jacobson on the Clean Energy Transition
CONDUCTED BY ADAM ARON ON MAY 24, 2021
Mark Jacobson is a professor at Stanford University. He has written several books and co-authored over one hundred research articles. His career has focused on better understanding the problems of air pollution and global warming and on developing large-scale renewable energy solutions to them. He has developed three-dimensional atmosphere-biosphere-ocean computer models to simulate air pollution, weather, climate, and renewable energy. He has also developed roadmaps to transition states and entire countries to 100% Wind Water and Solar (WWS), along with computer models to examine electric grid stability.
Adam Aron is a professor of psychology at the University of California. He has done research on cognitive neuroscience, and also, more recently the climate crisis. He teaches about the climate crisis and is also an activist/organizer.
AA: I'm interested in what you have to say about demand reduction. There’s been a rapid rise of renewable energy and it's going to accelerate even more, but total energy use for the world accelerates much faster. Even with your compelling technical vision of 100% Wind Water and Solar (WWS), is it going to be enough if the wider system is having to grow at 3% GDP per year?
MJ: Our plans account for growth to 2050. So, it’s not a problem. There's still plenty of renewables. There's enough solar to power the world more than 300 times over. And wind seven times over. You’re going to use a combination in the end. This is just a distraction.
AA. Yes, sure, but if you keep growing the economy and you need more and more energy, even from 100% renewables, you're going to have to do a lot more mining (to get all the materials for turbines and so on) to keep pace with that and is that really going to make the emissions go down? All that neodymium and lithium and aluminum?
MJ: First of all, when you transition to electrifying the energy sector, you have a 57% reduction of demand just by electrifying. And if you reduce that much you’re not going to grow energy demand worldwide that much. People are also going to be using energy efficient technologies. I use a heat pump in my home (in California). The home is all electric. It hardly uses any energy. Consider, Texas uses two and a quarter times the electricity per capita as California. Why is that? It’s just because they're inefficient. There are no regulations in Texas, to make their homes and buildings more efficient. Sure, you could have a completely inefficient world in the future, and just waste energy. But if you actually use energy efficient appliances and have energy efficiency standards, and electrify everything, then your demand will go down a lot.
Now, in terms of mining, I mean that's just a red herring. In the US alone there are 50,000 new oil and gas wells drilled every year. That’s what you need to compare with. And there are 1.3 million active oil and gas wells and 3.1 million inactive ones. You know the entire gas and oil industry and fossil fuel industry in the US takes up 1.3% of the land. So the renewable shift requires orders of magnitudes less mining, no matter how much lithium you mine.
And there are many batteries that aren’t lithium. Yes, you need lithium for transportation, because it’s light. But for stationary you can use sodium, sulfur, basalt. Neodymium is needed for permanent magnets. And even if you wanted to power everything by wind by 2050, that’s only one seventh of the neodymium we know exists. Plus you don’t have to use permanent magnet generators (which have neodymium). You can use induction generators (without neodymium). For lithium there’s enough for 5 billion cars. We now have 1.1 billion, I certainly hope we don’t have more than that, but there’s certainly enough resources for that.
AA: What about Jevons paradox or Jevons effects – as you get more efficient you just use more of the resource? Are you concerned about that?
MJ: A little. I'm thinking about it in my own home context. I haven’t paid an electric bill or a gas bill, or a gasoline bill for four years. But I also get paid for the extra solar electricity I produce. I get paid about $1,000 per year. And even though I’m using way less electricity, the more electricity I save, the more money I get paid at the end. So that's one thing. [He explained that this is because he’s going through Community Choice Aggregation, and not the local utility]. I think there are other reasons. I’m not going to drive around more just because my car is more efficient.
AA: Ok, so we need to get off the fossil fuels as soon as possible. Now even if 100% WWS happened very soon, it’s an enormous need for new materials, hundreds of thousands of turbines and so on. We’ll have ships coming from across the oceans. This will increase our emissions right?
MJ: Yes, you’re going to get an increase in emissions in the short term, before it decreases. It also speaks to the strategy – what should you electrify first? In California, they wanted to use all this energy to build the high speed rail – to dig and drill with fossil fuels. Why not electrify everything first, and then do that at the end - and build the railway with renewable energy? So there’s a strategy to minimize emissions by transitioning industry. In fact in Texas there’s a plan to make a lithium mine 100% renewable, so they’re not emitting from the mining. You make sure the electric input to the mine is renewable. Ideally you do it for the machines too. I’m not sure they’re going that far, but they should.
AA: What about the justice issues around extraction of rare earth metals from the global south?
Even if one can replace neodymium with other materials to some extent, there needs to be a huge up-scaling of mining, and that will have damaging effects there?
MJ: First of all, rare earths are not rare, they’re everywhere. They’re not rare elements, but they are dispersed and not found in many concentrated deposits that are economically exploitable. And for something like lithium, every time they look they find more. It’s a question of looking. Sure, it’s partly related to where these things are mined now, and things don’t change overnight. But there are a lot of choices of materials for batteries. Lithium is being recycled already for car batteries. The former CEO of Tesla, started his own battery recycling program. He made a statement that the largest lithium mine may be in the drawers of America.
AA: You’ve articulated a technical vision very well for how we can respond to the climate crisis. We already have the technology we need. Here’s the puzzle. So many people around me, STEM students, other professors, keep harping on about how technologies that don’t yet exist are going to save us. Why?
MJ: I think there are just enough people pushing those ideas. Especially in a university like my own, I can see where those ideas come from. They come from the energy resources engineering department which used to be called petroleum engineering. They come from a few economists who, for a lack of a better word, like fossil fuels. They might have been climate deniers, and now they believe, but they resist rapid change, they like the status quo. There was a Princeton study, it did a largely renewables scenario, but it was funded by ExxonMobil and British Petroleum (BP). MIT has large funding from fossil fuel interests and Stanford does too. At our School of Earth Sciences at Stanford, every faculty member gets two paid-for students. That comes from royalties from the oil and gas industry, since the 1950s. That’s not to say it’s influencing the students directly. But a lot come there to study oil and gas. So there are enough people who graduate and go into the field, and keep pushing these ideas. So they are asking, how can oil and gas fit in? So they want to look into Carbon Capture and Sequestration, it keeps oil and gas going. Look at mechanical engineering departments, a lot of the work they do is on combustion. Making better engines for cars and airplanes. They want new ways to get funding. It’s a way to keep themselves going. And there are huge institutes getting fossil fuel research dollars. At Stanford there is one called the Global Climate and Energy project, a greenwashing name. It was a huge amount of money, like 225 million over 10 years. It funded a lot of students. And Berkeley has a program like that funded by BP.
AA: Do you sometimes get discouraged and daunted and how do you sustain yourself through those periods?
MJ: I’m actually very positive because I know we can do it. I’ve seen a lot of progress. Costs have come down, renewables are growing substantially. I know there's a huge way to go, so I don't want to be under an illusion that we're there, but I feel more and more confident. In 2009, I did the first paper on going 100% renewable. And people just joked about it and said that's pie in the sky and the utilities wouldn't even talk about more than 20% renewables on the grid. And now the discussion has changed. People talk about whether you can have 80 to 100% vs 100% renewables on the grid. There are 11 countries that are 100% renewable in the world. There are states that are really far along, Iowa is 60% from wind. And California is close to 50% renewable electricity, on average. And there are laws in 61 countries to go to 100% renewable electricity. We’re making progress on electric power, but the other sectors are slower. We need really aggressive laws, especially in industry, and also buildings and transportation. So there’s a little less opposition than before. But the nature of the opposition has changed. Now it comes from the ‘all of the above’ crowd. They want to try everything that doesn’t work, nuclear and carbon capture and direct air capture and geoengineering. There’s no excuse for this now. In March this year, the growth of solar and wind hit a new record, growing 34% more than a year ago and now accounting for 13% of electricity generation. It’s there. But we need a lot more. And the fact that we have this big transition, and they can’t admit it, call it for what it is? People like Bill Gates are part of the problem. He’s pushing everything that doesn’t work. Pushing biofuels, geoengineering, and nuclear. Things we know don’t work, that increase air pollution.