World has the technical know-how and financial capability to run entirely on renewable energy by 2050

The world has the technical know-how and financial capability to run entirely on renewable energy by the middle of this century, two California researchers say. Their study says that a large-scale transformation of the world’s energy systems to wind power, solar energy, water, geothermal power and other renewable sources would not cost substantially more than continued reliance on conventional power generation.

The research comes as world leaders seek to tackle climate change while also providing electricity to the 1.4 billion people who still lack access to energy. President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address to Congress that he wants the United States to get 80 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2035, a goal that can be achieved only if more Americans get their power from renewable and nonfossil sources.

Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California–Davis, published their article in a recent issue of the journal Energy Policy.

It has received significant attention in trade and mainstream media as it provides a rare road map for how the world can move away from coal and oil. “We wanted to show that there are no large technical or even economic barriers to powering all energy sectors globally on wind energy, water or solar power because that point is not widely appreciated,” Delucchi told “The biggest obstacle is politics.”

Another recent study, this one published by the World Wildlife Fund ( WWF ) and the Dutch research group Ecofys, also concluded that a fossil fuel–free world is within reach.

The groups’ 2011 Energy Report estimates that it will cost $4.8 trillion annually, or about 2 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, to switch to 95 percent renewables by 2050. After 2040, however, the world would start to see net savings through diminished energy costs and greater efficiencies — with annual savings approaching $5 trillion by midcentury, the WWF/Ecofys report says.

“While investments would pay for themselves over time, we need to mobilize significant capital upfront,” said Jim Leape, WWF’s director general. “It won’t necessarily be an easy task. We have to drive efficiency very deep into the economy, and … cut our energy use in half, so [by 2050] we use only what we used in year 2000.”

Included in the two studies are factors such as the costs of climate change — an expense that would be significantly reduced with a switch to renewable energy. In the United States, for example, air pollution from coal plants and cars cost the nation $120 billion in health care costs in 2005, according to the National Research Council, which gives scientific guidance to U.S. policymakers.

“Our plan would eliminate all air pollution and 2.5 million to 3 million premature deaths per year, as well as facilities and exhaust pipes responsible for such pollution,” said Jacobson, the Stanford researcher.

The California and Dutch researchers also factored in future savings, such as a significant reduction in overall energy consumption and the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies. According to the International Energy Agency, global government subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industry amount to more than $500 billion annually.

Prospects for renewable energy have improved significantly in recent years, the researchers said. “Technology keeps improving and costs keep coming down,” Delucchi said. “For example, there are several interesting wind-power designs and technologies that promise some technical and economic benefits. [And] given recent developments in lithium-ion batteries, I think we will see economical battery-driven electric vehicles sooner than most people expect.”

The WWF/Ecosys report is available through the WWF website. The Jacobson/Delucchi article ( PDF, 598KB ) is available on the Energy Policy website.