Case Study: The Solutions Project
Scope: United States
First Released: 2014
Intended Audience: Consumers, businesses, communities and state governments
Potential Applications: Identify cost-effective renewable energy investments for consumers and businesses; guide state-level clean energy policy
Developers: Mark Jacobson (Stanford climate scientist), Mark Ruffalo (actor), Marco Krapels (businessman) and Josh Fox (filmmaker)
Description: The Solutions Project provides a roadmap for how each U.S. state can convert its energy system so that all electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industrial energy needs are met by wind, water, and solar power (referred to as “WWS”). These plans envision each state using WWS technologies to power all new energy by 2020, 80-85 percent of existing energy by 2035, and 100 percent of all energy by 2050. The renewable energy sources included in the proposed 2050 energy mixes are limited to onshore and offshore wind, photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, geothermal, wave, tidal, and hydroelectric power. Notably, biofuels and nuclear power are left off the list of acceptable clean energy technologies.
Besides identifying customized, state-level future renewable energy mixes, Solutions Project scientists calculate a range of benefits the recommended clean energy transitions provide. State-specific summary sheets easily accessed from the project’s home page offer estimates of jobs created, money saved, and mortality and illness costs avoided. The summary pages also give an estimate of the percentage of state land that would be taken up by the new wind, water, and solar generators.
The Solutions Project came out of a meeting among opponents of fossil fuel extraction who decided that they needed to come up with a future energy scenario that they could support. The activist’s optimism and academic’s abstract idealism can be seen in the project’s assumptions and conclusions. Solutions Project authors rely on studies and data that lead them to conclude that fossil fuel-based electricity prices will steadily rise over time as renewable energy prices decrease. This assumption comes despite recent significant declines in U.S. electricity prices. The project’s developers also dismiss widespread concerns about the intermittency of wind and solar energy, arguing that the combination of complementary electricity sources and improved batteries will negate this issue. Perhaps most importantly, the Solutions Project authors fail to account for the political feasibility (or lack thereof) of their proposed energy transitions. Instead, they pick a physically possible energy mix containing a rather arbitrary – and debatable – combination of the technologies they consider to be most environmentally benevolent.
However, the details of cost-effectiveness, political feasibility, and precise energy combinations are to some extent beside the point. Ultimately, the value of the Solutions Project is that it provides the first physically realistic estimate of what an all-renewables energy mix might look like at the local level. In a world in which no state is even close to being fully powered by WWS technologies, this sense of possibility may serve as a powerful source of inspiration for those concerned about climate change.