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Renewable Energy to Dominate the US by 2050?

Jun 09, 2015 02:53 PM EDT

Well, that's wishful thinking. But one new study has outlined how the entire United States, all 50 states, can successfully transition to renewable energy by the year 2050.

Finding a way to move away from fossil fuels into the clean energy sector is a daunting task, but a necessary one. Not only would it help the country combat ongoing climate change, but it also would create jobs, stabilize energy prices, and eliminate annual deaths due to air pollution.

According to the findings, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Sciences, converting to clean, renewable energy would require aggressive changes to both infrastructure and the ways we currently consume energy. The good news is that this feat is both technically and economically possible by using certain available technologies throughout the United States.

"The main barriers are social, political and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible," Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, who led the study, said in a statement. "By showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation."

Jacobson and his colleagues calculated how to meet each state's new power demands using only renewable energy - wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tidal and wave.

They started by looking at the current energy demands of each state from fuel resources - coal, oil, gas, nuclear, renewables - and then determined what their energy demands would be if everything was replaced with electricity. That would mean every car would be electric, and all homes and industries would convert fully to electrified heating and cooling.

"When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050," Jacobson said. "About 6 percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity."

Now, the question is how to power all of this electricity - with renewable resources, of course. However, every state is different given its geographical location, climate and landscape, and they all can't rely on the same clean energy. So the Stanford team analyzed, for instance, the sun exposure of all 50 states. They even calculated how many rooftops were south-facing and non-shaded and thus could accommodate solar panels. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

In addition, they developed and consulted wind maps to determine whether local offshore wind turbines were an option in places. Geothermal energy was available at a reasonable cost for only 13 states, while hydroelectric dams were largely not an option for any state.

The report fully details how each individual state, from California to Oklahoma to New York, can achieve an 80 percent transition by 2030, and a full conversion by 2050.

In fact, several states have already taken their first steps towards renewable, clean energy. More than 70 percent of Washington state, for example, is already relying on hydroelectric sources for electricity. Meanwhile, Iowa and South Dakota currently generate nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind power. And California is on its way, too, with a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.

Some critics might worry that making the transition to renewable energy will cost valuable land to build any necessary structures, such as solar panels or wind turbines. But rest assured, the outlined plan won't affect any more than 0.5 percent of any state's land. Another concern is how much all of these changes are going to cost. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

While initial costs will be expensive, the benefits of renewable energy will quickly outweigh the costs, as wind and sunlight are free resources. Eventually clean energy costs would equal roughly the price of fossil fuel infrastructure, maintenance and production.

"When you account for the health and climate costs - as well as the rising price of fossil fuels - wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems," Jacobson said.

According to researchers, their plan could prevent approximately 63,000 US deaths related to air pollution each year, and, obviously, eliminate fossil fuel emissions that would otherwise cost the world $3.3 trillion a year by 2050.

"There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science," Jacobson concluded.

An interactive map summarizing the plans for each state is available here.

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