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Renewable energy to power 139 countries? Scientists say it’s possible


  • The research looked at the impacts of a 100-percent switch to renewable energy in 139 countries by 2050 on the climate, as well as air pollution and the economy.
  • They calculated that the transition to wind, solar and hydropower will generate around 24 million net jobs.
  • Switching to renewable sources of energy that don’t emit carbon into the atmosphere will also save trillions of dollars in the costs we would otherwise incur due to air pollution and the changing climate.

Clean, renewable energy holds immense potential to help us tackle a rapidly warming climate. But until a major shift away from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, it remains just that — potential.

Now, a new study in the journal Joule plots out a global path for complete conversion to renewable energy sources in 139 countries that, in addition to slowing or halting climate change, could diminish air pollution, bolster job growth and be more economical.

“Policymakers don’t usually want to commit to doing something unless there is some reasonable science that can show it is possible, and that is what we are trying to do,” said lead author Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, in a statement.

A solar farm fuels a Purina factory. Photo by Purina employee (Provided by an employee at Purina) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jacobson headed a squadron of researchers in a quest to understand how solar, wind and hydropower could help to quench our ever-growing thirst for the energy that powers the transportation, electricity and agriculture on which we rely.

They calculated the possible impacts that a 100-percent shift by the year 2050 to these clean energy sources in 139 countries, selected because collectively they’re responsible for nearly all of the Earth’s carbon dioxide emissions. The team also looked at each country’s potential for these energy sources, as well as where infrastructure developments such as wind turbines and solar farms could be situated.

The researchers assumed that the capacity for hydropower, a sometimes-controversial way of harnessing the energy of flowing water, will be the same it was in 2015.

Whereas most studies in this line of research have been focused on transitioning to energy sources that don’t emit carbon in order to throttle down climate change, this research took a broader view of what that change might mean.

“Aside from eliminating emissions and avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming and beginning the process of letting carbon dioxide drain from the Earth’s atmosphere,” Jacobson said, “transitioning eliminates 4-7 million air pollution deaths each year and creates over 24 million long-term, full-time jobs by these plans.”

The authors predict that the cost savings from renewable energy will far outweigh the price tag necessary to install the infrastructure. Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

Jacobson and his colleagues predict that employment in these burgeoning sectors will more than compensate for the jobs lost in the switch to renewables. They also calculated that the costs of having dirty air from the continued burning of fossil fuels could total $22.8 trillion per year by mid-century. The impacts to the climate could cost another $28.5 trillion in their estimation.

“Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can,” said Mark Delucchi, a research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the study’s authors.

“It appears we can achieve the enormous social benefits of a zero-emission energy system at essentially no extra cost,” he added in the statement.

Putting renewable energy solutions in place won’t be uniformly straightforward. The authors figure that less densely populated countries, such as the United States and China, will have more room to devote to renewable energy generation. Other countries with less land to spare may have to be more creative.

Critics of this type of plan have argued that the switch to 100 percent renewable energy sources would require too great an outlay in cash to get going. But the authors counter that some of the funding could be shunted from the inherent costs necessary to maintain and replace conventional forms of energy. And Jacobson said that this proposal is only a starting point.

“There are other scenarios,” he said. “We are not saying that there is only one way we can do this, but having a scenario gives people direction.”

Mark Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who was not involved in the research, writes in the same issue of Joule, “This paper helps push forward a conversation within and between the scientific, policy, and business communities about how to envision and plan for a decarbonized economy.

“The scientific community’s growing body of work on global low-carbon energy transition pathways provides robust evidence that such a transition can be accomplished, and a growing understanding of the specific levers that need to be pulled to do so,” Dyson added.


Jacobson, M. Z., Delucchi, M. A., Bazouin, G., Bauer, Z. A., Heavey, C. C., Fisher, E., … & Yeskoo, T. W. (2015). 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States. Energy & Environmental Science8(7), 2093-2117.

Video courtesy of Cell Press. Banner image of a wind farm by Stan Shebs, GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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