In the Future We Will Drive Teslas

It’s such low-hanging fruit to pick on the Americans for coming late to the renewable energy party. In 2013, 68% of the total electricity in Europe came from wind and solar energy. In Iowa, by contrast, 20% of the state’s total electricity was powered by wind.

And it’s easy to see why we are tardy. Until this point, climate change and renewable energy in the U.S. has been a drag; unsexy; a money problem. The movement’s poster child, a homeless polar bear adrift on a shelf of arctic ice, was not compelling. It was just damn depressing. Charismatic megafauna failed to sell the idea that climate change needs all-in focus from people to reverse the scientific findings that future shock is dying oceans, extreme weather, desertification, acidification, ad nauseum.

Not to mention it’s a really tough sell. To ask people to connect between polar bears on the melting Arctic to fluorescent light bulbs is a stretch; maybe even a tougher sell than the Thighmaster.

In a larger sense cause and effect in the climate change dialogue has been maddeningly hard to follow. Moreover, linking climate change to renewables has been difficult to float in everyday terms because it requires a kind of telescopic thinking, and taking a long view.

Bright scientists have communicated the urgency of our changing climate conditions for decades now, and while they have made some impressive progress in proposing solutions, the counter arguments prove unfortunate distractions: “Renewable infrastructure will cost trillions; the burden of this expense will fall on the already beleaguered working class.” “Wind turbines will kill too many birds.” “A new gas tax? No way no how!”

On top of all this white noise, the climate change movement itself also suffers from a negative space where a leader should be. Al Gore had all the right stuff, but somehow not the right chemistry or timing.

This mishigas that has flummoxed the community for too long is about to change. Enter a Stanford civil engineering luminary who can get down to brass tacks. 49 year-old Mark Jacobson published A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables in Scientific American in 2009. Jacobson drives a Tesla around the Bay Area with the license plate “GHG Free.”

Last May, Jacobson gave a keynote address to a public hall filled with climate change activists: Some who work on divesting university campuses (Finger snaps on both hands go  to San Francisco State University and Stanford for their divestment!) and hedge funds of coal investments; Lobbyists who navigate the California Environmental Quality Act exemptions, and float bills against fracking in California; Journalists who cover the climate change beat via podcasts and print.

Jacobson spoke to this excitable crowd about his roadmap for moving to 100% renewables by the year 2050, which he calls “The Solutions Project.” Mark Jacobson teamed up with Mark Ruffalo, Marco Krapels and Josh Fox to combine science, business with culture to accelerate the transition. The Solutions Project works with clean energy business leaders, policy experts, NGOs, and other organizations to remove the barriers facing the future of renewables.

The vision in this project is already technically feasible today, says Jacobson, though we “quibble” about cost. While in Denmark, 35% of its electricity is produced via wind and surplus energy production goes to heating cities, we can solve surplus distribution issues in the same manner. “It’s just an optimization problem,” adds Jacobson.

Wind energy is inarguably cost competitive, which is great riposte for anyone who might bemoan the trillions. No matter how you manipulate the data, wind energy is always going to be cheaper than natural gas.

For example, “Great Plains” wind is 2cents/kWh. In no small part, this is thanks to T. Boone Pickens who spearheaded investment in turbine infrastructure and refers to the Plains as the North America “wind corridor.” The beleaguered Plains town of Sweetwater was turned around when wind power brought jobs to local residents, and royalty payments to landowners who leased sites for turbines.

Figuratively, harnessing the wind is just the thing for renewables to inflate from a secondary, even tertiary concern to a top item in our national consciousness. Such a burst of tailwind was provided by the well-timed release of the National Climate Assessment in early May. A force majeure of a summary, the assessment presents important findings from a team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

This report pulls no punches, and with the exception of Fox News, which gave it about 12 minutes, the issues have already gotten more airtime internationally. This frees up Jacobson from explaining the remedial facts. And he can get on with parsing the data to support the findings that natural gas is not a solution. And get on with carrying the message that we can make 100% renewables happen by 2050 by which time the entire fleet of US vehicles will be electric, (with the likely exclusion of the airline industry, and maybe they’ll have to go with batteries because jet fuel, baby, will be a thing of the past.)