A decidedly impartial review of Mark Jacobson’s 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything

Wind Turbines
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Happy Earth Day 2021!

When you’ve followed the evolving research of a leading clean energy expert and become a supporter of his vision for a global clean energy transition, it should come as no surprise that I was eager to crack open Mark Jacobson’s 2021 book release, 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything.

I’ve known Mark for over ten years, even before I learned of his audacious roadmap for powering New York state with 100% renewable energy. Little did I know then that my home state would be the first of 50 U.S. states to be mapped for renewable energy by Mark and his team of students at Stanford University (see Mark’s abbreviated bio, below).

50 states led to 143 countries—all in the course of a decade. The plans, available at The Solutions Project’s “Clean Energy” link, reveal the unique mix of wind, water and sun technologies capable of powering states, countries and even select U.S. cities. Wind, Water and Sun (aka WWS) include wind power; waterpower from tides, rivers, and subsurface water (geothermal water); and solar power.

So just how did Jacobson, an athletic, brainy competitive tennis player growing up in 1970s California decide to change the way that energy is made and distributed worldwide?

To get to the heart of his story, I did what I always do—I read the last chapter of his book first. And Chapter 9 is the focus of this review, as it lays out not only the compelling technological and economic arguments for a 100% renewable energy transformation, but also the life story that makes this scientist such an appealing public figure.

Jacobson’s Early Story

I’ve long viewed Jacobson’s life — and his collaboration with researchers, cultural icons, business leaders and political leaders — as a well-written movie script. In just ten years, Jacobson has harnessed passion, determination and science to re-frame the way renewable energy is seen and, ultimately, accepted as a viable solution to climate change and air pollution.

Chapter 9 of Jacobson’s latest book reveals the story that I already partially knew, but in the kind of detail that renders me even more in awe of his achievements. It tells the story of Jacobson’s lifelong desire to tackle large-scale air pollution challenges and mitigate climate change through a special kind of persuasion: science & economic-based solutions.

Imagine a young, friendly, unassuming teenager traveling to San Diego from northern California to compete in statewide tennis tournaments. In the late 1970s, this was Mark Jacobson, and he remembers how the poor air quality there overwhelmed him and his fellow competitors.

“During play, my throat and lungs became irritated, and my eyes became scratchy. Taking deep breaths while lunging for tennis balls was a chore. If this soup of pollution was hurting me after only a few minutes, I imagined the damage it caused people who lived in it.”

It was during these trips that Jacobson chartered his career path. Arriving at Stanford University in the fall of 1983, where he would compete on the University’s tennis team, there was no air pollution major. There was, however, a Civil Engineering major that included classes taught by the great Professor Gil Masters. One was environmental science and technology, and another was an energy systems class that focused on wind and solar power.

Jacobson competes on the Stanford University Tennis Team, which wins the men’s NCAA team championship in Athens, GA in May, 1986. Back: Dan Goldie, Mark Jacobson, Jim Grabb, Eric Rosenfeld Front: Geordie McKee, Patrick McEnroe (brother of John McEnroe), Coach Dick Gould, Scott Moody, John Letts. (Photo Courtesy Mark Jacobson)

Understanding early on that he would have to apply his scientific knowledge to real-world scenarios, Jacobson added an economics major to his academic pursuits. Then, in 1989, he attended UCLA and added a M.S. and PhD in Atmospheric Science. It was at UCLA that he began modeling air pollution, which he succinctly describes as, “a mathematical representation of atmospheric processes.” Based on his work there, he created the world’s first global air quality model in which air pollution affected the weather and the weather affected air pollution, thus forging his hybrid science career.

In 2000, he began using models to unlock renewable energy solutions. Reuniting with Professor Masters, the two friends used an equation Masters had shared with students at Stanford to calculate the number of wind turbines that would be required to offset the volume of coal production that the United States would need to eliminate to satisfy the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 1997. I was fortunate to interview Jacobson for an Energy Boom story in 2010 about the real cost comparison between coal and wind power. This was the first time we “met,” albeit via a cross-country phone call.

Photo of Mark Jacobson (right) with Professor Gil Masters (center) and Peter Ramsey, who works in building energy and teaches at Stanford University. (Photo Courtesy Mark Jacobson)

Collaboration with Students

In 2005, Jacobson worked with Stanford students to begin mapping regions of the U.S. for wind power production. In 2008, Jacobson teamed up with student, Graeme Hoste, to assess whether California’s hourly demand for electricity could be satisfied with a combination of renewable power sources. Their report revealed that by combining wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower sources, California could, theoretically, meet 100% of its electricity demand with WWS. Geothermal would provide constant power, with wind and solar contributing intermittent power. Hydropower electricity produced in the Pacific Northwest would be imported to fill in the gaps. This was a remarkable milestone as it set in place the idea for mapping states for renewable energy production.

Scientific American magazine took notice of his work and approached Jacobson about writing a paper on the feasibility of powering the world with renewable energy. He agreed and recruited research scientist Mark Delucchi of UC Davis to help (Delucchi has been a regular co-author of many of Jacobson’s studies). Their 2009 report concluded that but for the social and political impediments, the economic and technological wheels were in place to transition the world’s all-purpose energy demand to 100% WWS. Like Darwin’s early journals documenting his groundbreaking evolutionary observations, the 2009 report was attacked as a folly by entrenched businesses leaders and scientists-for-hire. Nevertheless, the article led to a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) debate where Jacobson convincingly championed the report’s findings. It also led to another milestone: the creation of The Solutions Project. This is where Jacobson’s story takes on a cinematic glow, which I wrote about for HuffPost in 2011.

The Solutions Project

On the evening of July 10, 2011, Jacobson attended a swanky event in San Francisco. The host, Marco Krapels, a clean energy investor, introduced him to Mark Ruffalo and Josh Fox, whose 2010 documentary film, GASLAND, exposed the dire human health and environmental risks for communities living on the frontlines of America’s fracking boom. Ruffalo expressed interest in learning how Jacobson’s WWS models could be applied to New York state, which was debating whether or not to ban hydrofracking. When Jacobson addressed the mingling crowd, everyone stopped to listen. A scientist, a banker, an actor and a filmmaker then huddled to discuss next steps.

The Solutions Project meets to discuss next steps. Left to right: Marco Krapels, Jodie Van Horn, Jon Wank, Mark Jacobson, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Fox (© Jon Wank)

Ultimately, the request was made that Jacobson create a detailed WWS renewable energy map for New York State. It would be the first clean energy roadmap that Jacobson would draft, and he did it on the evening of September 13, 2011. Motivated by New York Governor Cuomo’s willingness to consider banning hydrofracking, Jacobson worked through the night to layer New York’s pollution, human health, morbidity and global warming data into a cohesive model. He then added in the energy outputs from New York’s existing and potential WWS supplies. Three months later, Jacobson, Krapels, Ruffalo and Fox formalized their mission by creating The Solutions Project and pooled their respective influence to build a national clean energy movement over the following decade.

Though Jacobson’s 14-page draft went through 40 collaborative revisions with colleagues, including Cornell Professors Robert Howarth and Tony Inngraffea, over 18 months before being published in the Journal of Energy Policy, Jacobson had that night created the first science-based framework for transforming the way energy could be produced in the Empire State. This would become the first detailed WWS clean energy roadmap of 50 he ultimately developed for the U.S.

Meeting of The Solutions Project and Sierra Club at Cornell University on April 20, 2013. From left to right: Marco Krapels, Jodie Van Horn (Sierra Club), Jon Wank, Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark Ruffalo, and Josh Fox. © Jon Wank

Roadshows

Along the way, The Solutions Project gave talks to a packed house at Google’s Mountain View offices; guests of the influential Nantucket Project’s annual conference; members of the U.S. Congress; and policy pros serving President Obama. 

Jacobson didn’t stop there. He created a WWS roadmap for California, Washington state and 53 targeted cities and towns. Media awareness of the maps steadily grew, and Jacobson gained further attention for his appearance in Fox’s GASLAND PART ll documentary, where he underscored the necessity of transitioning America’s energy production to WWS.

Jacobson took his vision to the LATE SHOW with David Letterman. Though Jacobson prepped behind stage with Ruffalo, he momentarily froze as he emerged in front of the bright lights and cameras. He focused on his training as an athlete to center himself and instinctively opened with, “So Dave, we’re developing science-based plans to eliminate global warming and air pollution, including the 2.5 to 4 million deaths that occur worldwide, each year.” Letterman was stunned, saying, “Due to air pollution? That many people are dying from air pollution?” Jacobson comfortably settled into the 11-minute exchange and elevated the mission of The Solutions Project to a live national audience. Jacobson had perhaps played his most important match that night and won.

Mark Jacobson appears on The Late Show with David Letterman on September 23, 2013 © Mark Jacobson

WWS Roadmaps for 50 States

By February 2014, Jacobson, with the help of students and colleagues, finished a draft of the roadmaps for all 50 U.S. states, complete with the colorful, interactive graphics that make unlocking the data fun and easy.

In 2015, Jacobson began work on WWS maps for individual countries, with Ukraine being the first. Today, there are 100% WWS roadmaps for 143 countries. In December, Jacobson attended the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris. One of his presentations was slotted between talks by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In honor of the new movement that manifested itself at the conference, the Eiffel Tower was lit up with the words, “100% Renewable.” Jacobson experienced a bit of euphoria over the fact that what began as a team of four was now supported by millions of people. Jacobson, Krapels, Ruffalo and Fox had managed to change the perspective of people around the globe. Their success was a heroic feat of idealism, pragmatism, science and phenomenal storytelling, which, when combined, resulted in an uplifting, coherent and persuasive message that the world was poised to hear.

Companion Report

Along with the publication of the 50-state plans in 2015 was an additional paper that documented how the 100% WWS model could be applied to keep the electric grid stable when all energy needs (not just electricity generation), including transportation, heating and cooling, manufacturing and power storage, were powered by WWS. The report received the prestigious Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The dual papers now made it easier for policy makers to push the 100% WWS model forward. Over eight bills focusing on the expansion of clean energy, including the Green New Deal, were introduced in the U.S. Congress between 2015 and 2019. Though none of the bills have been voted on, President Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill is gaining support and popularity. It includes rebuilding the nation’s electricity grid, adding 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, investing billions of dollars in WWS expansion, the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, and the requirement that 40% of the new clean energy economy jobs be directed to people living in disadvantaged communities.

Photo of Mark Jacobson and Stacy Clark, August 1, 2018. Jacobson’s Greenhouse-Gas-Free (GHGFREE) Teslas run on solar power, as does his home, built by BoneStructure. The Tesla Powerwall packs on the wall store excess electricity generated by the sun.

Momentum for a clean energy transition is growing. The fossil fuel divestment movement led by Bill McKibben’s 350.org campaign and the recent commitment of international businesses to lower their carbon footprint and procure more of their energy from renewable sources are also helping to push the WWS movement forward.

Jacobson’s Detailed Analysis

The end of Chapter 9 looks at the scenarios available for speeding the transition to renewables, including the retiring of fossil fuel plants. Jacob justification is a cost benefit analysis whereby the external costs of coal, natural gas and oil far exceed the investment costs for WWS. External costs include everything from pre-mature deaths due to air pollution to the sky-rocketing insurance costs for properties vulnerable to sea level rise.

His closing pages include a detailed glossary of acronyms, an Appendix of unit conversions and constraints, myriad references and a detailed index that underscores Jacobson’s expertise.

Collectively, Jacobson has, with this book, empowered public servants, citizens and businesses to envision a different future—one that he believes can arrive sooner than expected. Chapters 1-8 overflow with information that these same constituencies need to campaign for change. From the science of global warming; the basics of electricity generation and the applications of renewable power to the land space required and the policies needed to make the transition, Jacobson’s book is recommended reading for local, state and federal lawmakers, college and university professors and clean energy enthusiasts everywhere.

Personal note: I was fortunate to meet Jacobson on a number of occasions over the last seven years. I first visited Jacobson at Stanford University in 2012, when my college-touring son sat in on his popular Atmospheric Science class. I later met him at a Vote Solar fundraiser in San Francisco. My most memorable visit was a 2018 tour of Jacobson’s fully renewable, emissions free home, where his electric cars are also powered by the sun. There, Jacobson explained the solar system he designed and why his house makes more electricity than it requires. Thanks to California’s generous net-metering standards, Jacobson is paid by the local utility for the surplus electricity his home generates. To read more about Jacobson’s home, check out these articles in Dwell, InHabitat and BoneStructure.

Note that this review will be followed by a “Meet the Heroes” Zoom interview with Jacobson. Our conversation will be viewable on StacyClarkBooks.com and RenewableEnergyWorld.com.

Clean energy writer, Stacy Clark, displays Mark Jacobson latest book, which she reviews for this article on Earth Day, 2021 (© Stacy Clark)

Mark Z. Jacobson – Abbreviated Bio: Mark is the Director of the Atmospheric / Energy Program and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. He received a B.S. in Civil Engineering, an A.B. in Economics and an M.S. in Environmental Engineering from Stanford University in 1988. He received a M.S. and PhD in Atmospheric Sciences in 1991 and 1994, respectively, from UCLA and joined the faculty at Stanford in 1994. He has published three textbooks and over 170 peer-reviewed journal articles. He has received numerous awards, including the 2013 Global Green Policy Design Award for developing the state and country energy plans discussed herein. He has served on an advisory committee to the U.S. Energy Secretary and appeared on The Late Show with David letterman to discuss converting the world to clean, renewable energy, and co-founded The Solutions Project. For more about Mark and his life’s work, you can purchase 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything.

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Stacy Clark is an environmental geologist, clean energy writer and children’s author.

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