When it comes to energy, Mark Jacobson thinks big
Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, is an unusual figure in the field of climate change. He literally wrote the book on computer modeling for atmospheric changes, and he is a respected expert in the impacts of energy production and use. But what truly sets Jacobson apart is his vision. He’s a “Big Picture” kind of thinker, focused on finding large scale, but practical, solutions to the problems of climate change. For example: a few months ago, Jacobson co-authored a cover-story in Scientific American sub-titled, “Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels.”
Large solutions make large targets, and Jacobson’s work is often controversial. The coal industry attacked his credibility in 2001 after he argued, in the journal Science, that electricity generated by wind power in fast wind-speed locations was as cheap as electricity generated by coal. More recently, some environmental groups got upset when Jacobson published evidence that substituting ethanol for gasoline would cause as many or more deaths from air pollution.
Only 44, Jacobson is bound to prompt more controversies in the future. He is poised to play a crucial role in moving public opinion passed a tipping point where transformative ideas that were once thought impossible are considered not just conceivable, but doable, and necessary.
Q. How did you get interested in climate change?
A. I’ve always wanted to solve large scale problems. It probably began in high school when I went to Los Angeles for a tennis tournament. The air quality in LA was so bad that I couldn’t play. I was coughing, couldn’t catch my breath – it was terrible. So, air pollution was my introduction to climate change. You can’t separate the two.
Q. You’re talking about more than just CO2 here?
A. Yes, but they still connect in the end. The first thing to understand is that between two-and-a-half and three million people die each year because of air pollution. A lot of those deaths, particularly in the U.S., are caused by inhaling particles from vehicles and from coal-fired power plants.
The real culprit is combustion itself. No matter what the source, combustion produces gases and some of them become particles – air pollution. How dangerous they are depends on all sorts of factors like size, constituents, concentration.
We tend to focus on CO2, which is understandable because it’s the largest contributor to climate change. But I come to the issue from an air pollution perspective. I looked at the role of soot, a leading cause of air pollution mortality, and I found that it’s probably the second most important factor causing climate change.
Q. When I hear “soot” the image that comes to mind is grimy 19th Century London with all the chimneys spewing smoke from coal furnaces.
A. That’s right – definitely soot. But there are other sources and they share one thing: combustion. Soot is a byproduct of burning fossil fuel, bio-fuels or biomass. So soot comes from coal-fired power plants, tail-pipe emissions – anywhere material containing carbon is burned.
The promising side of this discovery is that soot doesn’t stay in the atmosphere very long – especially compared to greenhouse gases. And because of that short lifespan, reducing and then eliminating soot emissions is the fastest way to slow global warming.
Q. But that means eventually eliminating our reliance on combustion as a source of energy, right?
A. We have to take drastic steps, right now, to reduce both particle and gas emissions. It’s something we can do, though. I’d argue that it’s both technically and economically possible to transform the world’s energy system to a sustainable one in two decades.
Q. I think that qualifies as tackling a “large scale problem.”
A. (Laughing) It does. In our Scientific American article we cited examples in which the United States made massive transformations before. In WWII, the U.S. converted auto factories to produce 300,000 aircraft in a short time. Starting in 1956, we started work on the Interstate Highway System which eventually covered 47,000 miles, completely transforming commerce and transportation.
Our Wind, Water and Sun (WWS) plan is also ambitious. To complete the change to a sustainable energy society we’ll need 3.8 million wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants and many geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations around the world.
But it has some advantages beyond the most important one, which is to stop global warming. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030 the U.S. will need 2.8 trillion watts (or terawatts, TW, of energy), and the world will need 16.9TW. If only WWS sources are used, the U.S. energy need drops to 1.8TW. The projected world total declines to 11.5TW.
Q. To ask the obvious: how does that happen?
A. For one thing, burning gasoline is an extremely inefficient way to power a car. As much as 80% of the energy produced escapes as heat. Running a car on electricity, only about 20% is wasted.
Q. The Obama administration is investing billions of dollars in clean energy research, development and deployment. As someone who lives and breathes these issues, what do you think of their efforts?
A.They’re moving in the right direction, but what the Obama administration is doing is not even close to what needs to be done.
Q. What about Energy Secretary Stephen Chu? Do you get the sense that his efforts are hamstrung by politics?
A. No. I think the problem of global warming is one or two orders of magnitude greater than what Secretary Chu thinks it is. They’re talking about making big changes within fifty years. But we need some of these changes to be in place within one or two years.
I’ll give you an example: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The Department of Energy is pouring billions of dollars into a technology that even its backers admit won’t be online for another 20 years. First, I think that’s an optimistic assessment. But more important is the fact that we have proven, up-and-running technologies right now that could do the job. The money that could be used deploying wind turbines and solar power plants today, is being wasted on CCS. That’s a serious, serious mistake.
Q. I know that you were a professional tennis player for a while, a teammate of Patrick McEnroe’s at one point. Are there any insights from playing competitive tennis that either helped you in your work or that could apply to how we need to address climate change?
A. The key is to keep your eye on the ball. Don’t let distractions get in the way of your focus on the best strategy (or in the case of climate change, the best solutions). Also, don’t be intimidated by your opponent (or special interests). They will always try to knock you down. Finally, give it your best effort. Even if you lose in the end, you should always be able to say you gave 100%.