Clean Electricity Plan Would Free US Economy of Carbon Dependence in 15 Years

A detailed new engineering study reveals that, if the U.S. converted all its fossil-fueled technologies to clean electric power (mainly solar and wind) in the next 15 years, it would create 25 million new jobs over the next three to five years at its peak. This total would eventually taper off to 5 million permanent new jobs (over and above existing energy-sector jobs).

There’s no surprise here: Clean renewable energy, such as solar panels and electric vehicles, simply requires more manufacturing, installation and maintenance compared to fossil fuels. These would be good, well-paid jobs in every zip code — jobs that could not be outsourced to China or Mexico. Most of the jobs would be in the trades — electrical, plumbing and construction, many of them in parts of the country neglected during the past 40 years. All it would take is government leadership, organization and commitment.

The new engineering study, produced by Rewiring America, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to converting the U.S. economy to clean electric power, uses conservative assumptions. For example, it assumes using only technologies that are commercially available today; no technical or price breakthroughs are presumed. The study also assumes no behavioral changes by the public. Further, the study assumes that no assets, like coal power plants, will be shut down before their original capital costs have been amortized (no “early retirement” of fossil-fuel assets). It also posits no special efficiency measures besides the inherent efficiency of clean electricity vs. fossil fuels, and no carbon capture and storage. Lastly, it assumes a technology transition no faster than the U.S. has achieved in the past — the authors call it “the maximum feasible transition,” based on the history of U.S. industrial mobilization organized by the government between 1940 and 1945.

The new study was conducted by Saul Griffith and Sam Calisch (both with advanced degrees from MIT) and Alex Laskey, co-founder of Rewiring America.

The study — in the form of a 30-page white paper, plus a short book available free in PDF — began in 2018 when Griffith (a MacArthur “genius” awardee) worked under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, creating a detailed database of every publicly documented energy flow in the U.S. economy, from supply to demand.

The present study builds on that database using a “machines up” approach — examining every machine involved in every energy flow: lights, heat and motors throughout every sector of the economy, including transportation, buildings, industry and power generation. The study assumes that, at the end of every fossil-fueled machine’s normal lifetime, it will be replaced by an equivalent electric-powered machine. A gas stove gets replaced by an induction cooktop, a gasoline car by an electric car, a natural-gas furnace by a heat pump, an incandescent light bulb by an LED. In many buildings, a new breaker box would be required. The difference in cost between the old machines and the new ones installed, added up across the economy, is the cost of the transition. The number of jobs created by this expenditure is then calculated from reliable databases showing jobs created per million dollars invested.

Most households and many businesses cannot afford to make a lump-sum investment in new technologies, so the government would need to invent a low-interest loan program (“climate loans”) to make the transition possible. Griffith and his colleagues calculate the transition would cost the federal government $300 billion per year for 10 years, about 1.5 percent of current gross domestic product, less than half of what the U.S. currently spends on the military.

The benefits of the plan would be enormous. First, of course, the world’s other major manufacturing nations (China, Germany, Japan and South Korea) would see the economic benefits of replicating our transition, so the world could avoid the worst of the climate emergency. In 2017, climate disruption was costing the U.S. about $240 billion each year, according to a study led by Robert Watson, former chair of the International Panel on Climate Change. With more fires, floods, record-breaking heat waves and destructive wind storms, the annual cost of climate change is likely higher today, and rising.

The Griffith plan, with its conservative assumptions, says it is consistent with holding global average temperature rise to about 1.75 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit), if the world’s other major emitters adopt a similar plan within 10 years. To hit the stricter 1.5°C/2.7°F target established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would require early retirement of some large fossil-fueled machines, such as coal power plants. The federal government could buy them out and retire them, as part of its overall effort. To go further and hit the 1.0°C/1.8°F target that likely could prevent long-term melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice would require removal of carbon dioxide directly from the air, an expensive and nascent technology. The Griffith study says what’s most important is to ramp up rapidly now what we already know how to do. The climate emergency is truly an emergency.

Second, the average U.S. household would save between $1,000 and $2,000 each year on its energy bill, the Griffith study shows, because electric power is simply more efficient than fossil-fueled sources, doing more work with less energy. After the transition, the U.S. economy as a whole would use 50 to 60 percent less energy than today. And then there are the jobs. In addition to jobs in manufacturing and the trades, there would be jobs in education and training, plus finance jobs to manage the large volume of financial transactions required during the transition. Third, as a technology leader and early adopter, the U.S. could export both its technology and its clean energy.

The clean energy would come 85 percent from wind turbines and solar-panel arrays. Some nuclear power would be “very useful” but “not necessary,” the study says, though it still assumes 100 gigawatts (GW) of new nuclear power. Nuclear currently produces about 20 percent of U.S. electricity; the study says the cost of a new nuclear plant is double the cost per watt of solar or wind. The study also includes some biofuels for long-distance aviation and certain industrial processes, plus 100 GW of new hydropower.

The U.S. currently has roughly 300 GW of carbon-free electricity-generating capacity. In the Griffith plan, this would grow sixfold to about 1,800 GW by 2035. Some of this would be generated on rooftops and used in the underlying buildings, requiring no access to the nation’s electrical transmission grid.

However, about 1,000 GW of new electricity would have to be carried by the grid. This would more than triple the load on the grid, forcing a totally new grid-management philosophy to accommodate many new sources of supply and demand. At present, access to the nation’s electric grid is strictly limited; the new grid could be modeled on the internet, where everyone can attach a device and start sending and receiving easily. Furthermore, the new grid would consist of many microgrids tied together, greatly increasing the reliability of energy-delivery to homes and businesses.

Renewable energy presents unique challenges, requiring many changes in building codes, laws, regulations and policies. For example, large wind turbines can produce flickering light and very-low-frequency sounds, which some humans find profoundly disturbing, in some cases potentially triggering seizures or causing illness. Therefore, large turbines could only be placed where they would not disturb anyone, and impacts on wildlife require careful consideration. In addition, new transmission lines will be political poison in some locales; therefore, thoughtful, sensible and detailed early planning will be required everywhere. Only the government has the capacity to organize such a large undertaking.

Still, there’s no doubt that the U.S. has sufficient land to site the necessary new renewable energy equipment. Griffith’s free book shows that 100 percent of U.S. energy demand could be met by either 100 million acres of wind turbines, or 15 million acres of solar panels. (Wind turbines require more land because they must be spaced farther apart than solar panels.) The clean solution will involve some combination of solar and wind. The U.S. currently has 2.8 million acres of residential rooftops, 1.3 million acres of commercial rooftops, 4.6 million acres of parking lots and 12.8 million acres of roads in addition to 339 million acres of cropland, 655 million acres of grassland and pasture, and another 39 million acres of idle cropland. In sum, a small fraction of available land, rooftops and road rights-of-way would be sufficient to power the whole economy with solar energy.

To provide another perspective, the Earth receives 85,000 terawatts of sunlight; all human activity worldwide requires 19 terawatts, and the U.S. alone requires about 4 terawatts. Sun power is plentiful and free.

In late August, Democrats in the U.S. Senate released their own far-reaching plan for converting the economy to clean sources of power. They promise that, when they gain a majority, they will immediately begin spending $400 billion per year to convert the economy to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, and they say 40 percent of those dollars will be intended to benefit communities of color and low-income, deindustrialized and disadvantaged communities.

Similarly, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed converting the U.S. electricity-generating system to renewable fuels by 2035 and the rest of the economy (transport, buildings and industry) by 2050.

Both Democratic blueprints are huge steps forward, far better than the Republican plan, which is to double down on fossil fuels, fry the planet, and hope for the best. Still, both Democratic plans are somewhat less ambitious than the Griffith road map. Griffith calls for a World War II scale of mobilization, to “shoot for the moon,” to reach the clean energy goal in 15 years, creating the needed sense of urgency and national commitment. If the Democrats embraced Griffith’s more-aggressive plan, we could avert the worst of the climate emergency, revive the economy quickly with many millions of good new jobs, and save every family money, all at the same time. Why would anyone want to settle for less?