Mark Jacobson on Solving the Earth’s Most Complex Problem

Interview by Dave Harman and Dr. Harvard Ayers, conducted on March 29, 2017

Great to see a class full of young people wanting to know more about how to stop rapid climate change and air pollution health problems. Many thanks for this chance to discuss my views with you.

First, I would like to provide you with a brief history of how we have reached where we are today with the Solutions Project. Our first major plan at Stanford to stop climate change and air pollution was in 2009, and it was a world-wide plan. It was published in Scientific American. We asked if it is possible to repower the whole world with 100 percent wind, water, and solar for all purposes. The conclusion was, “yes we can.” It is technologically and economically possible, although there are social and political barriers. We found that it is possible by 2030, but because of social and political barriers, it would probably not happen until 2050.

But, if I back up and ask why I even started this, I would say that even as a teenager, I knew I wanted to solve large- scale air pollution climate problems– that was my goal. I used to play tennis, and I would occasionally go down to Los Angeles and San Diego. The air was really polluted compared with where I lived. I noticed the difference and thought to myself, “Why should people live like this?” So in the back of my mind, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to understand these large-scale pollution problems. I thought maybe this would be something I could focus my career on.

It took a few years because no program existed at my undergraduate university in which to study these issues. At Stanford, I could study ground water pollution, but not air pollution or climate, so I studied Civil Engineering for an undergraduate degree and then Environmental Engineering for a master’s degree. I also studied Economics for an undergraduate degree because I felt if I wanted to solve these problems, it must include economics as well.

I was still passionate about studying atmospheric pollution, so I decided to do a PhD in this area. I wanted to stay on the west coast. I looked at the University of Washington, and UCLA. It turns out that, at UCLA, I met an advisor who had a project I was really excited about, which was to develop a computer model to study air pollution in Los Angeles, which was the most polluted city in the United States. I ended up doing a PhD in Atmospheric Science there, building a computer model to simulate air pollution on a regional scale.

When I graduated, I really wanted to study pollution on a global scale as well, so I extended the model to be a global air pollution and climate model. I was really looking at the problems, not yet the solutions. I graduated from UCLA in 1994 and was fortunate to get a faculty position at Stanford right away. I was then able to study the causes of air pollution and the impacts of different energy technologies on human health and climate.

Once the global model was developed, I started looking at the impacts of different energy types on human health and climate. I compared the impacts of different types of vehicles and power plants, among other comparisons. In one study, we found that if we replaced 60 percent of coal with wind, the U.S. could satisfy the Kyoto Protocol. I then hired a student to study wind energy in particular.

Fast forward to 2007-2008, I started writing a paper comparing different energy technologies that were being proposed as “clean,” to solve air pollution, global warming, and energy security problems. I compared wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal and also nuclear power, coal with carbon-capture, and biofuel. I decided to evaluate which of these technologies was the best, ignoring their costs, but just looking at their impacts on the environment. So I looked at air pollution impacts, climate impacts, water supply impacts, reliability, catastrophic risk, and land use impacts.

I came up with a ranking of different technologies. This paper was published in 2009. Wind, water, and solar technologies came out on top. They were the highest ranked in terms of their overall impacts. And what was in the middle was nuclear power and coal/carbon capture. Really bad were biofuels.

At that time, Scientific American asked me to write a paper where I ended up partnering with Mark Delucchi from UC Davis at the time. The purpose of the paper was to take the best technologies from what we proposed and to determine if we can actually power the world with those technologies. The conclusion was that yes, it is technologically feasible to power the world 100 percent with clean, renewable energy, namely wind, water, and solar for all sectors: electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry. Around the same time, I presented these results in a “TED Talk” debate.

Once the paper was completed in 2009, we did a more detailed world energy roadmap that was published in 2011 in the Journal of Energy Policy.. In the same year, I met with some people from New York and also California in San Francisco. A friend of mine, Marco Krapels, introduced me to Mark Ruffalo and Josh Fox. Ruffalo and Fox were fighting natural gas fracking, and they heard about our energy plans and wanted to talk to me about those with respect to the state of New York. We ended up discussing the possibilities of developing a state clean, renewable energy plan as an alternative to fracking. We knew that you can’t just be against something; it is necessary to have an alternative to replace it.

I realized how much time that would take. I told them I would write a paragraph to start a New York energy plan and that someone else could take it from there. Instead, I ended up writing 21 pages that evening by shrinking down our global plan to the scale of New York. Our group of four started working together to implement the roadmap and called our product “The Solutions Project.” I also met Drs. Robert Howarth and Tony Ingraffea of Cornell and others, with whom we partnered, along with students to publish the New York energy roadmap in 2013.

The Solutions Project was behind the scenes for a couple of years until it became a public nonprofit in 2013 (, whose goal is to educate the public and policymakers about the science plans we had developed. In the meantime, Marco Krapels, and Mark Ruffalo and I gave a talk at Google and one in Nantucket about our energy roadmap. We represented science, business, and culture, respectively.

Subsequently, I thought why not develop a plan for California as well. So Mark Delucchi and I developed a plan for California after getting more students involved. Then I thought, why not do all 50 states? I tried to automate it, and with a few more students, we developed plans for all 50 states in 2015. We also did another individual plan, this time for Washington State. Then we thought, why stop with the U.S. – let’s go worldwide. We then developed plans for 139 countries.

In the meantime, we also thought, now that we have these energy plans, can we keep the grid stable? So we started developing a model to stimulate the grid stability with 100 percent wind, water, and solar. The first version of that was published in 2015 in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)– it ended up doing really well; it ended up winning a prize from the NAS that year. We found that you can keep the grid stable with 100 percent clean renewable energy 100% of the time.

I am sometime asked how I can best serve the implementation of The Solutions Project. My role is not as an activist, but a scientist. My goal is to provide technological, scientific information and make it clear and simple for people to understand.

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