Jules Vernes' 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon imagined three members of a gun club shooting themselves into space, launching decades of fantasizing about manned exploration beyond our planet's domed heavens. It wasn't until almost a century later that it seemed a rocket to the moon "could be built later this year if somebody can be found to sign some papers". [Ley, Willy (July 1957). Galaxy Science Fiction, p. 69] Then the space race heated up, and in another decade (July 1969) Armstrong and Aldrin took the first steps on the Moon.
What we need is a space-race towards renewable energy. The dream is widespread. The technology has become real. And we could build this thing if we can just find someone to sign the papers.
That is the conclusion one reaches based on a study just released online, in Energy and Environmental Sciences (pdf). A team led by Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson has projected the growth in energy demands through 2050, and then calculated exactly how those needs can be supplied using only renewables, based on which renewable sources of energy are most feasible in the various States.
The paper is another arrow in the quiver of the Solutions Project, which offers people interactive tools to explore how an alternative energy future could become reality.
The focus of the Solutions Project in Jacobson's words:
"The main barriers are social, political and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible. By showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation."
The conclusions of the paper can be called into question. For example, one can nitpick the paper's estimate that going renewable will save each and every American $8300 per year (in 2013 dollars, range $4700 - $17,600 depending on uncertainties). This estimate converts a lot of hypothetical costs (e.g. the value of a statistical life) into dollars, which may be misunderstood by people think in terms of the black (or red) ink at the bottom of their monthly budgets.
Other aspects of the estimates seem not bold enough: surely comparing the energy footprint of Americans with Europeans suggests that more than a modest 2.7%* reduction in end-use load can be achieved by energy conservation (*6.9 % of an overall drop of 39.3%, most of which is due to efficiencies of electrification).
But this is exactly what this race needs: by defining what can be done, what it costs and what it saves, we close in on actually doing it.