Granite Geek: Getting to One Hundred Percent Renewable Energy

Jun 30, 2015

Imagine a future where all of New Hampshire’s power comes from renewable sources. That’s all power: for your radio or computer, of course, but also for your heating and cooling systems and your car. A new study spells out how that could be made a reality by the year 2050. David Brooks of the Nashua Telegraph and spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Who conducted the study?

This is a group called the Solutions Project, which has an interesting board of directors that includes Mark Ruffalo, the actor that played the Hulk in The Avengers. It’s got someone who works for the Leonardo DiCaprio foundation. It’s got some people who sell some solar power equipment, so they have some inspiration to do this. And it’s got Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, and he’s the guy I interviewed (for obvious reasons). So it’s an advocacy group, but it’s a science-based advocacy group.

The study looks at what it would take to put New Hampshire on 100 percent renewable power, but it makes a few assumptions. What are they?

The most important one is that it assumes everything becomes electrified. That is, all cars become electric cars, all heating and cooling processes are electric. Pumps, industrial processes are switched to electricity. And it does this largely because electric motors are more efficient and by doing this, it argues, you can reduce the total amount of energy by about a third. So it starts with that change, which frankly you could argue makes it so unrealistic to start with that it’s hardly worth talking about after that. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise, but it sets up a framework for discussing what is possible in the real world.

If New Hampshire were to switch to 100 percent renewable power and those assumptions were in place, what would be the biggest source of renewable power for the state?

The main thing they say is offshore wind, which is generally considered one of the major likely power sources for alternative energy around the world. This is wind turbines that are ten, twenty, fifty miles out to sea, where the winds are better and where you don’t have to worry about citing issues as much, although as we’ve seen down in Cape Cod, you still have to worry about citing issues. So 40 percent from offshore wind, 20 percent from onshore wind power, 25 percent from large photovoltaic solar plants, 5 percent from residential rooftop solar, 3 percent from industrial/government rooftop solar, 4 percent from hydropower—plain old dams. They do not assume there will be any increase in dam hydropower, or a very tiny increase because of efficiency, just because they say it’s so hard to build new dams. So 60 percent would be from wind power and basically 30-35 percent would be from solar power.

And under this scenario, there would be real world costs, and these researchers are saying that it would cost exactly the same to switch to these renewable sources than to stay on the path they’re on. What’s their argument?

Yeah, exactly the same, you know, plus or minus an order of magnitude or something. Their argument is that whenever people say it’s too expensive to switch to alternative energy, they don’t look at the enormous cost for sticking with the current system. And here in New Hampshire, the most obvious example of those enormous costs is the $450 million scrubber in the coal fired plant in Bow. That’s almost half a billion dollars to make this power plant less bad. It’s still bad, it still emits less carbon pollution, but it’s less bad because it doesn’t emit sulfur and mercury pollution. That’s an enormous cost and people tend to forget about that when they think about what happens when we stick with the current system.

If it’s so unlikely that the state would be able to reach this renewable energy benchmark anytime soon, why do the study?

It is an exercise to show what is feasible. So when actual decisions are made, they can be made within this context. It’s not a blueprint. We’re not all going to be driving electric cars and combined heat and power or electric plants, but we will be using a lot more alternative energy, a lot less fossil fuels, and this might help prod us to make us see what’s possible. That’s their argument, and I think it’s a reasonable one.