The man illuminating how dirty your energy really is

The Sustainable MBA

The man illuminating how dirty your energy really is

Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson
Mark Z. Jacobson
Mark Z. Jacobson's career to date has concentrated on finding solutions to atmospheric and climate problems.

Mark Z. Jacobson is director of Stanford University's Atmosphere and Energy Program, as well as a professor of civil and environmental engineering. He is also a senior fellow of the Woods Institute for the Environment and of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

The main goal of Jacobson's research is to better understand physical, chemical and dynamic processes in the atmosphere in order to solve atmospheric problems, such as global warming and urban air pollution, with improved scientific insight and more accurate predictive tools.

Jacobson also evaluates the atmospheric and health effects of proposed energy and transportation solutions to global warming and air pollution, maps renewable energy resources and studies optimal methods of integrating renewable electricity into the grid.

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Sustainable Business Fridays conversation Jan. 30 by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe.

Bard MBA: Can you tell us a little bit about what led you down your path and how your career has evolved?

Mark Z. Jacobson: Since high school I knew what I wanted to do, which was solve atmospheric and climate problems. It wasn’t until I was working on my Ph.D., however, where I finally got to delve into that. I decided to work on urban air pollution in Los Angeles and build computer simulation models to illustrate that.

From there, I studied the impact of different pollutants on air quality and feedbacks between air pollution on health. From there, I expanded my work to look at the global picture to look at specifically urban and global air pollution to better understand those feedbacks between pollutants and health.

In the mid-'90s I became focused at looking at solutions for these climate and pollution problems in addition to just understanding them better. I began looking at wind energy, but in the mid-2000s I was looking at combining wind with different forms of renewable energy structures in order to one day replace the grid with all clean energy.

In 2009, a colleague and I did a study — a pie-in-the-sky study — to see if we could power the world completely through renewables. We concluded that there’s enough material to do this, and there is enough land to do this, and came to the conclusion that it was economically possible.

However, the plan was not really practical because it relies on people agreeing across the world to do this. In 2009-11, we did more detailed studies for the world and also for the U.S. specifically.

Bard MBA: How did this lead to your work in the Solutions Project?

Jacobson: Around that time in 2011, I met with some people from New York — Mark Ruffalo, an actor/activist; and Josh Fox, the director of the "Gaslands" movie — in addition with a banker from California, Marco Krapels, for dinner in San Francisco to discuss if we could develop an energy plan for New York. Ultimately, I said I’d love to do it, but it would take a lot of time, so I agreed to write only one paragraph.

That night I started writing that paragraph, but I got really inspired and by the end of the night it was 20, 21 pages. It took two more years to get something really detailed and publishable, but we started this group called the Solutions Project to help change the energy infrastructure of New York.

This group involves a combination of science-based energy plans with business leaders and people who want to benefit their companies, plus the general public, in order to educate policy makers about what’s possible. Now we have over 30 masters students and undergraduate students, plus a couple Ph.D.s working on plans for all 50 states, as well as base plans for 139 countries around the world.

Now you can go to or and you can find a map of the U.S. and click on a state to see an energy plan for that state. 

Bard MBA: A lot of states now are looking to developing natural gas infrastructure as part of a “clean energy” portfolio. Can you speak to that for us?

Jacobson: Well, natural gas is pretty dirty fuel. If you compare it with wind power, it emits about 60 times more air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy generated. And even in terms of bird kills — which is a common concern with wind energy — natural gas actually creates about 10 times the amount of bird kills per unit energy from air pollution, ground degradation, habitat destruction and the involved buildings.

Natural gas in comparison with coal has benefits and dis-benefits; while natural gas reduces carbon dioxide emissions relevant to coal, it actually causes more overall warming than coal not only because of the higher methane from natural gas but also because coal outputs sulfur oxide, which actually masks some of the warming. The warming from coal over a 100-year time frame is actually less than natural gas because of the sulfur oxide output. But both are really bad, they are both dirty.

If you look at the 20-year time frame, because that’s the time frame where Arctic sea ice can melt, instead of the long 100-year time frame, which is where a lot of people focus on, the methane causes 100 times more warming than the same amount of carbon dioxide.

You also have black carbon from flaring of natural gas that coats the Arctic sea ice and makes it melt faster. Plus, there’s a lot of leakage from methane in the form of millions of leaks from natural gas pipes in cities. And this leakage isn’t even counted when you are looking at coal vs. natural gas emissions timelines. So, natural gas should not be embraced, in any shape or form, as a solution to the climate problem.

Bard MBA: Another form of power that is touted as clean energy is nuclear power. You just came out with a study, however, that states nuclear power results in 25 times more carbon emissions than wind. Can you explain these findings for us?

Jacobson: Sure, it’s rather straightforward. A life-cycle analysis of a wind turbine shows most of carbon outputs during its construction, practically zero when it’s in operation, and then, if you use today’s methods, during decommission a turbine outputs some carbon.

When you do the calculation, however, you find that wind power emissions are between 5 to 10 grams of carbon per kWh of electricity generated over the lifetime of the turbine. Using that as a baseline, you see over the lifetime of nuclear power, the carbon output is 70 grams per carbon per kWh.

This is from one, building of the nuclear power plant and then two, refining uranium, which is very energy-intensive. There is also timing involved: It takes on average in the U.S. 10 to 19 years for a nuclear power plant to get up and running, while a wind farm can be built on average in two to five years.

If we compare nuclear and wind from now, in two to five years you’ll have a wind farm up and start creating energy that’s clean, while with nuclear you have to wait 10 to 19 years to get that energy. If you add in these extra emissions, called opportunity cost emissions, you end up getting nine to 25 times more carbon in air pollution per kWh from nuclear than wind.

That is still better than coal or natural gas (60 to 120 times more), but other problems with nuclear power is of course 1.5 percent of plants have melted down, and the problems related to weapons proliferation with nuclear, radioactive waste, mining damage, etc. Not even mentioning the cost, which is very high and currently subsidized in the U.S. It’s not a viable option; it’s really the nuclear industry trying to push it to get more business.

The full recording of this conversation is also available.