Could California Run On 100% Renewable Power By 2050?

Do you have several million solar roofs and 25,000 wind turbines lying around? Then yes.

Could California Run On 100% Renewable Power By 2050?
[Image: Golden Gate Bridge via Shutterstock]

It’s becoming more and more obvious, if it wasn’t already, that we don’t have that much time to cut greenhouse gas emissions before climate change is out of control: One recent U.N. report suggests that energy systems will have to completely transform by 2050. So what might that actually look like?


One new project involves mapping out the details state by state, starting with a vision of a smog-free California in which every car and truck would run on electricity or fuel cells, and every watt of electricity would come from renewable sources like solar, wind, and wave power.

The plan outlined in the new study would require massive changes, including building over a thousand huge concentrated solar plants and 25,000 wind turbines, adding solar panels to several million more roofs, and installing thousands of new devices to harvest wave and tidal power.

“This is much more aggressive than any other policy measure that’s ever been proposed,” says lead author Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering. “First of all this is way beyond carbon dioxide, which only causes about 40% to 45% of global warming . . . This eliminates all air pollution.”

Obviously, the transition wouldn’t be cheap. But Jacobson and his team calculated that it could save an estimated $103 billion in health costs related to air pollution every year, and save another $48 billion in costs from climate change. Even though some oil and gas industry jobs would be lost, over 200,000 new jobs would be created.

The exact details of the plan would probably shift, as new technologies are developed in the next several years. But the researchers wanted to map out a clear picture of one possibility.

“Other proposals aren’t specific,” says Jacobson. “The main difference with this plan is that it’s specific about what the end goal would look like. It’s one thing to say we’re going to reduce emissions by 80% or 100%, but it’s another thing to say how you’re going to do it.”


Will the state actually be able to make the shift? Despite clear obstacles from traditional industry, Jacobson is optimistic. “There’s a change already occurring, slowly, but the momentum is building.” he says. “Technology’s getting better, electric cars are getting better, wind and solar are spreading. The key here is to speed up this change.”

The researchers have completed similar studies for all 50 states, and will be releasing more papers in the coming year.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.