Posts Tagged ‘Interstate Highway System’


Comparing the Interstate Highway System to Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030″

November 14, 2009

091111 November 09 SA cover 2In the November, 2009 issue of Scientific American, Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi propose a plan to supply the world’s energy needs entirely by solar, wind and water sources by 2030. They conclude that the cost would be $100 trillion. My calculations show the cost to be more like $200 trillion.

This post dissects their comparison between the construction of the Interstate Highway System and their Energy system.


Interstate Highway System (2009 dollars):  $0.453 trillion
Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Energy system (2009 dollars): $200 trillion

Jacobson and Delucchi say…

“Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before… In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”

The Interstate Highway System is “largest public works program in history.” The concept was first approved by congress in 1944. But it was more than a decade until President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The plan evolved to building 42,500 miles of “super-highway” by 1975.  40,000 miles were completed by 1980.

The expected cost in 1958 was $41 billion. By 1995 the total construction cost amounted to $329 billion (in 1996 dollars). This translates into $58.5 billion 1957 dollars. That is not too far off from the original estimate.  Converting the $329 billion 1996 dollars to 2009 dollars gives $453 billion.

So if Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s estimate for the cost of their energy system is correct, then their energy plan would cost over 200 times as much ($100 trillion / $453 billion) as the Interstate Highway System to which they like to compare it.

If my calculations for the cost of their energy system are correct, then it would cost more than 400 times as much ($200 trillion / $453 billion) as the Interstate Highway System! And since they propose building their system in just 20 years, then it would be like building 20 interstate highway systems (which took about 30 years to build) every single year for twenty years.

Required surface area

Interstate Highway System – paved area: 3,500 km2
Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Energy system (solar portion only): 500,000 km2

Composite interstate highway imageAnother interesting comparison is the amount of land required. The image at the left (click to enlarge) shows a spot check of interstate highway widths using Google Earth.  A liberal estimate of the average paved width of the Interstate Highway System is about 150 feet (about 45 meters, or 0.045 kilometers).  So, roughly speaking, the 47,000 mile (76,000 kilometer) Interstate Highway System paved over about 3,500 square kilometers ( 0.045 kilometers X 76,000 kilometers).

The area covered by solar panels in the Scientific American plan would be on the order of 500,000 square kilometers, or 150 times larger than the Interstate Highway System. (See calculated land required for Concentrated Solar, PV power plants, and rooftop solar, here)

Let’s rip up the Interstate Highway System and build a new one.

Jacobson and Delucchi claim that the expense of their energy system “is not money handed out by governments or consumers. It is an investment that is paid back through the sale of electricity and energy.” This is a soothing argument that overlooks an obvious fact: We already have a power energy system that pays for itself “through the sale of electricity and energy.”   

This is like pointing out that an Interstate Highway System would have great benefits for us, and then suggesting that we could reap those benefits by tearing down the system we have now and then rebuilding it.

It’s almost like swallowing poison so you can reap the benefits of good health after you recover.


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