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.


  1. Our current energy system is based on a non renewable supply of oil, which is why it is useful to be thinking ahead about what alternatives exist. We need some options, along with what they will cost in dollars, and in amount of room needed.

    A more accurate analogy, the poison you refer to is already in the system, we just don’t know how long before we get sick and die.

    • Crude oil, next to water, is the most plentiful liquid in our globe. We are not in danger of running out of crude for at least 100 years — probably much longer. The supply during this period would be limited by the price, not by any metaphysical limit of the amount of crude oil. A higher price will produce massive amounts of crude. There is no reason, at this point, to impoverish our nation with a new system of expensive, unproven “sustainable energy.” Does anyone have any doubt that by 2100 we will have found new ways of tapping nature for our energy needs?

  2. Great post. The comforting thing is that this is so pie in the sky, it will never get serious traction. I’m all in favor of exploiting different energy sources, but they should be able to compete on their own and need to have some realistic assessments backing them up.

    Lost Motorcyclist, the Peak Oil idea has been around for a long time, but it seems everytime we look, the oil and gas reserves available for commercial exploitation keep going up. You may be correct that it is a non-renewable resource, but that is an assumption, not proven fact. The situation with hydrocarbon fuels is a lot more complicated, and interesting, than the simple “we’re running out of fossil fuels” meme.

    • eric, take a look at the article I’ve linked below, which uses some interesting and very simple calculations to demonstrate the actual implementation costs for a range of “alternate energy” schemes.

    • It is not my “assumption” or “a proven fact” that oil is non renewable. It is simply common knowledge that new oil is not being produced, it is all millions of years old. That is what non-renewable means. All I said was we don’t know when we are going to run out, but one day we will.

  3. We get low single digits percentages of our energy from oil.
    We get most from coal, hydroelectric and nuclear.
    Anyone who thinks we are going to be able to spend $100 trillion to rip up and replace our energy infrastructure in ~20 years is someone who believes that minuscule amounts of CO2 can control the climate:IOW, they are idiots.

  4. Excellent post.

    Here’s another article that uses common public source data (from National Geographic, no less) to clearly demonstrate that all bio* eco* and “Green Jobs” proposals are delusional and preposterous.

    (Ignore the source and the odd title, it’s still a good article)

    July 2, 2008
    Ending Our Oil Addiction: Reality Check
    Raymond Kraft


  5. Did they strap the drool cups on these two bozos before they let them write? And if so, were there drool cups all around at the editorial meeting?

  6. RE:Required Surface Area. OK, This is the United States, we are talking about the USA highway system, our speeds are in MPH, distances in Miles and Feet, I don’t see you translating your commentary into Spanish or some European language, what the hell is the matter with ASE English measurements, Metric Sucks and why are you talking in Metric that we all have to just try to picture it by translating back into the inch/ft/yard/mile system. Oh ya, so how many cars have you driven in American/USA that go yards per second, or m/s (that’s meters per second) NONE. Stop this crap and get back to American Standards especially when talking to USA Americans. Please press 1 for ASE and 2 for leave the country and talk somewhere else.

    Oh ya did I say that the Metric system sucks. I work with it everyday and it really sucks….and it doesn’t work here. Until we start dreaming and picturing metic in our minds there will always be a major disconnect. Go to sleep kids and pretend you are sophisticated in your dreams. Que monton de cagar in la cabezea senior. Press DOS for spanish.

    • Dear William,

      thank you for the brilliant comment.

      best regards,

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