Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: Rob Jackson

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science, shares his excitement for the future of solar power.

Rob Jackson is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor and a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, as well as a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. His climate-change-related research ranges from examining the effects of climate change and droughts on forest mortality and grassland ecosystems to measuring greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas wells, city streets and homes and buildings.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Professor Rob Jackson reflects on the success of new technology and the rise of solar energy.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to climate change-driving emissions over the past 50 years?

The biggest surprise of recent decades is the dizzying rise of solar energy. From rooftops to industrial arrays, solar is transforming the face of electricity production. It’s also decentralizing production, giving people more control in local energy choices.


Why do you consider it of great significance/importance?

Its importance goes far beyond fighting climate change. Cheap renewables are creating 100,000 jobs a year in the United States. They’re saving thousands of lives annually by eliminating coal pollution. They’re helping drive a revolution in electric cars and trucks.


What led to the change?

Solar energy is becoming the fuel of choice primarily because it’s cheaper than other energy options. Half a century ago, the chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, predicted nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” It never was, but solar just might be. California already gives excess solar electricity away to other states on some afternoons. No one saw that coming a decade ago.


What lessons can we learn from this success story?

Renewables still have a long way to go, but they’ve shown us what’s possible – a clean energy future. Solar shares some history with hydraulic fracturing. Both technologies required sustained investment by the federal government and entrepreneurial ingenuity. They both took decades to succeed. We need to remember that lag in planning for next-generation technologies.