Several weeks ago, Al Gore made a speech. It wasn’t just any speech. It is a national call to action such as we haven’t heard from our elected leaders in quite some time.
Gore proposed a challenge and plan for the USA to generate 100% of our electricity in 10 years from clean, renewable, carbon-free sources. He calls the plan “Repower America”.
This video summary does a nice job of getting the big points across in less than 4 minutes. (The image you see is an Apollo rocket, fulfilling the 10-year plan that JFK made.
Other videos and links to Gore’s Repower America Challenge
If you have six minutes, check out these highlights of his speech, which go into a little more detail:
In about a half hour, you can listen to the whole Repower America speech or read the text in a few minutes.
My Summary of Gore’s Repower America speech
Here’s how I heard what Gore had to say.
Gore points out how we have a lot of problems, but that they are not separate. Our current attempts to solve them have not worked.
I’m convinced that one reason we’ve seemed paralyzed in the face of these crises is our tendency to offer old solutions to each crisis separately – without taking the others into account. And these outdated proposals have not only been ineffective – they almost always make the other crises even worse.
Instead, Gore said, we need to find a “common thread” that addresses all of these issues:
- Faltering economy, mortgage crisis, increasing gas, electricity and oil prices
- Climate crisis is getting worse faster than predicted
- National security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we’re holding the answer to all of them right in our hand.
The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.
But how can we do that? With solar, wind, and geothermal (and notably, little mention of nuclear). I think many are skeptical about these sources — too expensive, not feasible, too complicated, and something the environmentalists and wackos (my word, not his :-) have been chanting about for years.
But Gore makes the important points that solar and wind:
- Are abundant in the US and the world
- The amount we need is tiny compared to what we have
- prices for renewable energy sources will fall as demand increases
This last point is important. Today a shockingly small percentage of our energy comes from renewable resources. In the markets that have controlled prices in the last years, these sources have been too expensive to be cost-effective in almost all applications.
However, the viability of renewable energy is changing even with the modest (actually) increase in oil prices. The cost of carbon has never been part of these prices. Add that in and the true cost of carbon-based energy begins to look even worse, and renewables cheap.
But the other factor Gore points out is that alternative sources are expensive because of the lack of demand for them. He made an analogy with the rise of computers: their cost has dropped every year, just as their power and efficiency has increased.
And as the demand for renewable energy grows, the costs will continue to fall. Let me give you one revealing example: the price of the specialized silicon used to make solar cells was recently as high as $300 per kilogram. But the newest contracts have prices as low as $50 a kilogram.
You know, the same thing happened with computer chips – also made out of silicon. The price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months – year after year, and that’s what’s happened for 40 years in a row.
Notably, the proposal does not call for a complete replacement of carbon-based energy, just for the energy needed to produce electricity. This makes the plan more feasible, if more limited in scope. Cars, trucks and planes may still run on liquid fuels; houses and buildings may still be heated with natural gas and oil. Still it’s a huge step.
Changing the economics of electricity using renewables could have a side benefit: if electricity becomes relatively less expensive it may provide a reasonable alternative or supplement to some forms of fossil fuel use. Home heating and cooling, plug-in cars are already feasible, if not a complete solution.
One area that we’ll also need to recognize is that as demand for fossil fuels falls, especially coal, their prices will fall as well.
Gore did recognize some serious impediments that must be addressed:
- The current electricity transmission grid needs a major upgrade
- Many people will lose jobs, e.g. coal miners, and will need support
- We need to help our auto-makers transition to electric vehicles
- We still need to conserve energy
I see the overhaul of our electric grid as the most challenging technical problem; this is a major infrastructure change. There are a number of other technical and implementation problems to be addressed.
(Yet shortly after Gore’s speech, T. Boone Pickens, the famous “Texas Oilman”, is proposing private investment in a huge wind, then solar corridor, with the electricity infrastructure needed to support it. He sees the opportunity to make money. His plan is different, but certainly compatible with Gore’s)
Gore sees the biggest challenge not as technical, but as political.
Of course the greatest obstacle to meeting the challenge of 100 percent renewable electricity in 10 years may be the deep dysfunction of our politics and our self-governing system as it exists today. In recent years, our politics has tended toward incremental proposals made up of small policies designed to avoid offending special interests, alternating with occasional baby steps in the right direction.
Leadership will make the difference. Can we expect a new kind of leadership from our new president? Obama has been compared to John F Kennedy many times. I am hopeful that he will be elected President, and that we will have a new congress that will help us stop dithering and start acting. I am also hopeful that Gore will have a position of power in his new administration.
But Gore made the first move, in proposing a challenge every bit as audacious as Kennedy’s “man on the moon in 10 years” challenge seemed in 1961. Are the two ten-year challenges comparable?
Personally, I see the problems being solved as different in some very important ways. Putting a man on the moon was indeed a massive technical challenge, as will be shifting to renewable energy. But the technical challenge was one solved by a very few people while the rest of us looked on. When the goal was reached, things weren’t really that different and had mostly a psychic impact on our nation (and some beneficial byproducts, like computers). But it was self-contained, really.
The Repower America challenge involves major infrastructure changes, major economic shifts and disruptions, and has major political implications. Sound like a recipe for disaster? But here there’s a very different motivator: there is both the economic necessity, and huge, huge economic opportunity for the country.
In the space race, we had the cold-war threat of losing our way of life to the Soviet Union (perhaps ending in nuclear war). Our symbolic gesture reassured Americans and the world that we were able to rise to a challenge. In the race against climate change and energy crises, we have an equal opportunity to re-establish our position as a world leader and economic power. And we have perhaps a less horrific downside scenario than nuclear war. But in both cases, the motivation to act and succeed is strong.
It is a great error to say that the United States must wait for others to join us in this matter. In fact, we must move first, because that is the key to getting others to follow; and because moving first is in our own national interest.
And so it is.
I hope you’ll not just agree, or disagree with my take on this, but instead listen or read the whole speech and draw your conclusion.
If you disagree or don’t believe it will happen, I would love to hear why. Clearly saying some big words does not solve anything, and perhaps it’s counterproductive in some way? Have we set ourselves up for failure? Is this change too large to happen in just 10 years?
The conclusion I draw is that this is the only kind of approach that will actually solve problems. Incremental, gradual solutions are not sufficient. Inaction, which is what we have now, is the status quo, and, to mix metaphors, is what the road to hell is paved with. So I am inspired by Gore, for a third time. He has shown the ability to be effective, and I see no better leader for this.
If you do agree, or have some hope that it might happen, take a good first step and join Gore’s “We Campaign”.