Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


July 30, 2008

Gore’s Challenge: All Electricity from Clean Sources in 10 Years

Category: Climate Change,Editorial,News,Observations,Political – Tom Harrison – 4:21 pm

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 And these outdated proposals have not only been ineffective – they almost always make the other crises even worse.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

and says

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:

  1. Are abundant in the US and the world
  2. The amount we need is tiny compared to what we have
  3. 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”.

Some related articles (mostly rebuttals)

1 Comment

  1. I also found the following press release from the “We” Campaign. Several issues, in particular Gore’s stance on nuclear, are clarified.

    Gore’s Generational Challenge to Repower America

    Unprecedented Proposal on Energy and Climate

    Commitment to Clean Energy Future Will Expand Economic Opportunity, Address Energy, Climate and National Security Concerns

    Washington, DC – To reset the way Americans think about the energy future and the climate crisis, former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore issued a bold challenge Thursday: that 100 percent of U.S. electricity production come from sources with zero carbon emissions within 10 years.

    Gore also clearly made the case that the biggest problems we are facing right now are connected and must be solved together. “We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change,” Vice President Gore said.

    “But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard,” Gore continued, “all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we are holding the answer to all of them right in our hand. The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels. 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.”

    In the speech hosted by the “We” Campaign, Gore challenged all Americans to solve America’s economic, environmental and national security crises by rallying behind a single, comprehensive objective.

    “This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. It represents a challenge to all Americans – in every walk of life: our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers and every citizen,” said Gore.

    Among the dangers in not creating a new energy infrastructure, Gore said, is that fuel prices will continue to rise and weaken the U.S. economy. He encouraged Americans to not accept the solutions of the past, like drilling for more oil.

    Gore described the following as components of meeting this challenge:

    * The growing wind and solar sectors need to be expanded through continued investment and innovation.
    * Other renewables should be added to the mix – geothermal and solar thermal with storage capability – and we should start planning for that now.
    * The greatest gains can be made in energy efficiency. For instance, existing technologies can raise household efficiency by 30 percent.
    * America must invest in a Unified National Grid that would link every household and move cost-effective renewable electricity from places where the supply is vast to where the power is needed most.
    * We should retain the existing fossil fuel-free energy production from nuclear and hydroelectric power.
    * We must learn to safely store and capture carbon from coal and gas. Until then, these fossil fuels cannot be “clean.”

    Cathy Zoi, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, which is coordinating the nearly 1.4 million-strong “We” Campaign, noted that Gore has laid down a bold yet achievable goal, and that the only thing missing was the political will. She vowed to focus the energy and resources of the “We” Campaign behind this effort.

    “This is ambitious and achievable,” Zoi said, “but in order to make it work, all Americans need to come together. Investors and innovators must continue to develop solutions and bring them to market. Businesses can lead by example, improving efficiency and supporting policy changes in the right direction. Political leaders – at every level – must commit to this goal and see it through. And individuals must press their leaders for change.”

    In the speech Gore noted that Americans had proven before that they can rise to a transformational challenge within a decade.

    “When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon,” Gore said.

    A variety of voices spoke out in support of Vice President Gore’s challenge.

    Noting that this is a non-partisan issue that all Americans need to get behind, former Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert added, “Meeting this challenge is not a political issue; it is a fundamental issue about our economic future. This plan would provide real stability to the American economy for the next generation. Once we make the initial capital investments, the fuel is free and no other country or group can restrict our access to it. Renewable fuels – sun, wind, geothermal – are free; they’re not traded on the global market so they are not subject to huge spikes in price. This is the kind of economic security American families want and deserve.”

    Calling Gore’s challenge both “audacious” and “timely,” President of the World Resources Institute Jonathan Lash said: “Imagine our future and our children’s future if we seize the moment. We need to change the debate in this country from what we can’t do to what we can do. America has led every major technological shift in the last 100 years, and we can lead the next one as well. The problem is not technology, it is political will.”

    Author and climate activist Bill McKibben said: “Finally a response to both the science of climate and the economics of energy on a scale commensurate with the problem. This is a plan that breaks us out of muddling, temporizing stalemate and sets a clear path forward towards an imaginable future. I’m not sure what prize you get once you’ve won the Nobel, but this initiative deserves it.”

    Dr. James Hansen, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, added: “This is just what the doctor ordered: to cure our carbon addiction and stimulate the economy.”

    Meeting this challenge, Dr. Hansen said, “would be the turning point that is needed to lead the world to a stable climate.”

    At the end of his remarks, Gore asked all Americans to answer the call of history. “Many Americans have begun to wonder whether or not we’ve simply lost our appetite for bold policy solutions,” Gore said. “And folks who claim to know how our system works these days have told us we might as well forget about our political system doing anything bold, especially if it is contrary to the wishes of special interests. And I’ve got to admit, that sure seems to be the way things have been going. But I’ve begun to hear different voices in this country from people who are not only tired of baby steps and special interest politics, but are hungry for a new, different and bold approach.”

    “We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history. Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind,” Gore concluded.

    About the “We” Campaign:

    The “We” Campaign is a commercial-scale organizing and mobilizing effort using paid advertising, grassroots partnerships and online activation to build strong support for solutions to the climate crisis. The scale of the campaign is unprecedented: it is on track to be the largest public policy advocacy campaign ever and expects to reach 10 million members within three years. “We” is the work of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit group founded by Al Gore, who currently serves as the chairman of the bipartisan board of directors. For more information, please visit wecansolveit.org.

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    Comment by Tom Harrison — August 1, 2008 @ 8:29 am

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