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Gore at Constitution Hall July 17th. (AP photo)

What about Gore’s challenge to drop oil altogether?

COMMENTARY | July 23, 2008

Joseph A. Davis lists nine points reporters often overlook when dealing with climate and energy. As he does, the question changes—it’s no longer whether becoming 100 percent carbon free in 10 years is possible. It’s whether the current system can last another 10 years.

By Joseph A Davis

In a July 17 speech at Constitution Hall in Washington, former Vice President Al Gore laid down a challenge to the U.S.A. that might be epochal: switch to a carbon-free energy system in the next decade.

The idea – although not the tone – was a bit of a slap in the face of the current systems of energy, economy, and politics. It's hard to imagine stockbrokers, oil lobbyists, and suburban commuters responding with: "Thanks. I needed that." But perhaps they do need it.

The key question is not whether getting 100 percent carbon-free by an exact date is doable. It's whether the current system can be sustained for another 10 years without crashing and burning. And whether we find the wisdom to think outside the assumptions we are currently boxed in by. Whether we can find the guts to do something daring and difficult that is good for us.

The response by many, including elite news organizations, will be to ridicule it because it’s a plan authored by Al Gore or to disregard it altogether. That would be a mistake.

Gore's speech anticipated many of the objections: It can't be done. We're not sure. It might be costly. The votes aren't there. The oil, coal, electric, and business lobbies will surely invoke these arguments as reasons not to even try to save ourselves. The question is whether Americans and their elected leaders can come to view them as challenges to be overcome.

In his speech, Gore did pretty much what he set out to do. Shaking things up. Re-framing the question. Or, as he put it: "enlarging the political space in which Senator Obama or Senator McCain can confront this issue as president next year."

Because Gore is not an amateur, the speech got lots of first-day news media attention. The question, though, is whether the big media can, will, or should transcend the well-worn assumptions, cliches, and blinders through which they have viewed these issues for decades.

Let's shake ourselves up just a bit. Here are some points news media pundits often overlook when they talk about climate and energy:

1. Business-as-usual on $140/barrel (or higher) oil is economic suicide for the U.S. Not only will higher costs impoverish consumers, destroy businesses, wipe out jobs and investments, but the massive transfer or wealth to oil producing nations will destroy the U.S. dollar and sign ownership of U.S. economic assets over to them as well. Even if climate were not a problem, breaking our dependency on oil would be an urgent national priority.

2. The "market competition" among fuels and energy sources isn't played on a level field. The U.S. government massively subsidizes oil, gas, coal, and nuclear with direct funding, tax breaks, regulatory breaks, and market interventions. Merely leveling the playing field to give renewables an even chance would be revolutionary.

3. The way to de-couple cars from petroleum (and carbon) is electricity. An electric car can run on wind, solar, nuclear, coal, or hydrogen. One key technological challenge is how to store the energy, specifically electric energy, onboard the vehicle. The U.S. is great because our engineers have solved much harder problems than this many times before. It's not as hard as Detroit says; the very first automobiles were electric.

4. Renewables like wind, solar, or geothermal cannot be brought online until the power grid is extended to the points where they are generated and beefed up to deliver the power to where it is needed.

5. The U.S. electric power grid is dangerously antiquated and needs urgently to be upgraded (this requires massive capital infusion plus political will) – regardless of whether we address global warming. This needs to be done for homeland security reasons, and to avoid billions in economic losses caused by recurring regional blackouts.

6. U.S. electric power generating plants (especially coal and nuclear) are mostly dangerously obsolete and would under normal engineering protocols need to be rebuilt or repowered soon, global warming or not. The average age of U.S. coal-fired electric power plants is over 40 years, and the typical design life is about 30 years.

7. The price of oil is headed upward – way upward – in the long term. This is so because of fundamentals: growing demand for an increasingly harder-to-produce and more expensive resource. The oil price will trend upward regardless of monthly or yearly volatility, whether or not market manipulation, speculation, or distortion is part of the cause. None of the measures currently before Congress will have much effect on oil price.

8. Huge economic benefits would stream in to Americans' lives if we switched away from coal and petroleum. Lower medical costs from pollution-related disease. Lower defense costs from not having to fight oil wars. A boom in jobs as we cranked up high-tech domestic alt-energy industries. More buying power from a strengthened dollar. None of these benefits are counted by the people who say "It would cost too much."

9. Natural gas prices in the U.S. have also been climbing steadily, with harmful effects on many households and businesses. One main government/industry response in the past eight years has been a rush to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from abroad, and the approval and construction of LNG terminals and pipelines. One risk is that we may add dependence on foreign gas (some from unstable regions) to dependence on foreign oil. There is also a huge homeland security risk as LNG ships and terminals are prime terrorist targets.

Gore's speech avoided much specific mention of just how decarbonization would be accomplished. While he clearly implied that it would involve a near-total shift from fossil fuels like coal and oil to renewables like solar, wind, and geothermal, he did not say it should be mandated by government, nor did he say it should be accomplished by regulation, subsidies, fed-funded R&D, or anything else. There are plenty of specific proposals out there – some quite practical, some unpopular with industry or consumers – but Gore didn’t venture into that thicket.

The single policy specific in the speech was to "tax what we burn, not what we earn." It's an idea the energy lobbies have stopped in Congress before.

"Thus what Gore offered July 17 was not so much a "plan" as a "topic for discussion" or "aspirational goal." Although they were not in his speech, the contours of a somewhat more concrete plan can be found on the Web site of Gore's "We Can Solve It" climate campaign."

Gore's speech itself lacked any mention of nuclear power, pro or con. Nuclear power is currently the 800-pound gorilla in most discussions of decarbonization. Both presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, have expressed openness to nuclear as a component of U.S. energy mix. But serious problems with nuclear remain unsolved: safety, security, waste-disposal, financial, and political.

The U.S. in 2006 had roughly 315 megawatts of existing coal-fired electric generating capacity. [Correction: The figure "315 megawatts" is in error. The correct figure is 315 gigabytes, as pointed out in a comment below titled, "mistake on your page." Joseph Davis says, regarding the error, "My bad...I just read it wrong."] Only about a third of that plant capacity had scrubbers, or flue-gas desulfurization, a technology which was available and state-of-the-art a quarter-century ago. The 1977 Clean Air Act tried to save companies and ratepayers the expense of scrubbers by grandfathering existing coal plants and requiring scrubbers only on new plants, where they were more economical. Utilities responded by avoiding construction of new plants and trying to extend the life of existing plants. The result is a fleet of aging U.S. coal plants, most of which are well past their original design life.

So existing U.S. coal plants will not last forever, even if utilities work to extend their lives. They will eventually have to be replaced or repowered, global warming or not. When this time comes, there is a decision to be made about whether the replacement will be powered by coal or by some other energy source.

And while fossil fuels may have been the least expensive option for many decades, that is no longer a given. The prices of oil and gas (also used for electric power generation) have risen dramatically. The price of coal has varied widely, but has not trended upward in recent decades. The capital cost of new coal-fired power plants, which includes pollution control, has increased.

Is the Gore challenge realistic? Probably not. It would be Pollyannish to expect every U.S. family to buy a new car in the next 10 years ... much less a plug-in electric car. But eventually, most of our automotive rolling stock will be replaced. Deep in our hearts we want that new car (maybe even an electric one when the time comes).

Gore's proposal then, while seemingly radical, could be simply to speed up the calendar: to take things that will have to be done eventually, and do them much sooner.

The most daring part of Gore's speech may be that he looks beyond a climate and energy crisis to an even bigger political, economic, and security crisis. The climate "tipping point" is yesterday's news. This year we have seen a sudden and surprising link-up between energy issues (not just ethanol) and global food prices and supply which are also at risk from climate change. American generals and intelligence analysts are telling us that a looming climate/food crisis is likely to present serious national security threats to the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world). It is this sudden linkage of what once were thought of as separate issues that presents the gravest challenge.

Gore might also be right in saying that fixing a broken political system is as crucial as fixing an obsolete energy system. Here's a quote:

"Of course the greatest obstacle to meeting the challenge ... 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. Our democracy has become sclerotic at a time when these crises require boldness."

Freeing Congress from the energy lobbies and other special interests will be a big enough challenge. Weaning it from demagoguery and the politics of fear and division may be still harder. But we might gain some faith by seeing that Gore has already done the seemingly impossible. His "We" campaign (aka the The Alliance for Climate Protection) has gotten Newt Gingrich to sit down with Nancy Pelosi, and Al Sharpton to sit down with Pat Robertson in a series of TV ads to promote action on climate.

Text of Gore speech, July 17, 2008

Some Comment/Opinion Responses to Gore Speech

"Yes We Can," New York Times, July 19, 2008, by Bob Herbert

"The Global Credit Crisis," TIME, July 20, 2008, by Bryan Walsh

"Gore's Bold, Unrealistic Plan to Save the Planet," TIME, July 18, 2008, by Bryan Walsh

"Al Gore Lays Down Green Challenge to America," San Francisco Chronicle, July 18, 2008, by Zachary Coile

“Is Al Gore Nuts?” C/NET News, July 17, 2008, by Neal Dikeman

Statement, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (Coal/Utility industry), July 17, 2008, via PRNewswire/Fox Business

"Meet the Press" transcript for July 20, 2008 (Tom Brokaw questions Gore on his proposal)

"Al Gore's 'Moonshot'," Christian Science Monitor (Bright Green Blog), July 17, 2008, by Eoin O'Carroll

"The (Annotated) Gore Energy Speech," New York Times (Dot Earth Blog), July 17, 2008, by Andrew C. Revkin

mistake on your page
Posted by Erik G
09/04/2008, 10:51 AM


You have a mistake on your page. You say that the U.S. coal powered electricity capacity is about 315 megawatts, but it is actually 1000 times higher (315 GIGAwatts). If we were just trying to replace hundreds of megawatts there would be no problem using solar and wind but hundreds of gigawatts (actually more than a terawatt by the 10 year deadline) doesn't seem realistic to me, though it is a noble goal. The biggest problem will be scaling up production capacity, as even the predicted massive 800% growth in solar over the next 10 years will not even come close to reaching the goal.

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