Al Gore’s call to produce all of America’s electricity from “carbon-free sources” by 2018 flouts technological, economic, and political reality.
Let’s start with the politics. Congress has never been able to bring itself to pass a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to obtain 10 percent of all the electricity they sell from renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal energy. So Gore proposes a 100-percent RPS applicable not just to IOUs but also to rural cooperatives and municipality owned utilities. Pie in the sky does not even begin to cover it.
The economics are even sillier. Maybe Gore is right that “enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year,” and that “ enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of U.S. electricity demand.” But that tells us nothing about how economical — or uneconomical — it is to collect and harness diffuse energies like wind and sunlight, or to transmit electricity from solar collectors in, say, Phoenix, Ariz., to consumers in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that under current policies, which include numerous state-level RPS programs and a multitude of federal and state subsidies and tax breaks, wind power will grow from 0.6 percent of total generation in 2006 to 2.4 percent in 2030, geothermal will grow from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent, and biomass (both dedicated facilities and co-fired with coal) will grow from 1 percent to 3.2 percent. Solar power’s contribution is projected to remain so miniscule by 2030 that EIA does not even assign a percentage. See EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2008, p. 70.
In all, EIA projects that non-hydro renewable sources will supply only 6.8 percent of all U.S. electric power by 2030. One reason renewables are nowhere near on track to meet Gore’s goal is that, “In general, renewable energy is expected to remain more expensive than the generation it would displace, that is, its avoided cost” [AEO08, p. 71].
More importantly, building a whole new electric supply system in ten years would not only cost a bloody fortune, it would also require scrapping hundreds of billions of dollars of capital assets long before the end of their useful life. It is hard to imagine a more wasteful misuse of public and private capital.
Even the Washington Post gets it: “Half the nation’s electricity comes from coal plants, and most of them have expected operating lives beyond 10 years; replacing them would require massive capital investment and throw scores of big energy firms into turmoil. Moreover, solar and wind equipment manufacturers would be hard-pressed to supply enough wind turbines and solar panels to meet Gore’s goals in a decade. Most major wind-turbine makers already have backlogs of more than a year for projects that will meet a relatively small portion of U.S. electricity needs.”
Finally, Gore’s plan ignores the inherent limitations of wind and solar power. Wind and solar are intermittent energy sources. Solar cells generate electricity only when the sun shines. Wind turbines generate electricity only when wind blows. Yet homes and businesses need electric power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is why wind and solar power are unsuited to provide base load power. Even as supplemental peaking power, their value is limited. In California, for example, peak demand is greatest on hot summer days, but often times it is hot precisely because the wind isn’t blowing.
As you’d expect, Gore’s leading rationale for terminating carbon-based power is the “climate crisis,” which, he says, “is getting a lot worse.” For example, Gore says that “the Jakobshaven glacier, one of Greenland’s largest, is moving at a faster rate than ever before, losing 20 million tons of ice every day.” But why is that alarming?
Presumably, Gore alludes to the doomsday scenario he presented in An Inconvenient Truth, in which “moulins” — vertical water tunnels formed from surface ice melt — bore down to the bedrock and destabilize the Greenland ice sheet, causing half of it to break off and slide into the sea. But, as I explained in a previous post, Gore had to misconstrue a 2002 study in Science magazine to make the prospect of sudden, catastrophic sea level rise seem plausible, and a recent study in Science concluded that Greenland’s main outlet glaciers, including Jakaobshaven Isbrae, are “relatively insensitive” to “basal lubrication” by moulins. Contrary to Gore’s fantasy, moulins pose no threat to civilization.
Gore also says “there seem to be more tornadoes than in living memory.” Not exactly a scientifically testable proposition. In An Inconvenient Truth (p. 87), Gore is a bit more specific, claiming that, “in 2004, the all-time record for tornadoes in the United States was broken.” In fact, tornado frequency has not increased; rather, the detection of smaller tornadoes has increased. If we consider the tornadoes that have been detectable for many decades (i.e. F-3 or greater), there is actually a slightly downward trend since 1950. Consider this figure from the National Climate Data Center:
Gore claims that his 100-in-10 Plan will not only save the planet but also lower energy prices and enable us to create jobs at home with billions of dollars that we currently “send . . . to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day.” Well, you can fool some of the people some of the time. But I bet few people outside of Berkeley or Hollywood believe that scrapping 70 percent of our electric supply system and replacing it with more costly, under-performing technologies will lower energy prices, or that building windmills will have any effect on gasoline prices or OPEC revenues.
Unsurprisingly, Gore compares his 100-in-10 Plan to the Apollo Project. “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 implies that all we need to achieve carbon-free electricity in ten years is a similar level of commitment. This is the thinking of a child — or the rhetoric of a demagogue, take your pick.
Electric supply systems have to meet market tests — consumer satisfaction and investor confidence. There was no market test for the Apollo Project, because its goal was not commercial but geopolitical — to beat the Soviets in the Cold War space race. Gore might as well say that if we can put a man on the moon, then we can also cure cancer, eradicate poverty, and end war — all in ten years.
Planet Gore readers owe Al Gore a big thank you. The scale of Gore’s project would make even the Pharoahs blush, and executing his plan would require a literal Energy Czar. Never before has the global warming movement’s ambition to control and dictate and commandeer been so prominently on display. Never before has the movement’s flight from reality been more open to public view.