In his speech in Constitution Hall this week, former Vice President and renewable energy investor Al Gore extolled a stretch goal challenging America to achieve 100% renewable power within 10 years.
The quote: "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." And my favorite part: "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."
That statement is about like challenging your 2 year old to finish college by the time she is 12. Not exactly practical, more than a little crazy, and likely to be either ignored, or if you push it, to cause lots of therapy sessions by the time she is 8. I will, however, credit him with getting almost every renewable energy platitude I've ever heard into one succinct speech.
He does raise lots of good points about the need for a new energy policy not built around shipping dollars to the MidEast for oil (a definite must), for long term support for renewables (it is critical for us to get off our fits and starts mish mash idea of renewable energy policy), and for moving faster and larger to fight climate change (a topic near and dear to my heart, and one that is only partially helped by making broad statements about how fast the sky is falling, I mean, the glaciers are melting). In fact, there is no better way to give anti renewable energy and climate change naysayers fuel and ammunition than to make statements like these. Any path we go down, I'd still rather challenge that two year old to do something they can achieve, not try and make it through college by age 12 - especially if I'm asking her to pay for it. Slow and steady wins the race.
The core of Al Gore's argument in his speech on the practicality of a 10 year all renewable energy goal boils down to this quote from his speech on fuels:
"What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don't cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?
We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed 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. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses.
And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America."
And this one on costs and technology:
"To those who argue that we do not yet have the technology to accomplish these results with renewable energy: I ask them to come with me to meet the entrepreneurs who will drive this revolution. I've seen what they are doing and I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge.
To those who say the costs are still too high: I ask them to consider whether the costs of oil and coal will ever stop increasing if we keep relying on quickly depleting energy sources to feed a rapidly growing demand all around the world. When demand for oil and coal increases, their price goes up. When demand for solar cells increases, the price often comes down."
These quotations, while partially true and very seductive, are highly misleading in this context. The effective conversion rates of that energy to usable electric power or liquid fuel is still horrendously low, and requires lots and lots of capital expenditures, and thousands of miles of new transmission lines to implement. And that's not taking into account the state of technology - as an industry we really are the two year old in my analogy.
So given those conversion rates and the current high capital expenditures per unit of energy, the cost is still 5-20x (depending on what you count) the cost of conventional electric power generation (yes I know, unless you add in the carbon price and environmental externalities, but that's still extra cost any way you slice it . . . unless you'd like to subsidize mine). Frankly no serious analyst is suggesting that within 10 years, given the state of technology and the best case forecast capacity, that solar can make up more than a small single digit fraction of even electricity needs or that wind can make up more than a meaningful minority share (let alone after doubling the global power demand by replacing liquid fuels in cars with electricity, which Al Gore also suggests), especially given lead times on power plants and transmission lines.
Most likely even if the technologies were already cost comparative, which they are not - if you need evidence, just look at our wind and solar industries in their current tizzy because their biggest subsidy programs are up for renewal this year - most analysts wouldn't project a fabled grid parity on cost for renewables for at least the next decade, and certainly not at scale. So Mr. Gore's statements on cost and technology are in part true, but imply a maturity level in these industries that just doesn't exist yet. Given manufacturing scale up issues on the technology, transmission infrastructure requirements at least as large as the new generation requirements, and long lead times on building projects of this size (industry executives point to seven year time frames just to build a single transmission line), probably reaching even significant low double digit percentages of carbon free power within ten years is a stretch (excluding large hydro and nuclear which we already have but are hesitating to expand) across the whole nation. Notwithstanding that California has managed to come close to its target 20% number over the last decade, that's one state leaning on the resources of many states, using the best available sites, federal subsidies paid for from all of our pockets, and that took a decade. When it comes to carbon capture and storage for coal fired generation, a concept with lots of legs - if it works - 10 years just isn't enough time to achieve scale. The first big pilots are scheduled over the next several years, and there are too many unknowns to bet the farm on, without the lead time and capital cost issue. Though still definitely worth trying.
And as far as paying for it, there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle today calculating our Federal government long term liabilities at $450,000 per American already mainly for Medicare and Social Security. Actually trying to replace our entire fossil fuel infrastructure within 10 years would push that to how much? Somebody please do the math before we launch a government funded mission to the moon, or legislate that our citizens pay for it instead. On costs, Mr. Gore made the statement in his speech "Our families cannot stand 10 more years of gas price increases." I agree, but Mr. Gore, your 10 year, hell for leather, man to moon race for 100% renewable energy would guarantee just that.
So while extolling stretch goals for a two year old is probably a good idea, let's keep it within the realm of possibility, and not just make grandiose statements for media effect. Now if Al Gore's silly challenge on renewable energy was simply a trojan horse to get people talking about how to move forward on fighting climate change and addressing our long standing energy policy issues, I'm all for that and am happy to help. After all, the words Al Gore and climate change make for very searchble blog articles! But personally when I make outlandish statements, I do like to bring an modicum of practicality to the discussion.
I will leave you with one final note, and please remember, I am actually a proponent of the ideals in Al Gore's speech, I just prefer to get there in one piece. One theory on the effect of the history of the man on the moon driven space race that Mr. Gore challenges us to copy basically says that we pushed for a single high profile goal so fast and furious that we effectively skipped ahead and outran our infrastructure and capabilities to get a nonscalable shot at the moon in the target time frame. The theory goes on to suggest that's why after reaching the moon so fast we haven't progressed at the same rate in space since, and had we taken it slower, we would have gotten there a few years behind, but might be on Mars by know. Akin in a military campaign to outrunning your supply chain, and then getting your army surrounded and destroyed - or perhaps invading a country half way around the world, winning the war in weeks and forgetting to prepare for the peace. And just to show that I can deliver as many platitudes in one article as Mr. Gore, that's why you never get involved in a land war in Asia.
Energy and environment are the two pillars of everything in our lives. Mr. Gore and I want the same thing, but he thinks we can't afford not to swing for the fences - I think we can't afford to mess it up.
Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is the founding CEO of Carbonflow, founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET's Green Tech blog.