Al Gore details five-step plan to clean electricity

As speculation mounts over federal energy policy, the former vice president presents a plan to make electricity "carbon-free" in 10 years--an extremely ambitious goal based on existing tech.

As speculation mounts over the shape of president-elect Obama's energy policy, Al Gore laid out a multifaceted plan to make the U.S. electricity system carbon-free in 10 years.

In an opinion column published Sunday in the The New York Times, Gore said the federal government should fund projects to upgrade the nation's aging power grid and install renewable-energy sources.

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"It is a plan that would simultaneously move us toward solutions to the climate crisis and the economic crisis--and create millions of new jobs that cannot be outsourced," wrote Gore, the former vice president and the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

The column comes fresh after Gore's talk at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on Friday, where he said the social connections that the Web allows should be channeled toward mitigating climate change.

It also comes days after the Gore-founded Alliance for Climate Protection launched an advertising and awareness campaign called Repower America, which advocates for carbon-free electricity in 10 years.

The five elements of the plan are:

  • Incentives for construction of concentrating solar-thermal power plants in the southwest, wind farms in the Midwest, and plants in geothermal "hot spots."
  • A $400 billion investment over 10 years to build a "national smart grid" to distribute renewable energy, which he said would quickly offset the annual $120 billion loss from power grid failures. The power grid can be outfitted so that consumers have better tools and information for conserving energy.
  • Aid to automakers to convert to the production of plug-in hybrids. Smart-grid technology that enables the cars to be charged during off-peak hours.
  • A nationwide effort to retrofit buildings, which account for 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, to be more energy-efficient.
  • Climate regulations to cap carbon dioxide emissions.

Gore also argued that alternative fossil fuel technologies--notably so-called clean coal, where carbon dioxide emissions are stored underground--are not yet viable options.

Unrealistic or inspirational?
Gore and many others have likened an ambitious clean-energy program to the Apollo Project to launch a successful moon landing in 10 years. The Apollo Alliance, for example, is one of several groups advocating an upgrade to the electricity distribution network and policy incentives to create jobs around clean-energy industries.

Climate reporter Andrew Revkin explored this energy "moon shot" approach last week. Analyzing federal research money on energy technologies, he noted the spike in energy research in the 1970s after the oil embargo but said "no subsequent administration or Congress took energy innovation seriously, (and private-sector research investments have dropped even more)."

Gore's original call for an Apollo-style program came in July, when he delivered a speech at Constitution Hall in Washington.

Although clean-tech investors and entrepreneurs generally favor policies that create incentives for clean energy and put a price on pollution, Gore's 10-year energy plan was received with a good dose of skepticism in July.

Clean-tech blogger and entrepreneur Neal Dikeman wondered if Al Gore was "nuts," saying the program was so ambitious that it risked failure. Similarly, Technology Review took issue with the July speech, calling the goals laudable but the time frame "unachievable."

My initial reaction was similar: converting a electricity system that gets half of its electricity from coal today to carbon-free sources in 10 years is exceedingly ambitious by any measure.

And even with a stimulus plan in the works, the country's economic problems tie the hands of the next administration and Congress. Also, falling fossil fuel prices and the credit squeeze are throwing sand in the gears of clean-energy businesses.

That said, there is no shortage of plans to rapidly clean, or "decarbonize," the energy sector. What varies isn't the technologies that need to be adopted--energy efficiency, renewables, plug-in electric cars--but rather the pace and particulars of the policies.

Google, which is spearheading a plan to make renewable energy cheaper than coal, published an analysis last month concluding that the United States could wean itself from coal and oil for electricity by 2030. The country could cut its oil use in cars by 40 percent in the same time period.

The Pickens Plan, launched earlier this year by oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, calls for a massive investment in wind energy and natural-gas-powered cars (two areas in which he is investing) in order to cut oil imports.

There are also energy experts who maintain that Gore's 10-year challenge is feasible or, at least, an approachable goal.

The left-leaning New Republic's energy and environment blog summed up the Gore opinion piece nicely, calling it "an attempt to broaden the discussion of what's possible in building a clean-energy economy, rather than presenting a specific plan of action."

Energy czar?
Gore's column comes at a time when there is speculation about the Obama administration's cabinet and whether there will be a dedicated "energy czar."

Another key position is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is expected to be charged with implementing climate regulations. (One rumored possibility is environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr.)

It's unclear, however, that Gore, who calls himself a "recovering politician," would want to be part of the Obama administration.