Good analysis, bad advice
Former vice president Al Gore (left) gave a high profile speech in Washington, DC, on Thursday July 17 in which he called for conversion of all U.S. electricity generation to solar, wind, and other renewable resources within 10 years. In it he compared his goal to that of President John F. Kennedy who called for putting a man on the moon within a decade.
Just about any politician worth his salt knows that making promises that live in the future, especially well beyond the next election, are an easy sell. Gore knows, from experience, that ten years is about the lifetime of any big idea because it is within the grasp of two senate terms and the political lifetime of a two-term president. So it makes sense to package a super size vision inside of a practical time line. That's one of the few things he gets right.
Gore is right about the time frame for immediate action on climate change, but his advice on solar and wind falls short because it ignores the fundamentals of base load demand for electricity. He's right because studies by the U.S. military indicate rapid climate change could destabilize parts of the world and have serious consequences for national security.
He's wrong because a 10 year time horizon for this rapid a change in fuel sources for electricity generation is beyond the reach of the global manufacturing capacity of the industries who make solar and wind electric generation components. Other nations, besides the U.S., have ambitious programs for renewable energy, and their demands for these systems and their components will compete with ours just as they do for fossil fuels.
Gore said ending reliance on fossil fuels was necessary to save the world's climate from the perils of global warming. Gore also said later in a television interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric (video) (transcript) that "clean coal doesn't exist" and that the high price of fossil fuels is as much a reason to adopt his plan as the threats from global warming.
One of the best critiques of Gore's speech is from New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin who went through it line-by-line lighting up some of Gore's grandiose and sometimes misinformed rhetoric. Revkin, who covers climate issues for the newspaper, is at the top of his form on the New York Times blog "Dot Earth." Revkin's analysis is outstanding, and should be read by anyone interested learning more about the scientific and economic realities of global warming.
Borrowing money from Peter to pay Paul
The most serious objection to Gore's plan isn't about technology. It is about money. Gore says his plan will work if the U.S. adopts a carbon tax on fossil fuels and transfers the funds to solar and wind technology investments. This is a huge transfer of wealth for which the numbers don't work. Even the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency, has pegged the price of carbon taxes as having a mean impact on the U.S. economy if ramped up too quickly or too high.
Gore's plan defies political reality. Neither a new president nor congress would be able to overcome the temptation to spend all that carbon tax revenue (billions - real money in the Dirkson paradigm) on things besides solar and wind power.
A more realistic scenario is a gradual phase-in of carbon taxes so that utilities and industry relying on fossil fuel have time to implement energy conservation measures and change fuel types. The point of a carbon tax isn't to produce revenue. It is to ratchet down fossil fuel use and reduce greenhouse gases. Gore's plan would reward investors in wind and solar energy industries at the expense of everyone else.
Good Analysis - up to a point
A good speech always needs an anchor sound bite, something the wire services can sink their teeth into for a headline. Gore didn't disappoint his audience. He said,
"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 has to change."
This sounds like an argument to use a mulching lawnmower rather than bagging the clippings and taking them to the landfill. In the former case, I burn gasoline to cut grass and throw it away after spending money on seed, fertilizer, and chemicals to grow it. It's pretty stupid. On the other hand, using a mulching mower recycles the inputs to the entire system and puts the nutrients back in the ground without the wasteful practice of hauling bags of clippings to the landfill. The same principles that apply to recycling grass clippings also apply to the nuclear industry.
Why Gore is wrong about nuclear energy
I would have been much more interested in what Al Gore had to say if he was less of an alarmist and more of an ecologist. I would have been more interested in his campaign for solar and wind energy if he'd put in in context with nuclear energy. Instead, in his CBS TV interview with Couric, he repeated some of the mantras of anti-nuclear groups. While Gore has tempered some of his previous, and alarming, anti-nuclear views, his analysis of the industry is still wrong.
- One size does not fit all
First, nuclear plants do not come in just one size. There are a number of small reactor designs coming off the drawing boards as well as some very large ones. The Chinese have a pebble reactor project and so do the South Africans. Both designs are in the range of 200 MWe.
On the other end of the scale the Japanese are developing very large units, 1,700 MWe and also investing heavily in fast reactor designs that will burn MOX fuel. There's a recycling answer to critics, like Gore, who use the spent fuel issue as a means to bash the industry. Opening Yucca Mountain is necessary, and progress is being made, even if Sen. Harry Reid, (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, doesn't like it.
- Three dozen reactors no waiting
Second, it doesn't take 15 years to build a nuclear plant. The average time for new plants is expected to be six-to-eight years, including NRC reviews, and will likely be less by the end of the next decade. Once we get lessons learned from building the first four new units, the "first-of-a-kind" problems, supply chain issues for major components should be resolving themselves due to demand.
According to the NRC, five nuclear power plants submitted COL applications in 2007 and four more submitted them in 2008. Another eight are on tap to do so by the end of this year. By this count there are 17 nuclear power plants in full, measurable motion in the U.S. There will be twice that number by 2018. No baloney.
The point is the utilities planning to build these new nuclear power plants are working on a set of realistic assumptions and have to answer to their stockholders and state public utility commissions. They wouldn't be going forward if Gore's assumptions about the industry had any basis in reality.
- How to power a country and leave the bomb behind
Third, most countries who want to build nuclear plants don't want to get into the weapons business because it is expensive and just makes them a target. For instance, for all its political posturing, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh (left) is betting the ranch that nuclear cooperation and controls on his military nuclear program make more sense than not having uranium for the civilian plants. According to BusinessWeek, India has plans for 30 new reactors once it figures out how to deal with nonproliferation issues and its own internal politics. It also has to convince a skeptical Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA it means what it says. There are plenty of reasons to think that the deal won't be completed under this administration, but a new president will find opportunities with India, but also Italy, and even Brazil to foster cooperation on nuclear energy.
Give me that old time religion
Al Gore's speech played to his current strengths, which is to be both a technological visionary and a prophet of doom and salvation. If Al Gore hadn't gone into politics, been born with a silver spoon, and fostered an interest in high technology, he could have wound up hustling through the backwoods of Tennessee thumping a bible and telling the rabble to repent from their sins. Well, maybe not. Still, there's a revival tent preacher somewhere in the mental make-up of the former VP. He said in his speech,
"This is a generational moment. A moment when we decide our own path and our collective fate. I'm asking you - each of you - to join me and build this future."
Being smart isn't the same as being right
Also, Gore is not your ordinary member of the baby boom generation. Besides being a former two-term VP, and Nobel Prize winner, he's now sitting at the heart of America's nexus of high technology in Silicon Valley. He's a member of the board of directors of Apple Computer, and an advisor to Google.
He is also a partner in the venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, heading that firm's climate change solutions group. Maybe that's why he's so interested in funding the solar and wind industries? While it is true he has broader interests, the relationship is there just the same.
As a technology visionary, Gore's speech is full of high flying ideas. He's got to have to come down to earth to make his case. It can't be all solar and wind and not in 10 years. It will take decades to make significant changes in U.S. energy sources.
Al Gore gave a speech with some good analysis, but it has some bad advice. Everyone knows he is a really smart guy. Here's tip. Even smart guys can be wrong.
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Here are a few selected links to what others are saying about Gore's speech. If you find more, please post a comment. I'll add it to the list here.Next Big Future