Al Gore's 100% renewable proposal

It's been just over a week since Al Gore's "Generational Challenge" speech, and there's no doubt Gore has accomplished two things here: (1) put forward an ambitious but plausible goal and challenge to America that would finally make a significant dent in our fossil fuel dependency and CO2 footprint, and (2) greatly expanded the scale of solutions that are part of mainstream discourse.  

Gore's We Can Solve It climate action group has been running ads for a few months now, with various prominent people repeating the mantra that, together, in a bipartisan fashion, we really can solve this thing. But it hasn't been clear what "solving it" entailed. The proposals associated with Gore's Inconvenient Truth and his comments until recently had seemed simply inadequate to the scale of the problem. Changing lightbulbs, hybrid cars, cloth shopping bags, all the efficiency measures of recycling and reuse, etc, those seemed worthy but insufficient. Something was missing.

I don't know if Gore had deliberately left this large logical gap, intending to fill it himself when the time was right, but the time was definitely right for his speech last week. Aside from the political set-up of public expectations which he seems to have done quite masterfully, the important thing about Gore's timing is, now we can actually do it. Despite the plethora of claims that have come out against the proposal, calling it preposterous, impossible, crazy, to think we can eliminate all fossil-fuel electric production in 10 years, the truth is, this is perhaps the first time when we have the technology and production capacity for it scaling up quickly enough to make all that actually physically and financially possible. Yes, it's a challenge, but he's also right: we can solve it.

Our friend Jerome almost immediately had a nice analysis of the plausibility of the proposal. Gore specifically mentioned three main renewable energy sources to achieve the required levels: wind, solar, and geothermal. Jerome points out that the biggest part of the solution will almost certainly be from wind power, which has the ability to grow very quickly (see his nice graphs on US installations and the production tax credit history). Jerome's number was about 800 GW wind capacity, costing $100-150 billion/year to get there by 2020.

I had independently estimated about 600 GW capacity would be needed. The mix of electricity supply by 2018 under my suggested approach would be the 20% nuclear and 7% hydro we have now, 45% from wind, 15% geothermal, 5-10% solar (PV or thermal), and the remainder possibly from biomass combustion (replacing coal/gas). We could also look at boosting nuclear to 30% instead of 20% of supply - that would require building 50 new plants within the next 10 years - also technically possible, but costs for new generation reactors remain quite uncertain. The increases in wind, solar, and geothermal are by more than a factor of 10 from where they are now, but they do not require rates of increase faster than those sources have experienced on a US or world scale in recent years.

Electric storage and transmission are additional important issues, and Gore mentions them (as well as efficiency measures) in his speech. Can we put all this together to actually make it work in time? Several people seem to be working on more concrete plans - including a new call for ideas from the Daily Kos Energize America group.

Check out We Can Solve It for links to many more quotes and reviews on Gore's challenge. It really is a challenge, but I also really think it's possible we could meet it.

Created: 2008-07-26 12:09:19 by Arthur Smith