Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's Called a Market, Mr. Gore

Former Vice President Al Gore went on Meet the Press on Sunday, to talk (among other things) about his challenge to the country to switch to 100% "non-carbon" energy sources for electricity generation in ten years. The latest data I found in my quick check was from February, and it shows the US getting 6.2% of its power from hydro-electric sources, and 3.1% from "other" which includes wind, solar, biomass, etc. 19.7% of our power comes from nuclear, which is "non-carbon" although Gore fails to mention it and talks of going entirely to wind, solar and hydro-electric. So taking the most reasonable (if that word can be used when referring to things that come out of Mr. Gore's mouth) interpretation of Gore's suggestion, he wants to switch out the source of 71% of our power generation in ten years -- and do so by switching to sources from which we currently only manage to get 9.3% (Realistically, most of this would have to come from from the wind and solar sources -- since there's a limit to how many more major rivers we could dam up for power generation.)

Interviewer Tom Brokaw gets points for asking the question that many on the right wing have frequently posed. If reducing power consumption is so important, why does Gore live in a notoriously electricity hungry 10,000 sq. ft. mansion?
MR. BROKAW: Let me ask you about your personal lifestyle, because it's been the subject of a lot of dialogue on the blogs, as you know. You and Tipper have bought a big home outside of Nashville, and you had it retrofitted. But for a time there was a comparison between what the president has in Texas at his home as being more environmentally correct than your home. The Building Green Council gave you its second highest award. But Stephen Smith, who is with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, is troubled by the scale of your home. He said, "We all need to evaluate what we ... need in square footage." Present company included. We all have to look at scale, don't we? Why was it necessary for you to have a 10,000 square foot home? Because that is going to be more energy intensive than a smaller home for just the two of you.

VICE PRES. GORE: Well, there--I don't claim to be perfect, and all of us who care about this issue are, are trying to do our part, but I, I will say this. We buy green energy. The issue is carbon. The issue is carbon, and we have, essentially, a carbon-free home. We buy from wind energy and solar energy. Our roof is covered with solar electric panels, a geothermal system with all these deep wells, and we cut our natural gas bill by 90 percent, and I'm, I'm--we're, we're walking the walk and not just talking the talk. There are always people who are going to try to aim at the messenger if they don't like the message, and I don't claim to be perfect, but we are walking the walk.
This is in keeping with Gore's comments elsewhere in the interview in which he asserts that there is so much power available via wind and solar power that we really don't need to worry about reducing consumption but rather switching out sources. He throws out the rather meaningless figure, "There's enough solar energy that hits this--the surface of the planet in 40 minutes to provide a full year's worth of energy for the entire world." Perhaps so, but you would have to capture every bit of that solar energy, putting the entire world into a forty minute night by building a solar cell the size of the earth. The more relevant question is: how much power can realistically be generated by a sane number of solar cells, and how long does it take a solar cell to generate the same amount of energy that was required to manufacture it.

But let's get back to Gore's claim that the power consumption of his mansion is okay because it all comes from "green" sources. If I wanted, I could actually claim the same, because our electric billing company commits to getting all its electricity from hydro-electric, wind and solar. (I picked it because it doesn't scale billing rates according to usage, which is key around here in the summer.) But when there are power trading companies such as ours which will only from the "green" generators, that simply means that those companies which don't discriminate by source will by a higher mix of coal and natural gas produced power. Because power is interchangeable, the market will move the mix around to fit the available supply.

So unless Gore's use of a "green" power company is specifically tied to that company building more renewable power production facilities (and in de-regulated states where power providers and producers are split, this is not the case) it really doesn't matter if he buys from a "green" provider or a "dirty" provider. The same amount of power is generated from the same sources. And since burning coal or natural gas is much more scaleable (at low investment) than building more dams, windmills and solar panels -- if he uses more power that will result in more combustion-based electricity being produced, even if he is personally only paying a "green" company.

If he really wants to reduce the amount of CO2 he puts out, he needs to use less electricity. (In which having a house a fifth the size of his current mansion would be a good start.) And if he wants to make sure that more electricity comes from "non-carbon" sources, he needs to put his money where his mouth is and fund alternative energy production start ups. (He has done some of this, but given the starting costs, buying a few green energy stocks is not going to be nearly enough.) How about if instead of lecturing everyone, he first moves to a much smaller house, and then uses his political pull to get together the money to launch a major "green" power production company. This would give us the chance to sit back and see if Gore actually has the ability to run anything, and it would also be a very good test case to see if its actually possible to build and run additional "alternative energy" sources in anything like a net positive fashion.

Personally, if we want to switch out power production, the only real alternatives I see are nuclear in the near term and fusion in the very long term. But it would certainly be interesting to sit back and watch if Gore wants to give real work a serious try. Maybe he'd even learn a little bit of basic economics in the process!


Rick Lugari said...

What nerve you have, Darwin. Using the Internet to criticize the very person who invented it. I've seen it all now. Next thing ya know, you'll be saying AlGore's yummy Kool-Aid is unfit for consumption.

Jenny said...

Al Gore's electricity in Nashville comes from TVA. There is an option to pay a premium on your usage to fund the development of "green energy." When Gore says all of his energy is green, it is this program that he is referring to.

His statement is a bit misleading. The program does not guarantee that your energy amount comes from green sources, you are just helping to fund the development of green sources. It is a slight difference, but worth noting. It cannot be anything else because there are no other power companies in town.

Joe @ Simple Debt-Free Finance said...

Great post, Darwin!

The problem I have with the "green energy" debate is that it's still alternative energy compared to fossil fuels because fossil fuel is still cheaper - even when oil is $140 + per barrel!

Yes, many states have the option to switch to green alternatives (my own state of NY included), but doing so costs a premium. If Mr. Gore wants the country to switch its energy source, he will have to wait until it becomes more affordable to do so. But then, maybe that's part of the reason the Democrats in the senate refuse to consider domestic drilling or other solutions to the energy crunch. Wind and solar are great ideas, but still fall short of being practical at today's prices and demand for energy.

Anonymous said...

Gore doesn't want to list nuclear energy as one of the sources that needs to be expanded, but he knows, as everyone else knows, that it will be the primary base-load energy source in the foreseeable future. Wind power will expand, but will always be a niche source since most places just don't have strong winds on a steady basis. Hydro is already pretty much maxed out, at least in the US.

Solar is where the greatest growth will be seen. The cost of PV panels is falling, and will most likely become competitive with coal in 5-10 years. After that, solar will be HUGE, and not just in the southwest.

Basically, in Gore's comments here he is following his usual practise of being fundamentally correct while still embellising some details.


P.S. In the late 80's Congressman Gore sponsored the Gore Bill, which made the DARPAnet available to the public.

Can anyone cite a source quoting Gore claiming to have "invented" the internet? I don't believe he ever said that word, though I'm willing to be convinced otherwise if someone can cite a reliable source (i.e., not Limbaugh or Conservapedia).

Jay Anderson said...

Maybe not "invented", but "created" is certainly close:

"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

Al Gore to Wolf Blitzer
9 March 1999

David L Alexander said...

So, nuclear is "green" now. Does anybody remember the days when it wasn't. All the aging hippies in Takoma Park, Maryland, who are organizing for this (in what's designated a "nuclear-free zone") were the same yokels who were packing their bags to evacuate thirty years ago when Three-Mile Island threatened to melt-down from upwind.

This whole discussion gets weirder by the minute. Except for you, Darwin, you totally "get it."

Anonymous said...

Nuclear is much more practical and reliable. The average nuke plant is in the ballaprk of 1200 MW and runs at near 100% capacity factor (meaning its churning out those MWs nearly 24/7). The average capacity factor for wind is less than 35%, meaning you're really only getting 1/3 the production out of wind as you are from nuclear, not to mention that you'd have to build a HUGE wind farm to get 1200 MWs of capacity.

But as gung-ho as I am about nuclear, and I think the tide is turning in its favor, zero plants will be opening in ten years. It takes a long time for nuke plants to be designed, approved, permitted, and then built. We probably will get some new plants on-line in 11-12 years, but only a few at first, and I'm not sure how many in the longer-term.

The problem with nuclear is cost. The costs to build new nuke plants are astonomical. I've seen estimates putting it in the 10-15 BILLION dollar range. Your biggest investor-owned utilities (like Duke) have market capitalization values barely double that. So even if the barriers to new building are removed, it's unlikley that we're going to get a lot of new nuke capacity even within 20-30 years.

As for renewables - keep dreaming. Not only are certain parts of the problem not really renewable friendly, there's the whole problem with re-wiring the transmission grid for all this new renewable capacity.

Long story short, Gore's proposal is absurd. That's not to say that we must rest on our laurels and do nothing. Some areas of the country are quite well suited for an expansion in renewable capacity. But even reaching 20% with renewables within 10 years is something of a long-shot, let alone 100%.

NeoConstant said...

Great post. I can't believe Gore has the nerve to live in that sort of house and still claim he cares about the environment. He's a scam artist as far as I can tell, doing all of this for political and monetary gain.

Personally, I'm with you on the question of nuclear power. I don't see any other way.

Once again, though--great post. Great blog.