Al Gore-Renewable energy by 2018: What is he smoking?

Al Gore said today that the U.S. must abandon fossil fuels within a decade.

Much as I’d love to see us off fossil fuels, I can’t see that we’d effect much of a change in only 10 years. So much of our society is based around fossil fuels: you’ve got the entire auto infrastructure, heating systems based on fossil fuel, the petroleum distribution infrastructure, power plants, etc. Even with a super-environmental president for the next 8 years, I see only the smallest of changes (for example, ramped up solar panel manufacturing and increased tax credits for installations, increased research into improving efficiency of other renewable resources).

What is Gore thinking?

Just electricity generation. He’s not talking about abandoning all use of fossil fuels.

Still, a daunting task. He’s probably just setting that out there as a goal, with the idea that you shooting for it is better than not.

We could convert off of a lot of our fossil needing power plants through a series of actions:

Large scale power using existing tech:

  • Fast Track the approval of new nuclear energy plants.
  • Fast Track the upgrade of the power grid, to eliminate the choke points.
    This will require a simplification of the various approvals needed to build nuclear power plants, so that construction can be started much faster than it is currenlty.

Small scale power using existing tech:
Create a tax credit (NOT a deduction, a credit) for home solar and wind stations. Cap it around $20k, index for inflation, and be able to take the credit over 5 years.

Tax credits for R&D into new clean energy tech - keep the definition VERY flexible, rather than making it rigid into areas we THINK might work.

It’s not like we’re incapable. We’re the U-S-of-goddamn-A for christ’s sake. It’s just that getting everyone to agree on it would be the hardest part and probably take 10 years in and of itself.

We don’t *have *to get everyone else to agree. Just let it be financially advantageous for the power companies to make the switch themselves. They’ve already made a good start.

“Nothing can ever be achieved if first all possible objections must be overcome.” - Emerson

It could happen. Assuming the next president is on board with nuclear power being pushed massively I think we could very well make that goal (as John said it isn’t ALL fossil fuel he’s talking about).

-XT

It probably can’t be done, simply because there is such a huge infrastructure built around the current generation methods. It’s not just the plants - it’s the lack of trained workers, the lack of the manfacturing needed to build the parts for the new plants (for example, containment domes for nuclear can not be built in the U.S. anymore, and the places that do make them are heavily over-booked). So there’s a lot of bootstrapping that would have to take place.

However, Gore has the right idea in that meaningful plans require meaningful goals. Do you know when a politician is promising something that he has no intention to deliver? When he calls for a time-frame of 20 years. “We’ll put a man on Mars in 20 years”. “We’ll have fusion in 20 years.” “We’ll transition to solar in 20 years”.

20 years is a generation. It’s long enough in the future that you can’t really make an engineering plan for it today. It’s long enough that you can count on subsequent administrations to either kill it or take the blame if it doesn’t get done. It’s long enough that you only have to commit a tiny fraction of the budget required while you’re still in office. That’s why so many grand plans are 20 years away.

But the goal of landing a man on the moon was 8 years. That meant it had to happen either within the administration of the current president, or the administration of the hopeful vice presidential successor. It meant that the current administration would have to commit a serious budget to it. That also meant that engineering plans had to be started immediately, and it would be obvious fairly soon if the plan was stupid.

So Gore got the timeframe right, but the goal is too ambitious and too vague. Scale it back, offer ideas for making it work, and make it very specific - “We will replace 23 existing power plants with nuclear plants within 8 years. To do so, we will attack the problem in three phases - in the first year, we will identify the 23 most suitable candidates, and have permits in place for the replacement plans. Current nuclear designs are taking 4-5 years to build, so we will have ground breaking on all of them no later than four years from now. That means orders for essential components will be placed within the next two years.”

Of course, that’s assuming the government is going to mandate it. If you’re going to let the market do its work (and you should), you can’t make those kinds of promises at all. All you can do is manipulate the regulatory and financial environment to make it easier for the market to work and to give it incentives. Then sit back and wait.

Here’s how I’d do it:

The US current generates 20% of it’s electricity from about 100 power plants. So we’d need to build about 400 more nuclear plants.

According to this: http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/spring01/nuclear_power.html, I think $5 billion a plant is a good budget. So we’d need $2trillion over the next 10 years to do it, or about $200 billion a year.

According to this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget,_2007, unemployment and welfare have a yearly budget of about $270 billion. Problem solved. It’s a useful WPA.

After the plants are built, the US can auction them off to the power companies to recoup some cost.

Aside from being a little glib with numbers, I think its doable. GE and other US companies are building nuke plants in other countries, so its not like we don’t have the know-how. If we’d actually be willing actually cut back in other budget areas, $200billion a year isn’t hard to come by.

I’m sorry, but that’s a ridiculous plan, for several reasons.

  1. You’ll never manage to get permits and political buy-in for that number of plants in a short time frame.

  2. You can’t turn welfare recipients into nuclear engineers and certified tradespeople. And sorry, I don’t want to live near a nuclear plant built by welfare recipients and the currently unemployed.

  3. You can’t just multiply costs like that. If you create that much demand for nuclear engineers, containment domes, control electronics, and other complex parts that go into a nuclear plant, you will drive up prices and make them more expensive to build.

  4. Who says nuclear is the best technology in all these cases?

I’m a supporter of nuclear power, but central planning sucks. The fact is, the market is working now. Everyone is frantically looking for new energy. Money is being poured into alternate energy. People are conserving (gasoline consumption in the U.S. is back down to 2003 levels, even though the population is significantly larger). As gas continues to increase in price, the pace of change will increase.

You don’t even need carbon taxes, and in fact realistic carbon taxes would be much smaller than the price increases we’ve already seen. Typical values of carbon taxes on gasoline to account for externalities typically run around 10-50 cents per gallon. Gas has already gone up far more than that.

People need to show some patience. The market is working. Sales of SUVs have collapsed. Sales of hybrids are up so much that there’s a shortage of them at every car company. The first plug-in hybrids will be available in a year or two. On the demand side, there are new breakthroughs in solar power coming along all th time, the price has been declining. New types of wave power generators are in trials, and wind power is a huge business already. We’ve started the transition away from fossil fuels, and that change will accelerate.

You are such a stick in the mud, Sam! It could happen! Al Gore sez so!

(My own first reply was supposed to be more tongue in cheek than it turned out to be on review)

BTW, I think like advances in solar and the other technologies you mentioned, freeing up American companies to build nuclear power plants in the US might just make some advances in that regard to. There are several alternative nuclear designs out there that could be advanced (pebble bed reactors, CANDU, etc) with a buy in from both the government and industry. No way will we have it all replaced in 10 years though…maybe 20 would be a more realistic goal, but even that is probably not going to happen.

I also agree with you that we are already seeing a change in course for the market and that people seriously need to be patient…it’s happening already, and the train is just now leaving the station. I’m more worried about China than I am about the US and what we are doing.

-XT

I agree with that fully XT. Thinking about the logistics like what are we going to do with the current infrastructure is something that will be worked out rather quickly, in my opinion.
I live close to Pfizer Global in CT, and their powerplant was dismantled and hauled away inside of three months. I

Major progress could be made with one simple reform of nuclear licensing procedures – once a design is confirmed, other constructions using the same basic design don’t need to be reviewed from Square One.

Yes, I know. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I don’t want a Homer Simpson plant either. But I guess my essential point is that the federal government is already pumping some big numbers into things like ‘Energy’ ($25billion a year). If we could divert money, rather than expand the budget, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. And surely there is a place for the welfare recipients, even if it’s to make lunch sandwiches for the nuclear engineers. :wink: And after all, if we are going nuclear, we don’t really need to give all those grants to University professors to study alternative energies anymore, right?

And you are also right that the market will do it eventually, but it doesn’t work well for huge infrastructure things like this. It’s too slow, and gets encumbered with its current infrastructure along the way. The private sector isn’t willing to just dump it’s existing technology, it wants to depreciate it first. And it will run into the same supply/demand problems for labor/parts that the Fed will.

All the major infrastructure things I can think of in the US history had quite a bit of government involvement; transcontinental railroad, interstate highways system, hoover dam, Tennessee Valley Authority, etc.

{{{DAM HAMPSTERS ATE MY OP!!!}}}}}

I agree with that fully XT. Thinking about the logistics like what are we going to do with the current infrastructure is something that will be worked out rather quickly, in my opinion.
I live close to Pfizer Global in CT, and their powerplant was dismantled and hauled away inside of three months. I watched it happen. They had I would guess 10 solid acres of transformers, steel structures etc…etc…

I think with the train already out of the gates, students, and graduates are going to be taking a lot of the current infrastructure and changing it to a new generation of power distrubution. There are some brand new fields coming out with bachelors, masters and Phd programs right now, and have been for 5 years.

5 years is a sneeze in corporate time, but an age in terms development with the right tools. Eco-Engineers have been looking at this grid issue for a long time, I think in ten years you will naturally see an increase in sustainable fuels which will lead to a decrease in fossil fuel consumption. The corporations will sniff that something is wrong and a way to make money off the eco-industry will take off like wild fire. It’s already happening.

Replace all fossil eventually? Sure. Maybe in 30 years, if all stops were pulled out.

In 10 years? That’s so far outside of the reality of the power industry in terms of manpower, equipment, parts, availability, permitting, labor…I will not even bother to get into a debate over it on this message board. And I can’t believe Gore actually said such a thing; I know he knows better.

$25 billion is not much in terms of what is really needed. I certainly wouldn’t turn that down, but given the current cost of a nuclear plant, it’s not much.

I agree that infrastructure is the key issue here. Tremendous investments would be needed, not only for training operators, but also in manufacturing capacity for the right kinds of steel, containment vessels, pumps, turbines, etc., etc. It would take training of lots of nuclear-qualified welders, pipefitters, machinists, and so on. There is some question whether we have the capability to produce that much nuclear fuel right now.

I agree that it will take enormous government involvement. Without some guarantees, no private company (or group of companies) is going to risk that much if they are not certain of getting a positive financial return at the end of the tunnel. Over a 10-year period, the amount of capital investment could result in increased interest rates due to tight capital markets, particularly given the mess we’re in right now.

Physically, it might be possible, but it will take a level of leadership across the board that doesn’t seem to exist right now to make it happen. There seems to be way too much in the way of “if I can’t win, I’ll make sure the other guy can’t win, either.”

Perhaps a more interesting question is…what, if anything, is this going to do to the credibility of Al Gore?

-XT

Nothing. His quackery is at very least green. And people like green. Simple.

I think he just lost his shot ant Energy Czar in the Obama administration.

Oh, to be sure it will play well to the base…but it’s such a ridiculous assertion that he is bound to lose some credibility by making it, at least with the less nutty green types. Hell…I seriously doubt Europe could go fossil fuel free (for power generation) in a mere 10 years, and they are closer to it than we are (and also have both more public support AND I believe more of a public mindset of sacrifice for a cause).

BTW, I can’t load the link in the OP for some reason…not sure if it’s the customers firewall blocking it (in theory I’m working atm, though I’m really just sitting here watching updates load atm). Is anyone else having that problem or is it just me?

-XT