July 21, 2008

Al Gore's Energy Challenge

After the American Century

"I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean, carbon-free sources within 10 years."
Al Gore, July 17, 2008

Al Gore has injected some needed seriousness into the political campaign, helping us to move beyond the silly New Yorker cover. He has called on Americans to produce 100% of their electrical energy using alternative energy, in just ten years. Comparing the project to the successful program to land a man on the moon, Gore presents energy not as a problem but an opportunity. If American farmers grow crops for American biofuel plants, and if American factories produce wind mills, solar panels, and other components of an alternative power system, the US economy will prosper, and the nation will cease to be dependent on foreign oil suppliers. Gore has declared that it is technologically feasible, ecologically useful, and politically necessary to move decisively away from fossil fuels.

Gore's proposal is a logical development in his thinking. After presenting the public with the inconvenient truth of global warming and its dire effects, his plan offers a way out of the crisis. By presenting it months before the American presidential election, he puts it on the table as one of the major issues of the campaign, along with Iraq and the economy. Initial reactions from the two candidates suggest that Obama is far more receptive than McCain, even though his sun-rich home state of Arizona would profit from more emphasis on solar power. Obama declared, "I strongly agree with Vice President Gore that we cannot drill our way to energy independence but must fast-track investments in renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power, and advanced biofuels." McCain did not reject Gore's plan, but was less supportive, as one might expect. McCain has championed off-shore oil drilling - i.e. increasing the American supply of oil - while Obama has rejected that idea. So, while Gore wants to lift energy policy making out of the morass of partisanship, this is not likely. But fortunately, both McCain and Obama are far more supportive of developing alternative energies than Bush has been.

Realism suggests that ten years will be too short a time horizon for a full conversion. to alternative energies. The shifts from an economy based predominantly on wood to coal, and from coal to natural gas and oil, each took considerably longer than a decade. But the point is not whether Gore's idea is strictly feasible in ten years. Considerable numbers of people are still burning wood, after all. Rather, the point is that a shift to a predominantly new energy regime is highly desirable, the quicker the better. Clearly it cannot be limited to revamping the approach to electricity production, but should extend to motorized transport as well. Hybrid cars have now proved themselves, and there is no reason to permit new cars that get less than 35 miles per gallon, and even those cars should be taxed heavily enough to make automobiles that get more than 40 mpg attractive. Strictly speaking, the US has oil supplies of its own, that it might continue to consume at 30% of the present level without imports. But the environmental impact of more CO2 is so undesirable that Gore is right about making a fundamental shift. The world, and the US in particular, desperately needs a new energy system.

But even the realistic hope that two-thirds of the fossil fuel energy regime could be replaced may be too optimistic. Unfortunately, all energy systems have considerable "technological momentum," the term that Thomas P. Hughes developed to analyze the ways that energy systems perpetuate themselves. Hughes is absolutely not a conspiracy theorist, who thinks that oil companies and lobbyists connive to keep the present system going. Rather, the enormous infrastructure and the ingrained habits of those who use it, has a powerful momentum that finds expression in the physical layout of cities and homes, the location of resources, the training offered by the educational system, the trillions of dollars invested in the present infrastructure, and on and on. There are millions of people whose jobs are largely shaped by the old energy system, and it will be difficult to move swiftly to a new energy regime, even if Gore makes this a major campaign issue, and even if the right legislation is speedily passed in Congress.

All the more reason for Al Gore to push as hard as he can on this vital issue, and all the more reason why the rest of us should be joining him.

Interested in the historical background to this discussion? Consult David E. Nye,
Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies
(MIT Press, in paperback), or
Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (MIT Press, in paperback).