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Al Gore's fantasy energy challenge

A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring

     —Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1709)

Recovering politician and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore gave a rousing speech last week urging America to move to renewables to power the grid by 2018.

Today 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. This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. It represents a challenge to all Americans – in every walk of life: to our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and to every citizen...

Of course there are those who will tell us this can’t be done...

To those who say 10 years is not enough time, I respectfully ask them to consider what the world’s scientists are telling us about the risks we face if we don’t act in 10 years...

Wind_transmisson_plan To be sure, reaching the goal of 100 percent renewable and truly clean electricity within 10 years will require us to overcome many obstacles. At present, for example, we do not have a unified national grid that is sufficiently advanced to link the areas where the sun shines and the wind blows to the cities in the East and the West that need the electricity [map left]

Gore's speech was not well received in many quarters because knowledgeable people don't believe his 100% goal is even remotely achievable. The former vice-president no longer holds office, so he is not accountable to voters. Gore is more like Moses, who has gone to the mountaintop to receive God's 11th commandment that thou shalt not burn fossil fuels. Unfortunately, our civilization was founded on the abundant energy fossil fuels offer. We can not simply undo that dependency in a decade as we near the top of a growth curve that was made possible by burning coal, oil and natural gas.

Gore is motivated by the dangers of anthropogenic climate change. Some of these dangers are real, but unlike some who have started to realize that IPCC doomsday carbon emissions scenarios are built upon unrealistically high estimates for remaining recoverable fossil fuels (perhaps including coal) and future economic growth, Gore does not acknowledge any limit to the disaster that humankind faces as the Earth warms. Gore's unassailable assumption is that we will experience the Cretaceous "hot house" all over again. In energy matters, the former Vice President does not feel obliged to understand the issues. He just knows that burning fossil fuels is a bad thing.

The recent Nobel Prize winner has painted us all into a corner. Those of us who say "this can't be done" are naysayers, or to use a quaint phrase of an earlier era, nattering nabobs of negativism. I think setting an ambitious goal of a 15% conversion of the grid to wind, solar, and the rest by 2020 would have spurred us all to action. The feasibility of a 20% wind powered grid was vouched for in the Department of Energy's 20% Wind Energy By 2030.

After Gore's speech, suggesting a more modest goal will be regarded as timid or worse—defending reality will be portrayed as cynical corporate self-interest by climate extremists. And it is self-interest, for almost every single one of us is invested in an electricity grid that meets our demands, not just coal or natural gas companies. Those few who say otherwise must enjoy living in the dark or off the grid in solar/wood powered houses. Well-compensated climate change activists drive their cars and live on the grid, so there is a large element of hypocrisy at work here which is justified by elaborate fantasies about replacing fossil fuels in unrealistic time frames.

Real Sacrifices

Steel_prices There are two general philosophies about solving our energy problems. You can grow you way out, or you can shrink your way out. These alternatives are not mutually exclusive, but do define two complementary approaches to the problem. Al Gore is exclusively a growth guy.

Think about steel. You can see the exponential price increase occurring in 2008 (graph left). The phenomenon is described in Lofty Steel Prices Could Keep Rising (IHT, May 19, 2008).

Steel prices have soared almost 50 percent this year and could rise even higher as the cost of raw materials keeps climbing and global demand shows little sign of abating.

Steel makers have been steadily raising prices to benefit from a strong market after years of decline in the industry and also to pass along to customers the spiraling costs of iron ore and scrap metal, two major components for making steel.

Others have regularly added a surcharge to shipments to cover the extra costs of making steel, which is in huge demand in China, India and other countries building up their economies.

What are wind turbines made of?

The contract signed by Bluewater Wind and Delmarva Power came with a clause that allows Bluewater to walk away without penalty if the project doesn’t look economically feasible within the next two years. Monday’s $800 million, 25-year contract is for a wind farm planned a dozen miles offshore of Rehoboth Beach...

Bluewater officials said the viability of the project also remains at the mercy of costs that still are estimates. The company will be moving forward with detailed engineering that will help pin down what it will cost to build the wind turbine farm, move the electricity to shore and connect it to the power grid through a substation.

Nathaniel Bullard, a Washington-based senior analyst with New Energy Finance of London, said one critical factor will be the the price of steel. “Everything in a wind turbine is steel: the tower, the gears, the control systems,” Bullard said.

The price of iron ore, a key ingredient in steel, has risen roughly 80 percent since last year. [Bluewater spokesman Jim] Lanard said Bluewater can build the project even if the price of steel increases...

The world may be facing steel shortages soon.

ArcelorMittal Chief Executive Officer Lakshmi Mittal said the world may be facing its first steel shortage in decades because of accelerating demand and a lack of investment when the metal was trading at lower prices.

"There is short supply; all steel companies are running at full capacity," Mittal said last week in an interview in New York. "We're facing for the first time in decades a potential shortage of steel."

Once shortages develop, price rises will be steeper than we've already seen, and projects will be delayed or canceled until the market comes into a new balance which could take many years to achieve. Some of those delayed or canceled projects will be wind farms. The DOE 20% Wind Energy report explains why wind energy prices have been rising since 2002.

  • Shortages of turbines and components resulting from the dramatic recent growth of the wind industry in the United States and Europe
  • The weakening U.S. dollar relative to the euro (many major turbine components are imported from Europe and there are relatively few wind turbine component manufacturers in the United States)
  • A significant rise in material costs such as steel and copper as well as transportation fuels over the last three years

Even the recent vigorous growth in wind energy from a fairly small installed base has caused turbine shortages. "Randall Swisher, Executive Director of AWEA [American Wind Energy Association], told workshop attendees that if one ordered a new wind turbine generator today, one would have to place a sizable deposit in cash, and wait at least two years for delivery. This observation was confirmed by a number of other speakers."

Gore is calling for runaway growth in implementing renewable energy. Such "overheating" always leads to inefficiencies, inflation and shortages in economies. Itulip's Eric Janszen predicts yet another destructive bubble in alternative energy in the years to come. Pointing out that runaway growth causes all sorts of problems is not naysaying—this is just the way things work. Not every problem is a climate change problem, Al.

I chose some examples (steel costs & turbine availability) among many to illustrate the dangers of growing your way out of a problem. Another example would be the mass production of plug-in hybrid vehicles. No one really knows if this can be done. If the vehicles use lithium ion batteries, can we extract lithium at the required rate? Some people think the answer is no. If the answer is no, then changing over the grid does nothing at all to solve our oil dilemma. If the answer is maybe, or a qualified yes, then 15 years is the absolute minimum time required to change over our vehicle fleet if we act aggressively.

There were 250,851,833 registered vehicles in the United States in 2006. That's an intimidating number. We'll have to move forward one plug-in at a time.

What about shrinking your way out of a problem? The former vice president could have suggested that we make a permanent 10% reduction in our electricity consumption in the United States within a decade while adding renewable sources to the grid at a reasonable but aggressive pace, phasing out coal as we go along.

You say you can't live in the desert without air conditioning? OK, don't live in the desert.1 The taboo associated with partly shrinking our way out of the fossil fuels problem is so strong that Gore would rather scare the bejesus out of us and advocate a fantasy growth plan rather than tell people to turn out the lights and shut off the air conditioner. Sorry, Al, real sacrifices will have to be made if you want to solve the climate and peak oil problems.

Afterword

The world has become a crazy place. Honestly, I don't know if the world changed or I did—maybe it's always been a crazy place and it took me much of the last 15 years to figure it out. But the craziness does seem to be growing worse.

One major cause of all the craziness is the magnitude and apparent unsolvability of the climate & environmental problems, and the oil & other resource problems. We've dug ourselves into a very deep hole, and nobody knows how we're going to climb out of it while managing to avoid undue human suffering.

Batman I define insanity as "disconnected from reality." In an insane world, human all-stars like Al Gore get to make crazy policy statements which then get taken seriously and undergo critical analysis as in this column. He states that his 100% goal is "achievable, affordable and transformative." No, it's neither "achievable" or "affordable." Such proposals for "solving" our climate or oil problems are akin to fantasies like Disneyland or Batman. For the record, Disneyland is a theme park and Batman was a comic book that spawned a series of movies. Americans consistently have problems distinguishing between what is real and what is not.

Such are the times we live in. So take this column with a grain of salt. I was merely pointing that Gore's premise is not connected to reality. I am appreciative of the efforts the man who won the 2000 presidential election has made in the past. Gore could be more helpful now if he tempered his goals to put us on a navigable road.

Contact the author at
[the original article]

Notes

1. According to Andrew Revkin at the New York Times, Gore is "sticking with his preference for taxing sources of emissions and limiting costs for citizens...."

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