Friday, July 18, 2008

Clean, Green, Gore...

As many of you have heard, no doubt, Al Gore gave a speech on Wednesday calling for the US to set a goal of powering itself 100% on clean or renewable sources within ten years. I don't normally embed videos, but here is the speech, it's worth watching:

As far as my take on the speech, let me say that I'm extremely happy about Gore's analysis and presentation (although some of his language is still a bit erudite). If he gave a speech with this much passion eight years ago, he may have been elected president. At the same time, the cynical part of me wonders if bold rhetoric translates into change, or not being taken seriously. Given that this is Al Gore, I imagine he is difficult to dismiss, so the bold rhetoric is useful - so long as we understand that 100% of our energy will not be generated using non-carbon sources within ten years, especially if one includes coal in the mix.

However - this caveat does not mean that similar bold goals aren't attainable - for instance, reducing the vast majority of our dependence on oil as a resource, and triggering significant cuts in emissions and heavy metals over the next ten years. Here is a useful document from the Edison institute. The most telling section is page five - where there are pie charts giving our energy production breakdown.

Using this data, a few things become clear. First, reforming coal power is perhaps the single most important short-term reform in terms of emissions: 50% of our electricity comes from coal. Policies on the adoption of clean coal technologies need to be prioritized. Second, renewable energy sources are currently a paltry 9% of our energy portfolio (not including hydro power, which is severely handicapped by the location of potential sources, only 2.4% of our power is renewable). However, nuclear power currently accounts for almost 20% of our electricity generation - and thus represents a useful technology to be expanded (the french, for instance, rely primarily on nuclear power). Contrary to popular myth and fears, modern nuclear power plants are some of the safest, most cost-effective, and most reliable sources of electricity we have access to. They are not "three mile island, take two" waiting to happen. Investment in nuclear plants likewise represents an excellent, less infrastructure-intensive option to revamping our electrical grid. So - in terms of how we generate our electricity, a number of relatively simple approaches exist - approaches that don't displace whole industries (e.g. the coal industry - referenced in Gore's admission of the need for new jobs for coal miners).

Given the still-present efficiency hurdles in solar, geothermal, and wind power, we should think about some more readily achievable steps in reforming how we generate electricity - though this is not to suggest that fully renewable sources shouldn't be explored in greater detail. This seems to be particularly true since the same is not the case in terms of our oil dependency and transportation habits. Consider, for example, our vast foreign oil dependency - yet only 3% of our energy is produced with oil. What this means is that the oil dependency is a matter of our transportation habits far more than our energy generation habits (assuming we switch to clean coal and expand effectively). That is a far thornier problem requiring substantial investments in new technology, public transit infrastructure (inter-city and intra-city), urban planning, and transportation regulations.