By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
Former vice president Al Gore yesterday called on Americans to convert all electricity generation to wind, solar and other renewable sources within 10 years and end their reliance on fossil fuels for the sake of the U.S. economy and the world's climate.
He said that Americans need to "shake off complacency" and "throw aside old habits," and he asserted that the falling cost of solar power, the ample winds of the Midwest and the high price of oil make the shift to renewable energy "achievable, affordable and transformative."
He also called on automobile companies to make plug-in electric cars and advocated an overhaul of the national electricity grid "to link areas where the sun shines and the wind blows to the cities in the East and the West that need the electricity."
Before a packed and enthusiastic crowd at George Washington University's Constitution Hall, the Nobel Peace Prize winner also engaged in some political combat, taking aim at proposals to address high gasoline prices by expanding drilling and at "repeated troop deployments to dangerous regions that just happen to have large oil supplies."
"I for one do not believe our country can withstand 10 more years of the status quo," Gore said to hearty applause.
Energy experts greeted Gore's speech with skepticism, even those who agree with the notion of pushing toward greater use of renewable energy.
"It's extremely important to have people like Al Gore who are pushing and pressing the edge of the envelope," said Philip R. Sharp, president of Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank. "But at this point I don't think there's anyone in the industry who thinks that goal, as a practical matter, could be met. This is not yet a plan for action; this is a superstretch goal."
Half the nation's electricity comes from coal plants, and most of them have expected operating lives beyond 10 years; replacing them would require massive capital investment and throw scores of big energy firms into turmoil. Moreover, solar and wind equipment manufacturers would be hard-pressed to supply enough wind turbines and solar panels to meet Gore's goals in a decade. Most major wind-turbine makers already have backlogs of more than a year for projects that will meet a relatively small portion of U.S. electricity needs.
Gore compared his goal to President John F. Kennedy's call for putting a man on the moon within a decade and said that he expected it to be criticized as unattainable. He said that the cost, while large, should be compared to the money being spent importing oil.
"We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet," he said. "Every bit of that has to change."
Moreover, Gore said, the climate change problem is so urgent that "we have less than 10 years to make dramatic changes." He cited studies by military experts who say that climate change could destabilize many parts of the world and have serious consequences for national security.
He finished to a standing ovation and left to the music of U2's "Beautiful Day."
The event had the feeling at times of a political stump speech. Michele LaFrerriere, 27, a teacher in the District public school system who was in the audience, said she had not voted in the 2000 election.
"I regret that to this day," she said. But LaFrerriere said she didn't regard Gore's speech as political. "I don't think it's a political rally. I think it's a human rally. To me he put it right. We need to make bold steps."
As people filed out of the hall, three black cars waited for Gore and his entourage. A young woman walked up to the first one, a Lincoln Town Car, and stuck a handwritten note on the windshield: "I wish I were a Prius."