Making Gore's Switch Isn't Quite So Simple

By David A. Fahrenthold
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Al Gore must be kidding.

The former vice president, now in his second career as a climate Cassandra, has spent the past few weeks pushing the notion that the United States can be "repowered" -- that all its electricity needs can be met without producing greenhouse gases. He says it can be done within a decade.

At the Democratic National Convention last week, he told the crowd in Denver that "we have everything we need" to start solving the climate crisis, except presidential leadership. And Gore's nonprofit group has been reinforcing the message with prime-time TV commercials, in which everyday Americans find giant light switches protruding from streets and farm fields. The switches, of course, are metaphors for the country's energy choices, not a sign that someone has put peyote in Americans' French Roast. The people gather around and -- working together, in a metaphor of their own -- start flipping the switch toward "on."

"The answer is simple," a voiceover says. "Power our country with 100 percent clean electricity within 10 years."

The answer is simple: This is where Gore must be pulling our collective leg. Because most people who study the country's energy supply say that -- whatever you think of the motives behind Gore's idea -- as a real-life plan, it's a non-starter.

The problem is that, despite the current boom in green power, renewable sources such as the sun and the wind still provide just a tiny fraction of the U.S. electricity supply. The rest is mainly dirty stuff: coal, gas, oil. To replace one with the other over the course of a decade, energy experts say, would make the Manhattan Project look like a science-fair volcano.

And even if we wanted to try Gore's plan, his goal is likely to get more distant every year. That's because, even as Americans demand more action on climate change, their laptops and flat-screen TVs are demanding more electricity every year -- and they're not asking whether it's clean or dirty.

"This goal is so far outside the realm of possibility," said Richard Newell, a professor of environmental economics at Duke University. "It would be practically infeasible, politically impossible and economically and environmentally unwise."

Gore unveiled his idea, which he called a "strategic challenge," in a speech at DAR Constitution Hall last month. He said that he wanted all U.S. power to come from "renewable energy and truly clean, carbon-free sources."

This isn't as specific as it sounds: Even coal is called "clean" now, by backers who cite new processes that burn the stuff more efficiently or otherwise reduce its emissions. Clean is a term that everyone has claimed -- the energy industry's equivalent of "part of a balanced breakfast."

But officials at Gore's nonprofit, the Alliance for Climate Protection, said that Gore was mainly talking about wind, solar energy and geothermal heat, all of which can be harnessed to make electricity. They said he also wouldn't mind if nuclear energy and hydroelectric power -- two sources that produce no emissions but have other environmental costs -- stayed at their current levels. And Gore's vision could even include fossil fuels such as coal -- but only if power companies can find a way to capture and store away the emissions that those fuels produce.

Most importantly, according to alliance chief executive Cathy Zoi, Gore was not exaggerating his vision for dramatic effect. He really believes that the United States can revamp its entire electricity supply in a decade. "If the political will were there, of course it can be done," Zoi said.

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