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.

This, of course, is the same message as the one in the giant light-switch commercial: If we work together, we can make this happen. All that's lacking is a good hard political shove.

Er . . . no, we can't. Those who study the U.S. power supply say that there are three key reasons why Gore's plan doesn't seem doable.

1. There's too much ground to make up.

Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas now provide about 72 percent of all U.S. electrical power. Despite a recent boom in the building of renewable energy "plants" -- U.S. wind-power capacity grew by 45 percent last year alone -- solar, wind and geothermal power still provide less than 3 percent of the country's power.

Many experts say they don't know how you could replace one with the other, at least in a decade. The task would require finding large numbers of sites for wind turbines and solar arrays, which means wading through the kind of not-in-my-backyard fights that have held up turbine projects off Cape Cod and in parts of Appalachia. And it would require factories to produce more: New turbine orders take years to fill, wind industry officials say, and one placed today probably wouldn't be delivered until about 2011.

Even the American Council on Renewable Energy, an industry booster group, has a less ambitious goal than Gore's and a longer time horizon. They envision renewable energy sources supplying 25 percent of the country's total energy by 2025.

"We've built up a certain energy infrastructure over the course of 100 years," said Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund. "It's hard to imagine how we would fundamentally redo it over the course of the next ten."

2. The consumers and the energy are too far apart.

The areas of the United States that are richest in renewable-energy potential -- the sun-baked Southwest, the windy Great Plains -- are often far from the coastal cities that need their juice. So any major switch to clean power is going to require new transmission lines to connect the turbines out there and the flat-screen televisions over here.

How many transmission lines? Consider the case of T. Boone Pickens, the oil tycoon who has been running his own commercials calling for investments in clean energy. He wants to build a network of wind farms to catch Great Plains gusts, which might one day provide 20 percent of the country's energy. But he needs a way to get the power to the people who would use it. Doing that, Pickens says, would take a massive line-stringing effort comparable to the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. He thinks that it would cost about $200 billion.

Which makes people ask him: Is all that really feasible?

"I ask them, 'What's your plan?' " Pickens said in a telephone interview.

3. "Carbon capture" may still be years away.

If renewable energy sources can't fill the gap, environmentalists will push instead to find a way to stop fossil-fuel plants from producing harmful emissions. But the technology these plants want -- devices that would absorb carbon dioxide out of smokestack gases, then store it underground -- isn't ready for commercial use yet. The Energy Department estimates that it might not be widespread until 2020. The current prototypes would be very expensive to manufacture, doubling the price of producing power at these plants.

Looming above all this is the country's growing thirst for power. Federal projections show that annual power usage will grow 1.1 percent per year until 2030, driven up by factors that include a growing population, bigger homes and more electronic devices.

Perhaps the best way to describe the scope of Gore's challenge is to shrink it. What if you wanted to tackle a slice of the problem in just a slice of the United States -- the region around Washington? What if, instead of switching the entire region to renewable electricity, you wanted just enough clean power to meet the increase in electricity demand expected over the next 10 years?

You would need about 3,700 windmills.

Here's the math: Peak demand -- the amount of electricity needed on the hottest summer days -- is expected to grow by more than 5,500 megawatts for the three utilities that serve this area. A megawatt is roughly enough to power 700 to 1,000 homes. So, at roughly 1.5 megawatts per wind turbine -- the current going rate -- you would need 3,700 turbines.

Right now, from the Delaware Coast to the West Virginia mountains, there are 44 turbines producing power on a significant scale. Add in all the renewable energy projects on the drawing boards in this area, including the large wind farm planned off Rehoboth Beach, Del., and . . .

And you're still nowhere close.

"I am personally skeptical that we can fulfill our energy-demand needs solely with renewable resources," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources.

Which brings us, improbably, back to light switches -- not the giant ones in Gore's commercials but the small ones on your wall. One important step toward a "green" power grid, local officials say, is keeping the demand for power from increasing. That means buying energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs and turning down the air conditioner on summer nights. And it means something as simple as turning off unneeded lights.

"This is an issue that is firmly within the grasp of individuals," said George S. Hawkins, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. "Each one of us can reduce our demand."

It's a start, anyway. And that's a switch it won't take a decade to make.

David A. Fahrenthold covers the environment for The Post's Metro staff.

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