Sunday, July 20, 2008

A boondoggle to end all boondoggles?

Tim Auld of Queensland, Australia, wrote to me and raised some very good questions about Al Gore's latest energy initiative to shift 100% of electricity generation in the US to renewable energy sources, which Al rather pompously called "A generational challenge to repower America." Al is a pompous guy, but that's OK. I give him credit for the nice double-entendre on "generational" (human and electric). Here's what Tim wrote:

I would like to hear your opinion on Al Gore's new call to action. He wants to power America using entirely renewable energy within 10 years. [...] The US is broke, there is little spare capital globally (perhaps except that held by oil exporters, [and] why would they help?), and already has a backlog of infrastructure maintenance it can't fund. It seems the first problem would be financing such an unprecedented project. [...] Conservation and efficiency seem like a footnote in his speech, but I think it would have to underpin the whole exercise on an epic scale. Finally, no question seems to be asked if this situation is the perfect excuse to ditch the old auto centric and high energy lifestyle to gain a whole swag of benefits. Is this a case of aim for the moon to make it over the trees, or is it the boondoggle to end all boondoggles?
I read through the speech, and it's not bad as such speeches go. It says all the right things about the problems we face - things quite a few of us already know - and it makes us feel good to hear them said well and to a large audience. Whether that audience is capable of absorbing the message is another matter. Al is careful to avoid proposing to slaughter any of the sacred cows of the "American way of life," such as private automobile ownership, or the right to squander as much energy as you can afford, be it by cranking up the air conditioning or cruising around in a motor yacht. In this, Al Gore and Dick Cheney seem to be soul-mates: to them the American way of life is non-negotiable.

If it were, his speech might run something like this:

Folks, oil is starting to run out, and we can't afford to keep on driving like we're used to. So, let's stop making and importing new cars, let's stop with the highway expansion, stop maintaining all those highway lanes at public expense, and move those resources to funding public transportation. Second, we've got to stop burning so much coal before the planet's climate blows up on us (of course, it may anyway, because of all the coal we've burned already) so let's build some wind mills, to provide, say, 75% of electricity within 10 years (100% won't work, because wind is intermittent, so you need some gas-fired power plants, for when it isn't blowing). But most importantly we must cut our energy use, before we're bankrupt as a nation (which we may be already) and we must do so very quickly. So let's regulate the use of air conditioning in businesses (ceiling fans, anyone?), stop illuminating roads and parking lots at night, and make a lot of other, sensible measures to cut energy use. And once we've done all these things, we will realize what sort of country we are now: not one that's driving off a cliff at breakneck speed with eyes shut tight, but an older, poorer, troubled country, not one likely to ever go to the moon again, but one that is perhaps capable of learning to live within its means without collapsing altogether. Thank you, and drive safely."

Al couldn't have given a speech like that for two reasons. For one, it wouldn't have gone over too well. For another, he is a product of a system - a national politician who is the son of a national politician. Politicians always try to perpetuate the system that got them into power.

So, no, building windmills is not a boondoggle to end all boondoggles, although the likelihood of getting the stable financing and permanent support tariffs in an era of high inflation and bankrupt federal government is not great. It's all the things that All doesn't mention that makes his proposal less significant than it might otherwise be.


Driver said...

You know, it's weird: conservation is the most individualistic, empowering thing a person can do, if only they are made aware of the many ways it can happen.

We've had a run of clear, dry, sunny weather in my Midwest town, and one person suggested it's because people are driving less. The sky is blue, not white, and the air feels clearer. Could be my imagination.

Conservation is the way. It's insane that no one is talking about how easy, immediate, and egalitarian it would be.

Anonymous said...

Very good points, including that it's up to We The People to lead, and make it "safer" for politicians to propose the bolder things that are needed, because if we think the politicians are going to "lead" by sticking their necks out, it will be a rather expensive "lesson" for us, the cost being one (1) formerly liveable planet. This isn't to excuse Gore or get him off the hook, but we need to put ourselves ON the hook.

One thing that might (I say might) get us higher than 75% though is energy storage of wind power. On small scale people have already used caverns of compressed air to store energy from wind power. Google for "wind power compressed air cavern" will find several links. See also "An engineer at Sandia National Laboratories thinks compressed air stored in underground caverns could help cut in half the cost of electricity from generators" so cost saving too.

Another example (using solar rather than wind) is molden salt for energy storage.

A third example? See ?v=C-EvV90MeDY on youtube, 24 hours per day energy generation, not EnviroMission but already existing in Spain, which we could vastly expand.

Doubters? If the US can spend 20 BILLION per MONTH on war, let's see something remotely approaching that on such projects, otherwise I'm not buying the "it can't be done" unless we try, with similar amounts of money. If we did, we might find wind plus solar plus a combination of energy storage technologies can get us to 100% of electricity, or at least much better than 75%

Anonymous said...

Another funny conundrum of Al's speech is the point about national security of all the dollars going to middle east.
It is like who controls the solar technology (Japanese, German, Chinese). Aside from GE, the rest of the manufacturers are foreign including an Indian. I am sure that is not good for national security.
Even Nuclear is controlled by Japanese and French, Russian and etc.
And what about all those foreign studends studying in America and taking american technology back home. I am sure that is not good either.

Lee said...

I read the transcript of Gore's speech and, as you say, it was posturing and swanky and full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, yada yada.

Thanks for your analysis of what he perhaps *should* have said. I think you hit the problem precisely when you stated that he is also one of those for whom the so-called American way of life is non-negotiable.

I think Gore, like everyone else, needs to wake up and realise he's at a new negotiating table. The US is broke, and the suggestions he has made won't ever happen. There are too many vested interests doing their best to keep the old machines running for as long as possible, no matter how rusted and futile the operations may be.

I'll be interested to sit and watch the collapse and decline and fall of America from foreign shores over the coming decade. If it takes that long. I just hope their new Asian landlords are kinder to them than they were to their own slaves in times past.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Tim wrote:

Thanks for your response. I am an advocate of renewable power in principle, but at this late stage I think we can't hope to live nearly as affluently on the capacity that can be built with the remaining resources. I wonder if that new capacity will fall into disrepair soon after things become unstuck, and so could be a misallocation of resources. Arrangements and technologies that can be maintained by ordinary people with local resources may be a safer bet. Walkable neighbourhoods with access to food production space, simple micro-generation, bicycles, and as you suggest, public transport.

Anonymous said...

Inevitably, as I read the solutions to oil depletion, I notice no one is bothering to look at any such changeover, whatever type we want to talk about, in relation to the amount of oil it will take to do so.

From what little analysis is being done on this question, I gather that to, for instance, convert 50% of our electrical usage to wind power would take more oil than we know about in the ground to build the structures, not to mention the maintenance.

I have seen only one analysis, and some time ago, that talks about the consequences of these giant wind farms. Physics is rather unrelenting on what happens when you pull energy from one source and convert it to another form. Wind power is not a free energy source. If you pull energy from moving air, how is that going to affect the weather if it is done in mammoth proportions?

Similar problems exist for every single idea on how to deal with oil depletion.

As for Al Gore, another hypocritical politician. When is he going to downsize his own living to match his words? I will give him more credence when I see him live in 800 sq. foot accommodations instead of a mansion.

I can find no legitimate means anywhere that can claim technology will put us out of the situation. Vague promises and non functional or scalable ideas abound. All in the hope of continuing our non negotiable life style. Unbounded arrogance is not a solution.

Albert Bates said...

We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking
resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting
the future control us. — Jimmy Carter, Speech to the Nation, 1977

You can't get elected by promising people less. — Bill Clinton, 1998

Anonymous said...

Political "conservatives", who infest the Rethuglican Party, never want to conserve Anything accept their own bank accounts and their daughters virginity.

The last time Cheney the Dick submitted a 700+ page "US Energy Policy" to Congress, it didn't even mention the Word 'conservation' even once. In a report that long on energy.

Pangolin said...

Out here in California our roads are crumbling and the city doesn't have the money to fix them. The number of homeless, vacant storefronts and abandoned houses grows daily. All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put out our fires in under a month.

If we're bankrupt the whole of the US is. What Al didn't tell people to do was to plant gardens, get a good bicyle and stock up on winter fuel for your woodstove.

Medium-term massive retrofitting to geoexchange heating and cooling will produce more GHG and cost reductions than windmills. He has one and so does George W. Bush but he couldn't mention it.

Al Gore can't tell us the truth becaue nobody in power can for fear that Wall Street will collapse. Everybody is waking up to the truth and it's ugly.

Anonymous said...

What about Concentrated Solar in Mojave / Nevada, with storage via combination of molten salt and battery (overnight storage via millions of idle electric cars) for part of the grid?

Financing of course is another question...

Driver said...

Cruel truth: the quickest, most effective way to reduce GHG and mitigte depletion of the world's resources is to eliminate as many human beings as possible ASAP.

I believe an attempt of that sort is in our future. Just think how many problems it would solve, and how the murderers could then go back to the kind of agrarian hearty yeomanry so beloved of Jefferson.

Anonymous said...


I am a believer. I hope you will find a way to spread your message far and wide. May God(Nature) be with you.

Anonymous said...

Murph raises important points. We not only have to factor in the amount of energy necessary to build an infrastructure, but we also have to factor in the amount of greenhouse gases that will be emitted in building this new infrastructure.

And climate change, Dmitry, is one area you did not deal with in depth in your book.
For example studies such as this:

point to the consequences of massive positive feedback runaway, what are often called climatic "tipping points", points of no return that will alter earth's climate drastically.

For this reason, I and others think that a serious collapse of civilization itself - not just economic collapse - is a possibility, as James Lovelock has theorized in "The Revenge of Gaia."

But I notice that few people want to deal with this issue, just as few people want to deal openly and frankly with the issue of human beings needing to stop reproducing. NOW!

If it was just a question of peak oil, things wouldnt be so bad, but we also have to deal with peak water, peak topsoil/arable land and massive human population overshoot.
So, the point is, it isnt just the USA that is in trouble but the entire planet. China, for example is an ecological catastrophe and is rapidly running out of water. Russia may have large fossil energy reserves, and the Mideast great petrodollar/petroeuro wealth, but if the US goes down, it will take the world with it one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

You should see Ted Rall's cartoon from July 26.

Anonymous said...

Inventing the internet is that for which Al is best known (according to him). Less known is his family's strange political connections, and how they made their fortunes.

Ask Al Gore about his own ecological foot print and how much energy he consumes each month.

Al Gore is a celebrity.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous needs a good fact checker. He is getting the memos from the RNC and Fox News and taking them on face value. Al never said he invented the internet (although he certainly got it through some critical junctures in the House and Senate or it could have been D.O.A.), his house and office are carbon neutral (can Anon say the same?), and the secret of the family wealth is that germanium mine on daddy's farm in Cartage, TN. Just like the Lone Ranger. Ask to see one Al's bullets if you don't believe me.

Anonymous said...

This gets to the heart of your excellent and profound observation in _Reinventing Collapse_ that the prospects for viable post-collapse activities are inversely correlated with the degree to which the activity in question is vital to the pre-collapse economic system.

Given that continued sales of automobiles is quite literally indispensable to our overclass here in the USA, it is simply VERBOTEN to raise the topic. "Better cars" (an oxymoron, in energy-use terms) is the far outer limit of permissible thinking.

Albert Gore is Exhibit #1 of the power of this taboo. He rendered his great, vaunted 30-years-too-late movie silly by ending it with a plea for higher CAFE rules, and 5 years later, he's still dutifully mum about anything deeper than that gesture.

Thanks for doing this site, Dmitry!