Is Al Gore Nuts?

In his speech in Constitution Hall this week, former Vice President and renewable energy investor Al Gore extolled a stretch goal challenging America to achieve 100% renewable power within 10 years. The quote: “Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.” And my favorite part: “When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.”

That statement is about like challenging your 2 year old to finish college by the time she is 12. Not exactly practical, more than a little crazy, and likely to be either ignored, or if you push it, to cause lots of therapy sessions by the time she is 8. I will, however, credit him with getting almost every renewable energy platitude I’ve ever heard into one succinct speech.

He does raise lots of good points about the need for a new energy policy not built around shipping dollars to the MidEast for oil (a definite must), for long term support for renewables (it is critical for us to get off our fits and starts mish mash idea of renewable energy policy), and for moving faster and larger to fight climate change (a topic near and dear to my heart, and one that is only partially helped by making broad statements about how fast the sky is falling, I mean, the glaciers are melting). In fact, there is no better way to give anti renewable energy and climate change naysayers fuel and ammunition than to make statements like these. Any path we go down, I’d still rather challenge that two year old to do something they can achieve, not try and make it through college by age 12 – especially if I’m asking her to pay for it. Slow and steady wins the race.

The core of Al Gore’s argument in his speech on the practicality of a 10 year all renewable energy goal boils down to this quote from his speech on fuels:

“What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don’t cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?

We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses.

And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.”

And this one on costs and technology:

“To those who argue that we do not yet have the technology to accomplish these results with renewable energy: I ask them to come with me to meet the entrepreneurs who will drive this revolution. I’ve seen what they are doing and I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge.
To those who say the costs are still too high: I ask them to consider whether the costs of oil and coal will ever stop increasing if we keep relying on quickly depleting energy sources to feed a rapidly growing demand all around the world. When demand for oil and coal increases, their price goes up. When demand for solar cells increases, the price often comes down.”

These quotations, while partially true and very seductive, are highly misleading in this context. The effective conversion rates of that energy to usable electric power or liquid fuel is still horrendously low, and requires lots and lots of capital expenditures, and thousands of miles of new transmission lines to implement. And that’s not taking into account the state of technology – as an industry we really are the two year old in my analogy.

So given those conversion rates and the current high capital expenditures per unit of energy, the cost is still 5-20x (depending on what you count) the cost of conventional electric power generation (yes I know, unless you add in the carbon price and environmental externalities, but that’s still extra cost any way you slice it . . . unless you’d like to subsidize mine). Frankly no serious analyst is suggesting that within 10 years, given the state of technology and the best case forecast capacity, that solar can make up more than a small single digit fraction of even electricity needs or that wind can make up more than a meaningful minority share (let alone after doubling the global power demand by replacing liquid fuels in cars with electricity, which Al Gore also suggests), especially given lead times on power plants and transmission lines.

Most likely even if the technologies were already cost comparative, which they are not – if you need evidence, just look at our wind and solar industries in their current tizzy because their biggest subsidy programs are up for renewal this year – most analysts wouldn’t project a fabled grid parity on cost for renewables for at least the next decade, and certainly not at scale. So Mr. Gore’s statements on cost and technology are in part true, but imply a maturity level in these industries that just doesn’t exist yet. Given manufacturing scale up issues on the technology, transmission infrastructure requirements at least as large as the new generation requirements, and long lead times on building projects of this size (industry executives point to seven year time frames just to build a single transmission line), probably reaching even significant low double digit percentages of carbon free power within ten years is a stretch (excluding large hydro and nuclear which we already have but are hesitating to expand) across the whole nation. Notwithstanding that California has managed to come close to its target 20% number over the last decade, that’s one state leaning on the resources of many states, using the best available sites, federal subsidies paid for from all of our pockets, and that took a decade. When it comes to carbon capture and storage for coal fired generation, a concept with lots of legs – if it works – 10 years just isn’t enough time to achieve scale. The first big pilots are scheduled over the next several years, and there are too many unknowns to bet the farm on, without the lead time and capital cost issue. Though still definitely worth trying.

And as far as paying for it, there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle today calculating our Federal government long term liabilities at $450,000 per American already mainly for Medicare and Social Security. Actually trying to replace our entire fossil fuel infrastructure within 10 years would push that to how much? Somebody please do the math before we launch a government funded mission to the moon, or legislate that our citizens pay for it instead. On costs, Mr. Gore made the statement in his speech “Our families cannot stand 10 more years of gas price increases.” I agree, but Mr. Gore, your 10 year, hell for leather, man to moon race for 100% renewable energy would guarantee just that.

So while extolling stretch goals for a two year old is probably a good idea, let’s keep it within the realm of possibility, and not just make grandiose statements for media effect. Now if Al Gore’s silly challenge on renewable energy was simply a trojan horse to get people talking about how to move forward on fighting climate change and addressing our long standing energy policy issues, I’m all for that and am happy to help. After all, the words Al Gore and climate change make for very searchble blog articles! But personally when I make outlandish statements, I do like to bring an modicum of practicality to the discussion.

I will leave you with one final note, and please remember, I am actually a proponent of the ideals in Al Gore’s speech, I just prefer to get there in one piece. One theory on the effect of the history of the man on the moon driven space race that Mr. Gore challenges us to copy basically says that we pushed for a single high profile goal so fast and furious that we effectively skipped ahead and outran our infrastructure and capabilities to get a nonscalable shot at the moon in the target time frame. The theory goes on to suggest that’s why after reaching the moon so fast we haven’t progressed at the same rate in space since, and had we taken it slower, we would have gotten there a few years behind, but might be on Mars by know. Akin in a military campaign to outrunning your supply chain, and then getting your army surrounded and destroyed – or perhaps invading a country half way around the world, winning the war in weeks and forgetting to prepare for the peace. And just to show that I can deliver as many platitudes in one article as Mr. Gore, that’s why you never get involved in a land war in Asia.

Energy and environment are the two pillars of everything in our lives. Mr. Gore and I want the same thing, but he thinks we can’t afford not to swing for the fences – I think we can’t afford to mess it up.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is the founding CEO of Carbonflow, founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog.

14 replies
  1. Marcel F. Williams
    Marcel F. Williams says:

    Gore said today that he wanted the US to provide all of ourelectricity needs within the next 10 years through non-carbon dioxidepolluting systems by:1. dramatically increasing solar energy production2. dramatically increasing wind energy production3. dramatically increasing geothermal4. the utilization of clean coal5. while keep nuclear energy production at its current level (20% ofelectric power generation in the US)I don't know, but Gore may be as dumb as McCain on his knowledge onthe energy requirements of this country.1. Solar power currently represents just 0.1% of our total electricityproduction. So even if you increased solar power capacity by– 10times– current capacity over the next decade, solar would still onlyproduce about 1% of our nations total electricity.2. Wind currently produces close to 1% of our total electricityproduction. So if you increased wind capacity about 10 times over thenext decade, wind would still only produce about 10% of our totalelectricity needs.3. Geothermal produces about 0.3% of our total electricity production.If you could somehow increase that by 10 times over a decade, thatwould represent about 3% of our total electricity needs.So non-hydroelectric renewables (solar, wind, and geothermal) wouldonly produce about 14% of our total electricity needs if wedramatically increased current production by a enormous factor of tentimes current capacity within ten years. Add hydroelectric to that and21% of our electricity could be produced by renewable energy. This ofcourse assumes that there will be no significant increase inelectricity demand due to increasing population and economic growth.Clean coal? Coal produces 100 times as much radioactive waste asnuclear power per unit of electricity produced and thousands of timesmore toxic waste. Trying to capture the carbon dioxide from theseplants will raise electricity prices from coal– dramatically. Andthere is no long term environmentally sound place to put the carbondioxide after its captured. Clean coal is a total myth.Just increasing nuclear capacity by less than– 5 times– currentcapacity could supply all of our electricity needs plus the off-peakelectricity from nuclear could be used to produce hydrocarbon fuelsthat could cut our oil imports by at least 50% . But even I wouldn'tsay that this could be done in a mere decade. Additionally, replacingall of our electricity through carbon neutral systems would only solveabout 40% of our total energy needs.Both Gore and McCain need to look at the real numbers. This energy andclimate change problem is going to optimistically take at least 30 or40 years to resolve.Marcel F. Williams

  2. James
    James says:

    We can throw out all the statistics we like to make ourselves feel smarter than Mr. Gore. It would be better to take up this kind of challenge and fail to meet it rather than not to try at all. We are not dealing with an opposing army. We're only racing against ourselves here.

  3. Tyler
    Tyler says:

    10 years, well, I agree with all your comments. But Gore's other point is that you can't sell a plan to Americans that is 40 years in the making. So, the question is, do you run hard and not reach your target in 10 years, or run slow and still not reach your target in 40 years? While I agree that Gore's 10-year target isn't grounded in reality, I'm prepared to overlook that to support the vision and the need — the desparate need — to start doing it today rather than drag our feat commercialization, invest in more R&D (not needed, thank you), and bicker about stuff at international conferences that achieve absolutely nothing.America — looking at it as an outsider — don't like being told what to do. But they're always up for a challenge. Gore is issuing a challenge in hopes of inspiring action. You can analyze it all you want, complain about lack of details, etc… but what he's really trying to do is rile up the U.S. public so they'll put pressure on the next president — or at least give him the mandate –actually do something, such as a carbon tax.

  4. aaron.berndt
    aaron.berndt says:

    If you look at our technological performance linearly and make estimates at today’s rate of progress I would agree that the renewable energy sector will take 30-40 years to truly establish itself. I however sit in the Kurzwiel camp (although maybe not quite as drastic), and believe that the exponential growth of technology will greatly accelerate the advancements. This, combined with a huge serving of political will, what Gore was asking for, I think we could get close.

  5. Richard T. Stuebi
    Richard T. Stuebi says:

    Great post, Neal. As I argued on this site way back in March 2006, I have long believed that the Apollo man-to-the-moon program is a false and flawed analogy in reference to our energy/environmental challenges. Apollo (and Manhattan) involved one "command-and-control" customer (the Feds) in a cost-no-object pursuit to resolve scientific and engineering uncertainties preventing accomplishment of a clearly identifiable goal. In the case of energy/environment, we have several billion economic actors for whom cost is very much the object, and the goal is….what exactly? Zero carbon emissions? Zero energy imports? Zero costs? Since "zero" for any of these measures is absurdly unattainable, when do we know we crossed the goal line? Consequently, I dissuade people as much as possible from Apollo analogies, as I just think the situations are as different as apples and grand pianos.

  6. Walt C.
    Walt C. says:

    Marcel,With respect to solar’s 10x growth in 10 years being a stretch, I don’t believe it’s quite as grim as you suggest. Solar is currently growing at 40% per year. Production capacity doubles every 2 years. With current growth rates, 10 years would give 5 doublings, or a factor of 32x.It wouldn’t seem that huge a leap, with increased focus, incentives and capital, to increase the growth rate of solar production to 2x per year, or 10 doublings over 10 years, or 1000x (which would presumably be way more than we’d want or need).I would imagine that a similar argument could be made for wind power.Clearly we wouldn’t maintain huge production growth up until the point where solar, or wind, produced 100% of our electricity. But the point is that Moore’s law type of growth (compounded growth) can have a profound effect, even in the span of a single decade.

  7. telespiza
    telespiza says:

    Yeah, I have to cast my vote with the Pollyannas on this one – the “that’s ridiculous, it’s impossible” cry is the siren call of Exxon-Mobil and the clean-coal boosters. Why not at least try as hard as we can, and if we only get 20% or 50% of the way there in 10 years, surely that’s got to be better than getting only 1% percent of the way there, yes? The more we push to get sustainable energy installations funded and operating, the more innovation will accelerate and the faster the cost of implementing those technologies will drop. Sure, 10x 0.1% is only 1% – who says only a 10x ramp-up is possible within 10 years? If we could double the growth of installed generation capacity every two years, that’s 32x in 10 years, and within spitting distance of 100% of our energy needs within 20 years. A worthy goal, if we have the guts to push for it.

  8. djysrv
    djysrv says:

    Al Gore’s moon shot speech for solar and windGood analysis, bad adviceFormer vice president Al Gore gave a high profile speech in Washington, DC, on Thursday July 17 in which he called for conversion of all U.S. electricity generation to solar, wind, and other renewable resources within 10 years. In it he compared his goal to that of President John F. Kennedy who called for putting a man on the moon within a decade.Just about any politician worth his salt knows that making promises that live in the future, especially well beyond the next election, are an easy sell. Gore knows, from experience, that ten years is about the lifetime of any big idea because it is within the grasp of two senate terms and the political lifetime of a two-term president. So it makes sense to package a super size vision inside of a practical time line. That’s one of the few things he gets right.Full details at Idaho Samizdat

  9. Joffan
    Joffan says:

    Rahein: Solar photovoltaics do not scale with Moore's Law. This is a basic error, that confuses power and control. Power generation from sunlight requires area to intercept the sunlight. Control processes (computer/memory chips) can be made smaller and smaller provided the information is preserved. While I'd agree that technology will change, we can mostly see what may be viable in ten years time, because it's in the labs now.

  10. DI Juergen Hermann, CA
    DI Juergen Hermann, CA says:

    Dear Mr. Al Gore I hope you will receive this message.  I’m up for the most attractive and challenging venture for the USA since John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration speech in 1961. This is a big sentence, I know, but we are going to get our planet back on track! I have the "master plan" and the technology to do so. We will be ending the Oil-Age! In 10 years from now CleanWatts Inc. CA, Sacramento (in founding) will be where Microsoft was in the early 90ties, being the world leader in Clean Energy, having 12 Billion Dollar solar produced H2 sales and growing at a pace of 40% and more while E85 is gone and gasoline and diesel are on their way out. H2 & Solar are enabled and will be taking over world wide.———————————————And now, Mr. Gore, please read this:———————————————Why no becoming the INCUBATOR of the largest business opportunity since the discovery of oil?Together, we will be able to enable H2 & Solar in gigawatt scale and transferring today’s energy economy into the Hydrogen age. I have the Master-Plan and the Key-Technology to do so.  5*5km PV (25km2) delivers 1GW averaged over day and night and year! Reason: A 1m2 sized 100W PV-panel delivers a daily average of 40W (in a sunny place like California). That means 1m2 = 40W à 25km2 = 1GW!  But 1m2 Silicon based PV has a price tag of $500 à 1GW would cost $12.5 Billion!Not so with our technology and Master Plan towards H2 & Solar. GE, ABB, Siemens an all others would have to follow us, taking licences and franchising our business model around the globe and the climate collapse is banned.  CleanWatts, CA, Sacramento USA (in founding) will make this happen. CleanWatts would build the necessary production equipment and machinery for our patented CIGS PV deposition on stainless steel foil for fab-to-field production, roll-to-roll fabrication and rack-roll-on field mount. CleanWatts will cut PV System Cost well below $100/m2 or less than $1/Wp and enabling the mass production of H2 by electrolysing water (H2O) with solar power at fuel stations as well as at gas fired power plants which will make them greener too. Why and How: Our planet is on a rollercoaster ride. Even worse, the automatic breaking system is failing and ahead of us is a sharp turn… Everyone is talking and shouting about the break, but no one can find it. I found it! Even more, I have it in my hands – the technology and the master plan to enable H2 and Solar in GW scale. As a matter of facts our excellence, technology and network is not enough to turn our Master Plan into reality. What we are missing is MONEY! Lots of money. To receive the necessary billion dollar amounts we must build CREDIBILITY first. That’s why I’m contacting you… The H2 bullet:Saving our Sun powered Water-Planet means connecting to the sun! Doing it now and with our low-cost fab-to-field, roll-to-roll produced rack-roll-on CIGS PV cells on stain less steel that convert free of cost photons into electrons. The generated Solar power (electricity) will be cracking (electrolysing) water into H2 and O2. Oxygen (O2) is released into the atmosphere. Hydrogen (H2) will be compressed and used to run fossil fuel powered engines while burning back to water (H2O). At first in dual fuel cars and at gas fired power plants and more… CleanWatts solar-H2-water cycle will be industrialized in California and franchised and licensed around the globe. India and China will be profiting the most and so will CleanWatts and their Billion Dollar investors. Many other countries in the sun belt will be profiting too. Just look at Australia whose farmers are sitting already on “dry land”, south of Europe and North Africa who may supply Europe with undersea HVDC lines soon after the south-west of the US is running on a large portion of CleanWatts Solar power and H2 and the USA could become the worlds first Solar and H2 powered country. Best of it, H2 is produced on-site where it is needed. All we need is a water tap, a power outlet and CleanWatts electrolyser, compressor, storage and dispenser units installed at fuel stations and at power plants. This makes H2 to a wired fuel! H2 will not be shipped, transported, pumped from vessel to vessel to storage and vice verso until it finally ends up in a fuel tank of a vehicle. All we need to do is extending the existing power grid and installing electrolyser stations and even wind power can be used to produce H2 at night instead turning them off due to no night-demand and no storage capacity either.The clue: Oil, Gas, Coal and Uranium remains under ground, the climate collapse and planet pollution is banned, war for oil becomes history and the world is back on track towards a liveable future. In other words, CleanWatts is up for the largest business opportunity since the discovery of oil. This is not a joke! We have the technology, the Master Plan and the team to end the Oil Age! All we need is money. In 10-15 years from now Gasoline and Diesel are on their way out, Ethanol is gone and Solar produced H2 will be taking over. We call it SolarFuel®. CleanWatts Inc. CA, Sacramento will make this happen, becoming an “Energy Google” and spreading their large scale enabling of H2 & Solar around the globe. Let's team up, so we can cooperate and raising the necessary funds with your credentials and connects. We must refine and transform our master plan, developing the company and the necessary business and preparing for the follow up of private placement rounds in the range of several 100 Million Dollars to 1 Billion to build CleanWatts solar power plants and H2 station network throughout CA. In 10 Years from now CleanWatts is a multi billion dollar company, listed at the NASDAQ and franchising and licensing their H2 and Solar business around the globe. You and your Co-Investors would not only multiply their investments in triple digit amounts with CleanWatts, CleanWatts would industrialize their key technology and business and become the incubator of the H2 and Solar age and securing the worlds future. Our success and business model will impress everyone so much more than any thing else ever did. Juergen Hermann, CEO, promoter and co-founder of CleanWatts Inc, CA, Sacramento. Best regards,DI Juergen Hermann 011-423-787-2626www.hermannfinance.comRemark: You may also consult my website: à proceed to “Clean Energy” and apply for a password to download more information about CleanWatts. ——————————————And more: “A convenient Future”:——————————————I watched “an inconvenient truth” from Al Gore. He is talking about the climate catastrophe and has no solution on what to do to solve the problems we are going to face; considering we proceed with what we are doing today – burning more and more oil, gas and coal. In 10-20 years it will be too late to do anything. The poles are already melting. The water levels will be rising by 45-60ft (15-20m) should the poles and glaciers melt down. A horror filled scenario beside all the other catastrophes to billions of people. No drinking water, no food, droughts and terrible storms, hurricanes, flooding, land under and finally an ice age… No one knows how terrible it will become, nor when and what is precisely going to happen, but that it will happen. The changes are on their way. It is getting warmer and warmer and all due to the CO2 we are producing from burning up the planets fossil fuel. How can we do so? We must be living in a nut house, driven by bare stupidity, greed and insanity! Our kids will be suffering the most. They will be our age when everything is collapsing if not even sooner. I just hope I will be able to win the necessary partners to get CleanWatts gigawatt scaled enabling of H2 & Solar up and running here in California and spreading it around the globe before it is too late.I have the solution. Let’s put it in place. Rather than talking about the horror scenario we are going to face, Al Gore has addressed it in a very impressive and understandable way. So sad that he didn’t become president 6 years ago. God failed in fighting evil in so many ways. He also failed to put Al Gore in power when he ran for presidency. The bad part, Bush believes he was elected by God to bring peace, human rights and justice to everyone on the planet by warfare. He doesn’t realize that, while doing so, he is ruining it all. But even worse, he is wasting the power and capability of the US to save our planet!Instead investing in H2 & Solar, Bush and his party invested 650 Billion Dollars and 3000 American lives to secure the oil and gas fields in the Middle East and to no end in sight. Billions of Dollars and lives sacrificed for Oil and Gas that will bust our planet if used. What nonsense! Those funds could have incubated the H2 & Solar age, carried around the globe by the US and no one would have to care about oil and gas in the Middle East. It could all remain under ground and not harm us and our planet at all. With precise bombing of Sadams fabs for weapons of mass destruction we could have solved the terrorist threats of Iraq. Today, we would let Sadam “take care” of his Sunni and Shiite tribes and fanatics who love fighting each other for no reason at all, except religious mania and an “extraordinary” place in heaven. Terrorist camps and other dangerous things could have been taken out by pin pointed air strikes instead of going in there and trying to “save the country” for the sole and only purpose of securing Iraq’s oil fields. Gore would have done so and not entered this insane war at all. Not having Gore as the president of the US is the reason for the misery we are in. Gore has lost so many times. Even his son was close to dying in a car accident when he was 6 years old. Gore faced troubles his entire life, but he still fights for the good, the noble, and for the rights his father did. I wish and hope I can meet and team up with him.As for now it is my foremost aim to meet with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his advisors in the California Capitol and have them join me with CleanWatts. Schwarzenegger could connect me with Al Gore and others to raise and release the necessary funds, grants and regulations needed to build within the next 10-15 years 40 GW (gigawatts) solar power plants in California and equipping 40,000 fuel stations with onsite electrolysers to produce and deliver “SolarFuel”. High pressurized H2 (Hydrogen) for 6-8 million cars. H2 burns back and is produced from water by electrolysis. Zero air pollution, zero green house gas, and more engine power than gasoline, diesel or ethanol ever had. The world would be back on the right track.If God wants me to do so, he must be opening those doors for me and we will be able to save our planet before it is to late. Hope he has the power to do so and is capable to fight the devil who has taken control and is on its way to destroy creation and the planet as a whole. Unfortunately, the devil is doing it with our help. It is very sad that mankind doesn’t see this. The majority of us are blind and not aware what we are doing to our self’s, kids, families, and our countries. We are ruining the future, the basis of our lives. Just think about what kind of life our kids will be facing 20 years from now if this insane suffocation of fossil fuel burning goes on as it is? It will be hell.Sacramento, Jan. 30. 2007D.I. Juergen Hermann, CleanWatts

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