Al Gore's Well-Intentioned Delusion

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switters's picture
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Al Gore's Well-Intentioned Delusion

Today’s talk of a quick transition away from fossil fuels will prove to be blowing in the wind.

During the early 1970s we were told by the promoters of nuclear energy that by the year 2000 America’s coal-based electricity generation plants would be relics of the past and that all electricity would come from nuclear fission. What’s more, we were told that the first generation fission reactors would by then be on their way out, replaced by super-efficient breeder reactors that would produce more fuel than they were initially charged with.

This excellent article, Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion, is a must read for anyone who thinks we're going to quickly transition from fossil-fuels to renewable sources of energy.


These are the realities of 2008: coal-fired power plants produce half of all U.S. electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent, and there is not a single commercial breeder reactor operating anywhere in the world; in 2007 the United States derives about 1.7 percent of its energy from new renewable conversions (corn-based ethanol, wind, photovoltaic solar, geothermal); natural gas supplies about 24 percent of the world’s commercial energy—less than half the share predicted in the early 1980s and still less than coal with nearly 29 percent; and there are no fuel-cell cars.

It is delusional to think that the United States can install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct. 

The reason all of the optimistic energy forecasts have failed miserably is that their authors and promoters ignored one of the most important realities ruling the behavior of complex energy systems - the inherently slow pace of energy transitions.


“Energy transitions” encompass the time that elapses between an introduction of a new primary energy source oil, nuclear electricity, wind captured by large turbines) and its rise to claiming a substantial share (20 percent to 30 percent) of the overall market, or even to becoming the single largest contributor or an absolute leader (with more than 50 percent) in national or global energy supply. The term also refers to gradual diffusion of new prime movers, devices that replaced animal and human muscles by converting primary energies into mechanical power that is used to rotate massive turbogenerators producing electricity or to propel fleets of vehicles, ships, and airplanes. There is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged affairs that take decades to accomplish, and the greater the scale of prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take. The second part of this statement seems to be a truism but it is ignored as often as the first part: otherwise we would not have all those unrealized predicted milestones for new energy sources.

In fact, if we examine the history of oil production, hydroelectricity and nuclear in this country we see clearly that new energy sources take decades - if not longer - to fully develop:


The pace of the global transition from coal to oil can be judged from the following spans: it took oil about 50 years since the beginning of its commercial production during the 1860s to capture 10 percent of the global primary energy market, and then almost exactly 30 years to go from 10 percent to about 25 percent of the total.  Analogical spans for natural gas are almost identical: approximately 50 years and 40 years. Regarding electricity, hydrogeneration began in 1882, the same year as Edison’s coal-fired generation, and just before World War I water power produced about 50 percent of the world’s electricity; subsequent expansion of absolute production could not prevent a large decline in water’s relative contribution to about 17 percent in 2008. Nuclear fission reached 10 percent of global electricity generation 27 years after the commissioning of the first nuclear power plant in 1956, and its share is now roughly the same as that of hydropower.

We're facing a challenge several orders of magnitude higher today, because the greater the scale of prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take.  


The absolute quantities needed to capture a significant share of the market, say 25 percent, are huge because the scale of the coming global energy transition is of an unprecedented magnitude. By the late 1890s, when combustion of coal (and some oil) surpassed the burning of wood, charcoal, and straw, these resources supplied annually an equivalent of about half a billion tons of oil. Today, replacing only half of worldwide annual fossil fuel use with renewable energies would require the equivalent of about 4.5 billion tons of oil. That’s a task equal to creating de novo an energy industry with an output surpassing that of the entire world oil industry—an industry that has taken more than a century to build.

In short, while I admire Gore's commitment to transitioning to renewable energy in this country, I think he's absolutely dreaming that we could get anywhere close to 100% renewable electricty generation in a decade.  All of the challenges mentioned above are compunded by the current economic crisis and the extremely low price of oil, both of which effectively reduce the amount of money available for investment in renewable infrastructure.

I highly recommend reading the full article.


switters's picture
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Posts: 744
Re: Al Gore's Well-Intentioned Delusion

Regarding my last point above (that the economic crisis will make the transition to renewables even more difficult than already would have been otherwise):

Green shunted to margin as economic crisis worsens

by Christopher Ryan, AICP

never know exactly what will happen as a result of a severe economic
crisis. Few people discuss it since it is quite taboo to speculate on
any scenario that doesn't include growth and consumption. It is
territory similar to the reluctance on the part of pundits and experts
to admit or broadcast the fact that a recession has arrived even though
almost everyone else knows it.

But I'll take a crack at a few broad predictions that are predicated
on the economic crisis getting worse over the next 9-12 months, which I
think it will, largely because economic impacts move through the system
and down the income ladder like a pulse or wave that you can see coming
like fans rising in the first row of Michigan Stadium, knowing you have
time before it reaches you, but it undoubtedly will.

We are now observing the full force of demand destruction on most
commodities including oil, waste paper, and other recyclables. It
should have been anticipated but one of the major obstacles to
innovation and alternatives in green practices is whether it pays to
pursue. Does it make a profit? Demand destruction, as has been
extensively written about, will nearly always slow or short circuit
these activities. While it would be beneficial to secure additional
subsidies and tax breaks for alternatives and renewables and perhaps
prop up recycling efforts through subsidies, purchasing policies, or
tax breaks, these cyclical swings of feasibility will remain.

Regarding recycling, it was never expected that this form of waste
management would persist ad infinitum. It still facilitates a throw
away mentality and requires great sums of electricity and water to
create other products that will eventually be recycled or landfilled
themselves. Clearly a lifecycle solution would be a far better solution
(as has been recommended by Natural Step advocates) that would reduce
the number of products that require any disposal at all. But this would
be forward, long-term thinking and counterintuitive to the short-term
disposable society that we have erected.

So, as the New York Times reports this morning in A Sea of Unwanted Imports,
there are acres of baled waste cardboard waiting to be shipped to China
to box our next round of electronic purchases. Since markets for
recycling waste have all but dried up in the U.S., if China doesn't
have a market for it anymore, where will this paper go, what will
happen to our local curbside collection programs if there is no market
even for waste paper or aluminum?

My guess is that these programs will limp along for a while with
waste mountains growing taller like Naples street garbage mounds albeit
a bit less putrid. But companies like BFI and Waste Management will
either end their contracts with local municipalities or may end up
covertly dumping recycling waste down railroad embankments.
Alternatively, cities and towns can store cardboard for a while and
distribute it to homeless families to build modern versions of
Hoovervilles as the mortgage crisis deepens.

In the energy sector, environmental restrictions will seem nearly as
quaint to the average citizen as the Geneva Convention appeared to
Alberto Gonzales a few years back. The concept of "clean coal", dubious
from a technological and financial perspective anyhow, will be shelved
in favor of just getting the damn stuff to the plants. Coal mining
devastation of the landscapes in Appalachia will grow in scale, scope,
and speed and concerns over watersheds and labor safety will be, at
best, laughed off, and at worst met with unhesitant violence. Obstacles
will be quickly overcome and just having a job, historically a strong
motivator for acquiescence and silence, will soon be the only concern.

Demand destruction in the automobile industry could result in a
brand new pricing structure for the unsold millions of vehicles
gathering dust in the ports (see NY Times link above) and paired with
very cheap gasoline over the next 6-12 months may result in the last
wild ride of the era of the automobile. I expect that cars will be sold
at prices that would astound you even as recently as a year ago.
Interested in a brand new $8000 Hummer?

Overall, I think we'll see a great deal of paradigmatic retrenchment
and self-protection in the next year as resistance to the post-carbon,
post-peak oil world becomes more acute and aggressive. It will be
interesting to observe how the new President will situate himself
related to this old model and how aggressively he will help us move to
a more progressive, sustainable, post-carbon society. Admittedly he
needs to be very careful and calculated in regard to any shifts but my
concern is that it will be so slow and stealthy that it appears to be
and may practically be stationary. And to this point is should be noted
that efforts to relocalize and make local communities more resilient
should only be picking up momentum over the next year. All solutions to
these problems will emanate from the local. The key is for the Feds not
to prevent it from happening.

krogoth's picture
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 18 2008
Posts: 576
Damn Switters

You might as well have called this topic- DamntheMatrix, please come over here with delusional ideas about alternative energy now.

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