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 Al doesn't mention that makes his proposal less significant than it might otherwise be.