Turning point: Al Gore’s new hope

by Bryan Walker on June 22, 2014

Al Gore has written an impressive long article in Rolling Stone magazine. I read it with gratitude and wanted to recommend it to others. It’s a highly readable text packed with rich detail which reflects the wide spectrum across which Gore operates and the considerable intelligence which informs his thinking. It deserves wide readership.

The article proclaims new grounds for hope that we will yet find our way to a low-carbon global economy in time to prevent the worst effects of unchecked climate change. Gore opens with an affirmation that a powerful yet largely unnoticed shift is under way in the needed transition. Here is the surprising fact that signals hope:

“Our ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted.”

The cost of solar electricity has decreased by an average 20 percent per year since 2010. Gore sees an ongoing decline in cost to the point where by 2020 more than 80 percent of 0the world’s people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.  This is already the case in at least 79 of the world’s countries.

With lowering costs Gore considers we are witnessing the beginning of a massive shift from the “central station” utility-grid model to a “widely distributed” model with rooftop solar cells, on-site and grid battery storage, and microgrids.

He cites evidence from many places that the shift to solar energy is under way and successfully so. Not least is the alarm shown by many utilities whose electricity is produced by fossil fuels. Gore points to the recent decision of Barclays to downgrade the entirety of the US electric sector because the declining cost trends in distributed solar ­photovoltaic-power generation and residential­-scale power storage is likely to make utility investments less attractive.

Fossil fuel interests are fighting back against solar energy, often fiercely. Gore points for example to Koch brothers-funded efforts to persuade state legislatures to tax home-owners who install photovoltaic panels on their roofs, claiming they are involved in “greedy” free-riding. But the vested interests are losing the battle as solar and wind costs come down and fossil fuel costs go up.

The article ranges widely from its early focus on solar energy and includes compelling surveys of the effects of climate change already being experienced in increased extreme weather events, droughts, floods and sea level rise, along with warnings from current science of worse to come. Gore’s writing on the impacts of climate change is always firmly tethered to the science but less constrained by the degree of scientific reticence considered necessary for professional scientists.

As a lay person myself deeply alarmed by what I see to be the implications of the advancing science I welcome Gore’s readiness to write clearly and unequivocally of the impacts of climate change and not to soften his perceptions. Too many policy makers take refuge in best case scenarios, though there is no assurance that they will eventuate.

But the main purpose of Gore’s article is to emphasise that there is reason for hope that we can yet avoid the worst outcomes. In addition to technology he discerns and tracks many new trends in business, in economics and in politics which he presents as grounds for such hope. And in the course of these discussions he sounds the refrain:

“And all the while, the surprising and relentless ongoing decline in the cost of renewable energy and efficiency improvements are driving the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Gore is not afraid of oratorical undergirding as he develops his theme. Churchill warning of fascism in the mid-1930s and Martin Luther King in some of the bleakest hours of the civil rights revolution are both invoked.

Of particular aptness is his reference to the words of the American poet Wallace Stevens:

“After the final ‘no’ there comes a ‘yes’
And on that ‘yes’ the future world depends.”

Gore reflects on the noes that nevertheless gave way to the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the reining in of the nuclear arms race, the quickening global recognition of gay and lesbian equality, and indeed every forward advance in the long march of social progress.

Not that Gore expresses abounding optimism. He is well aware of the obstacles ahead and the power of well-funded opposition. But he nevertheless allows himself to hope and urges his readers to have the courage to reject despair and be part of the active citizenry which is essential to achieving change.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

John ONeill June 22, 2014 at 5:41 pm

From Gore’s article -
‘ Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, where renewable subsidies have been especially high, now generates 37 percent of its daily electricity from wind and solar..’
According to the Fraunhofer Institute, the latest figures are actually solar 6% and wind just over 10%, still less than nuclear at 17%, even after Angela Merkel ordered forty percent of the nuclear capacity closed to win an election. The largest source of Germany’s electricity by far is coal, and that proportion has been rising as the utilities, under financial pressure as subsidised renewables cut into their midday market, switch from gas, which is expensive in Europe, to cheaper coal from the US. Germany has worse figures for CO2 per person or CO2 per kilowatt hour generated than every country in Europe except Poland, Greece, Italy, Ireland and Luxembourg – all lacking nuclear power.
Meanwhile in America the largest increase in capacity is indeed solar and wind, but they have the lowest capacity factor of any energy source. The vast bulk of new generation, as opposed to capacity, has been from natural gas. A combination of wind ( maximum capacity factor about forty percent ) and gas ( about sixty percent of coal’s CO2 ) has been proposed in Texas, which has the most wind of any state but practically no hydro to back it up, after years of drought. Ignoring methane releases, that could reduce generation compared to coal , but would still be far worse than from nuclear. Four reactors have closed or announced closure in the last year, and most of the replacement power will be from gas. One was Vermont Yankee, which provided about a third of Vermont’s power at ninety-three percent capacity factor, had lower priced power than all other sources in the state, was licenced for another thirteen years, and emitted no CO2 or methane. State Governor Shumlin, a Democrat, had been gunning for the plant with repeated ( failed ) lawsuits for years. Fellow Democrat Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has likewise been trying for years to close the Indian Point reactor complex, which provides about a third of NYC’s power and is largely responsible for New Yorkers having the lowest carbon footprint of any city in the country. His father, Mario Cuomo, also State Governor, managed to close Shoreham power station on Long Island before it could put a watt of low carbon power into the grid.
http://atomicinsights.com/cuomos-fix-against-indian-point/
The ties of prominent Democrat politicians like the Kennedys and the Cuomos to natural gas interests will have influenced Obama’s ‘ all of the above ‘ energy policy, which explicitly calls for more fracking for oil and gas. Nor is the alliance of solar power proponents with Tea Party conservatives that surprising – both have an individualist, self-sufficiency ideology at odds with the more collectivist spirit that built the Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover Dam hydro schemes, and extended the grid to poor rural areas, coming out of the Depression. In reality, cleaning up the grid will be far cheaper and more effective than trying to make every house it’s own little economy, especially since most houses are on the grid already. Solar might give poor remote villages some welcome cellphone power and lighting, but even in the third world most people will increasingly live in cities.

Thomas June 22, 2014 at 6:53 pm

John, the trend is what is important.
The 2014 data (until now) from the Fraunhofer institute are interesting.
On the basis of installed capacity, Page 3. Solar and Wind individually are larger than any other.
Of cause due to the capacity factor of Solar and Wind being what they are, the production is not the same.
However, the interesting slide is Page 5. It shows all the ‘old style’ energies such as Coal and Gas declining, with the reduction made up by significant gains in Solar and Wind.
Page 7 shows the net electricity export of Germany, which has been growing since 2003.

Bob Bingham June 22, 2014 at 7:44 pm

The important part about Germany is that the ordinary people have a conscience (unlike the Americans) towards life and the health of the world. Thats why they shut the nuclear plants and that is why house holders continue to fit solar in vast numbers. They still burn a bit of coal and they get gas from Russia. They will get out of Russian gas as quickly as they can and they will not be burning coal to do it. This is a powerful economy on a mission and its no wonder that the American statisticians can not cope with it. Remember that German citizens have strong unions, good health care, excellent education and they pay their taxes to do it. Americans have none of this and their currency is still going down the toilet.

Thomas June 22, 2014 at 8:14 pm

This year the German solar and wind generation has seen days where the overproduction of both caused the electricity price to go to zero for hours during a day and we had many days of well over 50% production of electricity by Solar and Wind combined.
And for NZ, it is a calculation that Year 9 students (my class anyway) can do: How much energy does a solar system produce in a typical place in NZ in a year? How much is this worth in retail units @25Cent/unit?
How much interest do you get from $10K in the bank after tax?
How does a $10K term deposit economically compare to a $10K solar system?
Many schools have a School Gen System from Genesis Energy. All the production data are live on-line:
http://www.schoolgen.co.nz/
You can find a school and then drill down to live production graphs showing daily, monthly and annual data. A great educational resource.

andyS June 23, 2014 at 9:31 am

What happens when the electricity spot price goes to zero? No one makes any money

What happens when the sun isn’t shining? The coal fired power stations need to supply the energy

What happens now that it is uneconomic for many of these needed coal fired power stations to stay open? The government has to subsidise them

This is exactly what is happening in Germany

By the way, I like the corporate propaganda that you are using in your school Thomas. Looks like a great resource and a good way to market Genesis Energy via kids

Bryan Walker June 23, 2014 at 11:22 am

And what happens when fossil fuels run out Andy (assuming we’re stupid enough to keep burning them)?

Beaker June 23, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Where producers had a very low or zero natural gas price they looked for alternatives to flaring it. That is why Saudi Arabia is an international leader in N fertiliser manufacture and is looking to take lots of the Aluminium market. Except that the cost of use is not zero is it andyS, there are the externalities that we all pay for. Saudi gas is not so cheap once you take these into account.
Spot prices going to zero in Germany is only going to encourage business with a significant energy demand, and of course the energy storage business.
Go and look at that New Scientist article I referred you to, see how California runs their electricity market.

andyS June 23, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Oh I know how California ran their electricity market when, in 2000 and thereabouts, “the smartest men in the room” at Enron were gaming the spot market. I was directly affected by this with the rolling blackouts that occurs as a result.

Now, of course, we don’t need Enron, we have the “renewables ” industry to create the same squeezes on the spot markets.

Who wants to be a millionaire?

bill June 23, 2014 at 8:49 pm

What garbage! Enron was an exemplar of the very Capitalism-As-Usual you’re staging a passionate rearguard action to preserve, andy. YOU are the face of money-grubbing, sociopathic hyper-capitalism in these pages.

The wind industry, on the other hand, is David to your Goliath…

andyS June 23, 2014 at 8:57 pm

I take it you have watched the documentary “the smartest men in the room” which was about Enron?
By the way, Enron were also early proponents of carbon taxes.

Funny, that

andyS June 23, 2014 at 9:01 pm

By the way, Bill, when you say I am the face of money grabbing sociopathic hyper capitalism, do you have any facts to support this other than your emotion driven hated of me?

I am a guy living in a small rural community, trying to make a living by myself, helping out in the local community when I can.

[Snipped. GR]

andyS June 23, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Wikipedia has a page about the Enron market manipulation which you describe as “garbage”

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_electricity_crisis

bill June 23, 2014 at 11:39 pm

I’ve got the documentary and the bloody book, andy. I suspect I know at least as much about Enron as you do. Certainly enough to know it’s ‘guys’.

And, yet again, are you really so dim that you think I’m attempting to deny that those venal clowns were engaged in blatant market manipulation?

What’s ‘garbage’, pet, is comparing the wind industry to them. No-one else reading my comment was confused; why do you have to go out of your way to be? (Or pretend to be.)

Perhaps because you’re living in a world where you imagine your kid’s teacher is part of a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy against you?

Perhaps because you can’t admit to yourself that you’re toiling away as an unpaid footsoldier for some of the wealthiest, and least principled, entities in human history?

And, andy, I have every confidence you’re a perfectly nice person in your community and do nice things for others. You’re just hopelessly wrong on climate…

andyS June 24, 2014 at 8:11 am

When you create a shortage of a commodity, the price usually goes up.
Given that the renewables industry does this by it’s very nature, this is what will happen. It hardly requires a conspiracy.

As it happens, it is exactly what is happening in Germany and Denmark.

Isn’t it what you want? You want people to stop consuming “crap” , and the easiest way to do that is make it too expensive to afford.

By the way, Bill, I am glad you know more about Enron than me.

bill June 24, 2014 at 11:54 am

I’m not even going to bother. Anyone who might be convinced by this nonsense is lost to reason already…

Beaker June 23, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Yes, so California embraced some things that you appear averse to, learning, better regulation to combat market failure and improvement. What you ‘know’ is out of date, the likes of Enron love a marginal cost market, their ransoming behaviour being evidence of a market failure. The Decoupled energy market prevents such behaviour and delivers improved energy efficiency and lower CO2 emissions.

Thomas June 23, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Andy, have you checked the website? Its very instructional and well done. Students can explore what a home scale PV system produces and calculate the economics that flow from that for the home owner.
It would seem that a lesson or two could be of use to you too!
And I am unsure what you mean by “corporate propaganda” when you tally up generation numbers? Surely Genesis Energy is in – your world – doing itself a disfavor advocating solar PV systems when – in your world – they should be longing for us to be dependent on coal and gas…..

andyS June 23, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Yes I checked the website.
A company using schools as a marketing channel is ok for you?

noelfuller June 22, 2014 at 9:14 pm

One would wish to know what “daily energy” means in Al Gore’s article. If it means energy supplied during daylight then the numbers are quite different to those taking a day as 24 hours. Thus 39% was the number one day recently. Then there is peak supply in a day (at midday) 74% being the current record. However the stories nearly agree on about 27-29% renewables capacity. Also states differ with Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern at 54 and 56% respectively and Brandenburg surrounding Berlin at 78%. These last numbers are from this article which also mentions that wind and biomass have complemented solar more than expected in the north..

It has been always true that the truth of any number cited depends on the parameters wherein these numbers are obtained – journalists should ask but everyone wants to feel good.

John ONeill June 23, 2014 at 1:14 am

Germany’s coal consumption in 2012 was 269,000 tons, nearly all for power generation, and up from 2008. France’s was 19,000 tons, much of it for steel production ( they have two coal power stations left ).
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/02/140211-germany-plans-to-raze-towns-for-brown-coal/
Saying that wind and solar mesh well with burning biomass is not necessarily a positive.
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/16/green-energy-demandineuropemaybethreateningamericanforests.html

noelfuller June 23, 2014 at 2:23 am

Depends on the kind of biomass I suppose. To quote from your link:

“It’s just not as simple as ‘the trees will grow back,’” said Norman Christensen, a professor of environmental science and policy at Duke University. “Yes, you are regaining carbon when trees grow back, but when you cut landscapes intensely, you release some degree of carbon to the atmosphere more or less permanently.”

I’m a bit disturbed to read that article having envisaged something more in line with some kinds of waste plus very fast growing trees like poplars that can be harvested each year as is done in the Hungarian village of Ajka where they suffered a wall of red toxic sludge from a dam. A new park has been formed on the damaged land, 30 hectares of which are planted in poplars. Each year 12 workers cut and mulch enough poplars to heat 87 homes through winter. The emphasis is on local resources, unlike the use of USA forest for European biomass burning:

“For me it’s very important to use a clean source of heating energy here,” says Támas. “Secondly my concern was to use locally-available sources of energy. We shouldn’t use natural gas from the Caucasus in a pipeline, but use the energy poplars or mulch, or local geothermal energy.”

Thomas June 23, 2014 at 6:21 pm

John, perhaps before you speculate about what the Germans burn for bio-energy, why not check it out:
http://www.biodeutschland.org/tl_files/content/dokumente/biothek/Bioenergy_in-Germany_2012_fnr.pdf

andyS June 24, 2014 at 8:16 am

John ,
This article about Germany ramping up brown coal mining is interesting.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/06/03/germany-coal-idUKL6N0OK2AD20140603

jh June 23, 2014 at 9:20 am

I had a retractable shade sail put on my deck, but it has been a flop as we have had BA sunny days? What about the water in the atmosphere?

noelfuller June 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm

I too have a retractable shadecloth cover over the solarium and a real yacht headsail, recut and retractable, over the path outside. The shade has only been partly deployed about a week altogether early in the year but it gets used quite a lot in el niño and summer drought conditions. The yacht sail’s main function is to add a bit of protection to we humans coming and going when the rain is heavy but it is also a rain catcher during drier conditions. It has only been deployed 3 times this year but has had high use in la niña years. It can withstand high winds.

Water vapor goes up, water comes down!. I’ve been keeping track of Dew fall when there are no showers about. Sometimes there is no dew but I can accurately measure up to 31 litres on 164 square metres of roofing, crudely any greater amount provided I prepare
.
Rain and Dew Since February 22, Mt Roskill, Auckland

Rain 382.8mm, 54 days av= 7.1 L
3 biggest events 221mm, Av for the rest approx 3.3mm/day

Dew 662 L, 30 days, Av 22 L/day

In droughts I use that Dew on the garden first.

nigelj June 24, 2014 at 9:35 am

One of the largest consumers of oil is the automobile. Could be entirely replaced by electric cars charged through solar power.

Home heating can almost entirely be provided through passive solar design, with zero running costs. Many other requirements can be met with wind or solar power.

You could get the fossil fuel backup systems down to quite a low level.

andyS June 24, 2014 at 10:14 am

Could be entirely replaced by electric cars charged through solar power.

He said, based on no numbers or supporting evidence whatsoever

Rob Taylor June 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm

He said, based on no numbers or supporting evidence whatsoever

Andy, why you make that sound like a bad thing? Ain’t that what you do all the bloody time?

Thomas June 24, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Andy: You apparently have no idea that there is this Tesla company showing us how its done….
While others simple are referring to what is commonly now known. Get up with the development Andy. Also the new wave of plug in hybrids (Outlander PHEV for example) show us that you can reduce the petrol needs of a full size SUV from the 15 L/100km they used to be a few years ago to 1.5L/100km today. You could in principle recharge these using Solar PV.
Also, with fuel needs reduced to that of a moped, you could then grow, ferment and distill enough ethanol on a small area. This would then open the avenue of communal bio-fuel initiatives to make up for the bit that Solar can not do.
And yes, we do need diesel currently for heavy vehicles. But watch that space….

nigelj June 25, 2014 at 1:50 pm

AndyS, I thought it was pretty self evident really. Electric cars are now on the market, as are solar cells which you can instal on your roof.

This makes your car both independent of the electricity grid and fossil fuel use. Or largely so. But I see Thomas has the details.

Sure there are capital costs but this is coming down all the time.

andyS June 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm

great, I’ll rush out and buy an EV when the price meets my budget. I might even try Thomas’s ethanol idea, assuming I don’t find other uses for it first.

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