Al Gore Inches Toward Solartopia
by Harvey Wasserman
Bit by bit, Al Gore seems to be inching toward a Solartopian view of a future that must be completely sustainable in green energy. This week he advocated getting to an electric power system that is “carbon free” within ten years.
This is an important step toward the mainstream for the decades-long social movement for a totally green-powered Earth. It comes alongside the equally telling move by oil baron T. Boone Pickens to invest $2 billion in wind power.
Gore has reportedly raised some $300 million (that’s not a typo) to spend on moving pubic opinion to support the transition to a totally “carbon-free” electric supply system.
That idea has been around at least thirty years, and is a sub-set of the Solartopian demand that our entire energy economy become free of all fossil and nuclear fuels.
Of late, Gore has become the corporate media’s designated hitter on renewables. He has helped greatly in moving public acceptance of the critical need to achieve a green-powered Earth in a relatively short period of time. It’s extremely helpful that Gore emphasizes that the conversion to renewables and efficiency will create economic wealth and millions of new jobs while alleviating the national security nightmare of being dependent on foreign oil.
But there is still a long way to go. Electricity is still just a sub-set of all energy consumption. Converting our electron supply system entirely to green power is half or less the battle.
And Gore has left out some critical pieces of the puzzle. Most important is his avoidance of the massive industry-sponsored relapse toward nuke power, an absurd diversion that could make the transition to a carbon-free world financially impossible and ecologically moot.
Gore’s primary focus, of course, is on climate change. He has been remarkably effective in convincing the world that it’s a major problem.
His thorough and persuasive “Inconvenient Truth” was long on scary facts, but slim on solutions. Most of them, stacked at the end of the film, focused on things individuals can do to trim their energy use.
These were helpful but marginal, because they largely omitted corporate responsibility for causing these problems.
Now Gore seems willing to acknowledge that large corporations — including electric utility companies — are at least somewhere near the core of the problem. How far he’s willing to take that analysis, and what he’s willing to do about it, remain to be seen. He is, after all, a lifelong inside player with an apparent aversion to acting outside the box (most critically in the catastrophic lack of a meaningful response to the theft of the 2000 election).
It’s thus extremely problematic that Gore continues to publicly avoid the issue of nuclear power. There are those who believe he remains essentially pro-nuclear, as he was earlier in his career. In that, he followed his father, US Senator Al Gore, Sr. (D-TN), a very pivotal early backer of atomic energy.
But just prior to the 2000 election, then-Vice President Gore wrote me a letter (posted at www.nirs.org) firmly renouncing atomic energy as a possible solution to global warming. Apparently due largely to his efforts, nukes were not included in the Kyoto Accords as a route to be taken for reducing carbon emissions. This was huge victory for the safe energy movement.
But Gore’s stance on building new reactors today has not been part of the public dialog. If the issue is mentioned on his web site, I couldn’t find it. Just prior to this week’s speech, he apparently told the Associated Press that he expects reactor generation to stay at “current levels.” But does that mean it will continue to account for about 20% of our overall electric consumption, or does it mean the same gross amount will be produced? Would that require building new reactors, or expanding the capacity of existing ones, or none of the above?
Privately, I am told that Gore now opposes atomic energy, including new reactors. But if so, his public silence — and lack of action– is deafening, incongruous, and ultimately unsustainable.
For example, his web site lauds Florida Governor Charlie Crist for taking various steps to fight carbon emissions. But Crist now enthusiastically supports forcing Florida ratepayers to foot the bill for four new reactors — while they are being built! The cost estimates for these plants have more than doubled in the last year. Their would-be builders refuse to give the Public Service Commission a firm price, with margins of fluctuation at a staggering 50% and more. Should they be completed in, say, ten or fifteen years, they are likely to cost Florida ratepayers a minimum of $50 billion, far and away the largest public works project in the SunShine state’s history (which could net at least as much power from a $50 billion investment in green energy and efficiency).
By contrast, the “huge” buy-out of some 185,000 acres of sugar company land aimed at saving the Everglades is to cost less than $2 billion, a mere 1/25ths of the proposed nuke tab, which has gotten virtually no state-wide scrutiny or public debate. Fittingly, mere construction of two of the proposed reactors, at Turkey Point, would utterly decimate the southern reaches of the Everglades National Park long before the first ray of radiation could be produced there.
A major root of the Solartopian vision of an Earth totally free of fossil and nuclear fuels dates back to the 1975 “Toward Tomorrow Fair” at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Featuring, among others, the work of wind pioneer William Heronemus and efficiency guru Amory Lovins, the gathering joined the vision of a totally green-powered Earth with the rise of the grassroots No Nukes movement.
The tens of thousands of us who took the fight to reactors at places like Seabrook, New Hampshire and Diablo Canyon, California, still carry a clear image of an Earth that must be entirely powered by natural sources that are sustainable and pollution-free. It’s critical to remember that our success has been substantial, and that the 1000 nukes promised by Richard Nixon in 1974 were held to 104 operating now. Had even more social capital been sunk into this failed technology, our task would be even more difficult than it is now. We have no way of knowing how many Three Mile Islands and Chernobyls were avoided along the way.
The Solartopian transition still demands an end not merely to fossil fuel consumption, but the rapid phase-out of the rest of these reactors. They are unsafe, unreliable, unsustainable and indefensible against terror or error. Their fuel cycle is a significant source of global warming gases, and they emit very substantial quantities of heat into the atmosphere and the rivers, lakes and oceans they use for cooling. They cannot guarantee against catastrophic emissions, and thus cannot get private insurance. They are absurdly expensive to build, and getting moreso. They cannot compete with renewables, which are getting rapidly cheaper.
Indeed, construction of new nukes can only proceed with massive infusions of taxpayer and ratepayer money. Draining this social capital away from the transition to truly green Solartopian technologies could be devastating.
Which means that sooner or later, if he really wants to have a lasting impact, Al Gore must join us in publicly, forcefully opposing nuclear power. It is significant that he now advocates a rapid transition to green electricity, with all its economic, employment, ecological and national security benefits.
But if that’s really going to happen, new nuke construction must be stopped, and the old reactors must be phased out as rapidly as possible.
Al Gore is a welcome and powerful force in this long-term campaign to save the planet. To really help tip the balance, he must take the jump into the No Nukes fight with both feet. As befits a Nobel Prize Winner, he might even have them dragged off a construction site or two.
Harvey Wasserman’s SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, is at www.solartopia.org.