Last Thursday Al Gore gave a speech, the full text of which can be read here, that challenged America to "to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." It was a speech that should have inspired and excited Americans of all walks of life at least as much as, if not more than, President Kennedy's famous speech calling on America to put a man on the moon within a decade. Instead, Mr. Gore's idea has been met with a chorus of criticism, with the naysayers claiming that it would be too costly, too impractical, and too risky to attempt to meet such a goal.
Apollo and Gore's "Moon Shot"-- A Flawed Comparison
The comparisons between America's mission to the moon and Gore's "moon shot" proposal, while useful, are flawed. Both represent great challenges, yet it must be remembered that in 1961 we did not possess the technology to get to the moon; we do, however, have the technology to achieve 100% renewable energy. But perhaps more importantly, although the Apollo program was great for national pride and beating the Soviet Union, it was by no means essential to our nation. Switching to renewable energy, on the other hand, can not only dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it can also help us regain our stature in the world, create jobs, rein in unpredictable energy costs, lower health care costs, get us off foreign oil (provided we also electrify our transportation system) and force American companies to innovate in ways that will be good for them and good for America.
Americans Are Waiting for Leadership
Another fact that the naysayers are forgetting is the extent to which Americans, especially young Americans, are eager and ready to take on a great challenge. An entire generation of scientists and engineers -- my father included -- sprang up in part because of the Apollo program. Today, as a 23 year old graduate student in Environmental Studies, I feel extremely excited about what we can accomplish in the coming years, provided that the right laws, policies and leadership are in place, and I'm not alone in that regard. At the same time, however, I am very worried that the voices of those that don't believe in American ingenuity and genius will drown out the ideas of the people actually working to solve seemingly intractable problems.
One such person is Amory Lovins, the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. A physicist by training, he has spent decades championing the cause of efficiency. In numerous white papers and articles, Lovins has explained how America can get off oil, at a profit, thanks to the wonder of energy efficiency. By combining Lovins' drastic, yet profitable, efficiency measures with the renewable energy entrepreneurship of people like T. Boone Pickens, there is no reason why we cannot meet the challenge at a cost that is manageable. After all, as Gore pointed out in his speech, the more oil we buy, the more the price goes up, while the more wind and solar we buy, the more the price comes down.
Cost is Not the Issue
Speaking of cost, when has money ever been an issue when America has set its mind to achieving something? How many people wondered if World War ll and the Apollo Program were cost-effective? We started a $2 trillion war with little or no substantive debate, and that war has provided zero return on investment, devalued our currency and standing in the world and led to tremendous loss of life. Yet It appears we will dismiss Gore's proposal off-hand, again without debate, because it is supposedly too costly! I am reminded of those that decry government regulation as detrimental to "the free market," except of course when the regulation benefits them. No, what it really comes down to is this: while energy companies can own and exploit oil fields and coal mines, no one owns the sun. As a result, in the coming renewable energy age, there will not be a handful of multinationals owning all the energy production. Instead, we will see a diversified, competitive, innovation-driven, job-creating energy economy (sounds like the free-market at its best, no?). And that is extremely threatening to vested interests.
If that's not enough, "The Alliance for Climate Protection, a bipartisan group [Gore] leads, estimates the cost of transforming the U.S. to clean electricity sources at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money. But he says it would cost about as much to build greenhouse gas-polluting coal plants to satisfy current demand."
My Challenge to America
So here's my challenge to America. Don't pay attention to vested interests. Don't think great things can't be done. Don't listen to the old story that "it's too expensive and we can't do it." We can't afford to ignore this challenge. This is an unprecedented opportunity to involve the entire nation in a project worthy of our passion, energy, money and ideas. In the end, the Apollo Mission only directly involved NASA and the contractors that built the rockets and landers; beyond that, it was a "spectator sport." The end result of the Renewable Energy Mission won't be nearly as show-stopping as the image of a man walking on the face of the moon, but it will be equally transformative, and will allow--indeed require--the participation of Americans young and old, scientists and poets, lawmakers and lawyers, businessmen and women, idealists and pragmatists.
We need to have a serious debate, one that takes into consideration what's best for the country rather than what's best for politicians or large corporations. The result of that debate must be a mission to place, not one man on the moon, but a million wind turbines on American soil and waters, a hundred million solar arrays on American rooftops and hundreds of thousands of American workers in high-paying, rewarding green jobs.
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