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Al Gore's Challenge: Can the U.S. kick its fossil fuel addiction?

The former Vice President wants the U.S. to stop using fossil fuels to produce electricity by 2018. Is that a realistic goal?

In order to rescue civilization from the threat posed by climate change, President-elect Obama should commit to this five-part plan to produce 100 percent of America's electricity from carbon-free sources within 10 years:

First, the U.S. government should offer large-scale incentives for the construction of solar thermal plants¹ in the Southwestern deserts, wind farms in the corridor stretching from Texas to the Dakotas, and power plants in geothermal hot spots² that could produce large amounts of electricity.

Second, we should begin to build a unified national grid for the transport of renewable electricity from the rural places where most of it will be generated to the cities where most of it will be used. The new grid's cost—$400 billion over 10 years—pales in comparison with the $120 billion annual loss to American business from the cascading failures that plague our existing antiquated electricity lines.

Third, we should help America's auto industry to quickly convert to plug-in hybrids.

Fourth, we should launch a nationwide effort to retrofit buildings with better insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting. About 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. come from buildings; stopping that pollution will save money for homeowners and businesses.

Finally, the U.S. should lead the way by putting a price on carbon here at home—either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system—and by leading global efforts to replace the Kyoto treaty next year.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Today's challenge may seem daunting, but it is just as doable.

Al Gore
Former Vice President and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Winner

A 10-year plan to eliminate carbon-based electric power is possible, but the drop in living standards would swamp any benefits. (We could supply all of our electricity with a couple of wind-up flashlights if we were willing to cut our energy use enough.)

Fossil fuels generate 85 percent of our overall energy and about 70 percent of our electricity. Solar panels, windmills, more efficient electrical distribution grids, and more efficient light bulbs simply can't replace fossil fuels that soon given our current demand. In fact, as Americans switch to electric cars, we'll need more electricity, not less, and the goal becomes even less realistic.

Solar power produces much less than 1 percent of our electricity, and wind produces about 1 percent. Even if we could push to the likely upper limits of wind production in just 10 years, we'd still have 50 percent less electricity than we do now. And because of virtually unstoppable emissions growth in countries like China, there will be nearly as much global warming anyway.

Most important, we would inflict serious damage on our already-struggling economy in the process of trying to meet such a target. Our gross national product (GNP) would drop by trillions of dollars. And completely eliminating the use of fossil fuels to create electricity would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Yes, some jobs would be created in the shift to new technologies, but the cutbacks required to make the shift means that many more jobs would be lost.

The massive changes required to produce all our nation's electricity without burning fossil fuels are simply not worth the cost to our economy and our lifestyles.

David W. Kreutzer
Senior Policy Analyst in Energy Economics & Climate Change, The Heritage Foundation

¹solar thermal plants can store the sun's energy for future use.
²geothermal hot spots are places where the heat in the earth's crust can be harnessed to make electricity.