Nearly a week after Gore unveiled his carbon-free challenge (sounds sadly kind of like a reality TV gimmick), the substantive reactions from the nation’s editorial pages and blogosphere fit (for better of for worse) into two groupings: precedent versus vision.

Brushing past the naysayers (John Tierney and his “junk science” complaints) and the yes-men (Christine Pelosi and her Gorish platitudes), those in the “precedent” camp tend to disapprove of Gore’s goal on the basis that United States continues to produce very little renewable energy, so these critics say ramping up to 100 percent renewable is impossible. Those in the “vision” group tend to applaud Gore’s call on the basis that it offers a compelling vision for the future, even if it lacks details.

These divisions do not completely break down along political lines. It’s true that those who tend not to like Al Gore tend not to like Al Gore’s challenge and vice versa; yet, there are some notable exceptions.

Precedent

The Technology Review editors’ blog, the editorial voice to the austere MIT publication, waded into the Gore challenge debate this week with a post that was meant to put the kibosh on any question of renewable energy’s technological readiness:

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, consider: last year, wind, solar, and geothermal power accounted for an impressive-sounding 48 million megawatt-hours of electricity. (I rounded up. If I had rounded down, it would have obliterated the contribution from solar, since it is such a small part of the total.)

But in 2006, the most recent year with complete figures, four billion megawatt-hours of electricity were produced in the United States. Eventually, wind, solar, and geothermal power could cover this. But right now, they account for a little more than 1 percent of the total. Going from 1 to 100 percent will require not only building the wind turbines and solar panels and steam turbines for harvesting geothermal energy: it will also require massive new transmission infrastructure for distributing this power, from the deserts or windy plains, where much of this energy can be found, to the coasts, where people actually live. And it will require massive amounts of energy storage, since solar power doesn’t work well at night, and wind power is erratic.

Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal also thinks achieving a 9,900 percent increase in renewables is hard to swallow. However, Stephens’ argument pivoted on the lack of success of renewable capacity maximization. Writing in the Global View column:

In his useful book “Gusher of Lies,” Robert Bryce notes that “in July 2006, wind turbines in California produced power at only about 10% of their capacity; in Texas, one of the most promising states for wind energy, the windmills produced electricity at about 17% of their rated capacity.” Like wind power, solar power also suffers from the problem of intermittency, which means that it has to be backed up by conventional sources in order to avoid disruptions.

Stephens is not exactly a fan of Gore, describing him as America’s “leading peddler of both doom and salvation.” However, he also observes the aftermath of past attempts to rush towards a clean energy future i.e. biofuels:

And then there are biofuels, whose recent vogue, the World Bank believes, may have been responsible for up to 75% of the recent rise in world food prices. Save the planet; starve the poor.

Beyond the strategic blunders and technological shortcomings, Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal blog Environmental Capital questions the likelihood of moving forward when everyone has a plan and no implementation strategy:

But what plan? These days, it seems everybody has some sort of energy plan — but they all address different things. Sen. John McCain, when not calling for a gas-tax holiday, wants more offshore drilling, too. House Republicans want to drill offshore and in Alaska, as well as tapping unconventional sources like oil shale. Al Gore wants to make the U.S. electricity system 100% “carbon free” in a decade — an ambitious goal that doesn’t tackle transportation at all.

Former wildcatter T. Boone Pickens aims for the whole bundle with his plan to use wind power for electricity, and natural gas for cars. But the “Pickens Plan” faces huge obstacles — new transmission networks to make wind power a large-scale reality, and a whole new fleet of cars (and service stations) running on natural gas.

Citing a U.S. News & World Report Capital Commerce blog post, even the Countdown to Crawford blog at The L.A. Times is skittish about enacting such a comprehensive and expensive plan. James Pethokoukis, the Capital Commerce blogger, compared Gore’s challenge to “creating another Japan. Or fighting World War II all over again.”

At this point only Gore himself has cited another major initiative as a historic precedent to model the energy challenge, which was his allusion to Kennedy’s “man on the moon” initiative that did indeed come to fruition within 10 years. However, as Frank Laird, a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute comments, “going to the moon was almost a purely technological project. A single agency had to produce an event for one client who would give the agency almost any budget it wanted.”

Vision

Bob Herbert of The New York Times summed up the argument in support of Gore’s challenge with a idealistic sigh:

When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society?

For those who rally around the idea of a rallying call for a climate vision to lead us to a carbon-free future, Herbert argued that Gore served a very important purpose. He’s the visionary, not the strategist. His job is to “open the political space” for discussion and enlarge the political debate. As Herbert explains:

But that’s the thing about visionaries. They don’t imagine what’s easy.

Though a bit weak in the face of number-crunching we-don’t-have-the-capacity argument, the “stick with the vision” camp does have forward momentum. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agreed that Gore’s challenge was possible, and has Thomas Friedman of the Times also observed:

Whether you agree or not with Gore’s plan, at least he has a plan for dealing with the real problem we face — a multifaceted, multigenerational energy/environment/geopolitical problem.

Well, he doesn’t exactly have a plan in the way that say T. Boone Pickens has a plan, but what he does have is political cache, political friends in high places (Madame Speaker), and a possible ally in the White House next year.

Even if the challenge can not be based in reality, as John Trimmer at ars technica acknowledges:

Going renewable in a decade may not be achievable either on the practical or political levels, but simply considering what might need to be done to get there will be essential for us to make any progress at all.

In essence, what real harm can a vision do? If it at some point it becomes unattainable, at least we have enacted and possibly fast-tracked innovations that we would have needed to take anyway.

Moot point

But what if all this talk of vision and precedent doesn’t matter one iota? What if the real problem is that the current energy system — upon what we need to rely to move towards an inevitable carbon-free future — will not weather 10 years?

Writing for Nieman Watchdog (a Harvard think tank for journalism), Joseph A. Davis asks:

The key question is not whether getting 100 percent carbon-free by an exact date is doable. It’s whether the current system can be sustained for another 10 years without crashing and burning. And whether we find the wisdom to think outside the assumptions we are currently boxed in by. Whether we can find the guts to do something daring and difficult that is good for us.

Davis notes the overall limpid and contrarian reaction of the media to Gore’s challenge, but also brings up certain concerns that we should have taken into consideration during the press circus following his speech and in his Meet the Press appearance (hey, Tom Brokaw!). Most notably:

Business-as-usual on $140/barrel (or higher) oil is economic suicide for the U.S. Not only will higher costs impoverish consumers, destroy businesses, wipe out jobs and investments, but the massive transfer or wealth to oil producing nations will destroy the U.S. dollar and sign ownership of U.S. economic assets over to them as well. Even if climate were not a problem, breaking our dependency on oil would be an urgent national priority.

and,

The U.S. electric power grid is dangerously antiquated and needs urgently to be upgraded (this requires massive capital infusion plus political will) — regardless of whether we address global warming. This needs to be done for homeland security reasons, and to avoid billions in economic losses caused by recurring regional blackouts.

and,

U.S. electric power generating plants (especially coal and nuclear) are mostly dangerously obsolete and would under normal engineering protocols need to be rebuilt or repowered soon, global warming or not. The average age of U.S. coal-fired electric power plants is over 40 years, and the typical design life is about 30 years.

Davis has nine of these well-formed concerns that point at gaping holes in the media’s coverage and Gore’s vision. Yet, he concludes:

Is the Gore challenge realistic? Probably not. It would be Pollyannish to expect every U.S. family to buy a new car in the next 10 years … much less a plug-in electric car. But eventually, most of our automotive rolling stock will be replaced. Deep in our hearts we want that new car (maybe even an electric one when the time comes).

Gore’s proposal then, while seemingly radical, could be simply to speed up the calendar: to take things that will have to be done eventually, and do them much sooner.

Judging from precedent, Gore’s challenge won’t come to fruition. Nevertheless acknowledging that does not discount the value of a vision to guide us towards a carbon-free future.