Al Gore: Energy Crisis Can Be Fixed

al gore talks to katie couric interview, July 17, 2008
Former vice president Al Gore laid down a green gauntlet Thursday, challenging the nation to produce all our electricity from renewable sources, such as wind mills and solar panels - and do it within a decade. In Washington CBS News anchor Katie Couric spoke one-on-one with Gore, whose environmental work earned him a Nobel Prize.

What follows is a full transcript of the interview.

Couric: All right, Vice-President Gore, let me just ask you about this challenge you've put forth today. And to briefly explain what prompted you to do this, why?

Gore: We've got to end our dependence on oil and coal. They're rising rapidly in price. That's why gasoline prices are going up, and that's why electricity rates are going up. But the new demand for oil and coal from China and these other fast-growing countries means that the only way we're going to escape the rising prices, and the dependence on foreign sources is by switching to renewable sources.

And now that … the coal and oil's gone up so high and the engineers have brought down the cost of solar and wind and geothermal. Now it's competitive. And if we make a big commitment to take all of our electricity over to renewable sources, then the cost will come down more quickly. We'll have less pollution, lower cost … and a better national security guarantee.

Couric: Don't we get a lot of our electricity from natural gas as well?

Gore: Well, some. Most of it comes from coal. Some of it from nuclear, from hydro. A lot of it, some from natural gas and some of the new units built in the last few years have come from natural gas. Natural gas … is a little bit cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal. But we, over the, and this is a transition fuel. But in the longer-term, we really should switch to solar … and geo-thermal and wind energy.

Couric: Do you think clean coal is an oxymoron?

Gore: There's no such thing as clean coal. It's non-existent. Theoretically, it might be possible, many years from now, to come up with a way to clean it as it's burnt. But there's not a single demonstration project in the United States. They're not doing anything … to put substance … to the slogan, "clean coal." Clean coal doesn't exist.

Couric: Doesn't it take as much energy to produce it as it would to burn coal? I mean, isn't that the argument against it, the whole process is, I mean, we're not gonna get into great detail here. But, is, that's my understanding, anyway.

Gore: One of the reasons they have been slow to install these systems for capturing the CO2 when the coal is burnt is that it's expensive. But with more work and some point in the future, after that work is done, it may be possible. But the burden should be on those who are burning it to show that it can be clean. It's not now. And just to say it's clean, that's deceptive.

Couric: You've set a 10-year deadline. Is that realistic?

Gore: I think it is, because there's some challenges - think of the Apollo program, the interstate highway system - there's some challenges that are really important to the future of the country, that can't be done in a single year or two years. But setting a 40-year goal, that's, you know, nobody takes that seriously. Ten years is about the limit of what we can stay focused on and … can sustain a really sizeable national commitment. An awful lot's at stake, Katie, because the scientists are telling us that we have less than 10 years to begin massive reductions in global warming solutions, or else this climate crisis might not be retrievable. It is retrievable and solvable, if we start now on a bold program.

Couric: You talk about solar farms in the desert, wind farms in the plains, a totally new electrical grid will have to be built. Your own group says, Vice President Gore, it will cost between $1.5 and $3 trillion.

Gore: That's private investment, as well as public investment. And it is…

Couric: That's a lot of money, no matter how you cut it, right?

Gore: It is. It's almost as much as the cost of the Iraq War. And it's almost as much as we would have to pay to go out and build new coal plants and new oil-drilling rigs in order … to get the energies that way. We're going to make investments in new energy supply. If we choose to do it with renewable energy, it will cost money.

But once we built it, the fuel is free. The sunshine and the wind … are here. China can't bid up the price. It's not gonna run out. So we need to switch to a new system that doesn't pollute, that won't be disrupted by some war in the Persian Gulf, and that will steadily come down in price as we make a bigger commitment to it.

Couric: Do you think the political will is there to change the way we do business so dramatically in this country?

Gore: I think we're getting there. I don't think it's there on Capitol Hill. I don't think it's there in the White House. I think it's beginning to build pretty steadily among the American people. People are really hurt by these high gasoline prices. And people have caught on, after 35 years, to the fact that simply producing more oil does not bring down the price of gasoline.

Hasn't in the past, won't in the future, because these new growing economies in China and elsewhere … are bidding up the price of oil, and so gasoline prices … we've got to break free of this limited supply of dirty fuels. And shift over to a source of energy that's based on fuel that's free. And equipment that's high technology and is steadily coming down in price.

Couric: What about nuclear power? I ask, what about nuclear power, because countries like France get something like 75-to-80 percent of their power from nuclear.

Gore: France is unique. It's a special case. We have a lot of nuclear plants in the U.S., and … I'm not anti-nuclear. I'm a little skeptical that's it's gonna play a much bigger role than it does now. I think it'll continue to play a role. But the problems with nuclear are it's very expensive. It takes a long time to build. And these nuclear plants only come in one size, extra large.

And utilities don't want to commit all that money for 15 years to get a plant that's rising in cost. And of course the fuel also has some problems, because if it gets out to other countries that can't be trusted, it feeds the problem of proliferating nuclear weapons.

Couric: Do you also worry about nuclear plants being potential targets for terrorists?

Yes, I myself, I don't think of that as a bar to nuclear power, because there are a lot of things that are potential targets, and we need to equip ourselves … to protect them. It's one of the problems, for sure, the nuclear waste storage issue is one of the problems. But I think the bigger problems are the cost, the long time for construction, and also the problem that if other countries make a massive commitment to it, we make the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation worse.

Let's talk about T. Boone Pickens. I recently talked to T. Boone about his whole idea of wind power, along this wind corridor, in the central part of the United States. What do you think of that?

Gore: He's obviously a very smart guy. He's been very successful. And I'm impressed that, after such a long and successful career in the oil business … he's done the numbers and figured out that huge investments in windmills are gonna make him money and help the country. So I think that he has a lot of credibility. When he says, "We can't drill our way out of this," he knows what he's talking about, and that we should go to renewable sources.

Couric: What do you think of his notion … replace the electricity we get from natural gas with wind power, use that natural gas to power automobiles.

Gore: Yeah. Some people see that as kind of a shell game. I think it's a respectable idea. I would prefer to take our cars and trucks and move directly to electric vehicles, and not take the intermediate step of trying to equip them to use natural gas. But … he has the same basic idea of shifting away from oil and coal, not better overly heavy on nuclear, but instead making massive investments in renewable energy.

That's the keystone of his plan. Andy Grove at Intel has a similar plan. So a lot of our senior business leaders are telling us, these are not normal times. We cannot continue to bring in 70 percent of all of our oil from overseas, and keep seeing the price … and keep doing it while the price goes up and up.

Couric: Which must be gratifying for you, to have these Republican business leaders saying, you know, "we want to jump on this bandwagon. We have to."

Gore: Well, yes. I've long argued… that this should not be a partisan issue. And I'm gratified that a lot of people, regardless of political party, are looking at the facts and saying, "Yes, it's time to move in a big way." And the reason I put out this strategic goal of shifting all of our electricity generation over a 10-year period to renewable sources, and if they can capture and safely store the carbon from fossil fuels, that can be a part of it. But we can't count on that. We need … to shift over to renewable energy.

Couric: You know, I don't remember exactly all the factors, but some critics say, you know, solar and wind is the not the panacea some people think. It's very expensive. Usually in the summer months, there's less wind, when people need more electricity. I sort of read some reality check on these alternative energy sources. Do you think you're putting too much stock in these, as a panacea for our energy problem?

Gore: Not at all, because the older conception about solar power and wind power are giving way to the new developments that these scientists … and engineers have come up with, because the price of oil and coal have been going up so much, there have been, there's been a lot of investment in getting better ways to convert solar energy into electricity and wind into electricity. That cost has been coming down, while the oil and coal has continued to go up. It's now right at the point where it's competitive.

And it's true that wind power comes and goes with the wind. But the solar plan, that are in the desert areas where the sun's almost always shining, they're pretty steady. And the production actually matches … the times of day when we need the most electricity. And the steadiness of that solar power can even out the peaks and valleys of the wind. And if you do 'em both together, they fit like a hand in a glove.

Couric: I wanted to ask you about President Bush's press conference this week. It was interesting. Someone asked him, "Do you think Americans should sacrifice more?" He, in his press conference this week, President Bush said it would be presumptuous for him to ask the American people to sacrifice more to deal with this current, gas prices, et cetera. Do you think it's presumptuous to ask the American people to conserve?

Gore :Well, I have to warn you that I've recently begun to fear I'm losing my objectivity on President Bush.

Couric: I'm shocked.

Gore: So I'm gonna …you have to take it with a grain of salt.