Thursday, November 21, 2013

Al Gore Comes to Toronto, Congratulates Ontario on Eliminating Coal Power Plants

Do you remember ever buying a Big Mac from McDonalds in one of those old non-biodegradable styrofoam containers?  At the time, no one thought twice about the logic behind throwing all that styrofoam into the trash.  So little, in fact, that Dennis Leary immortalized the whole idea of non-biodegradable styrofoam in a song.

Fast forward to today, when people go out of their way to find a recycling container rather than throw a paper cup into the garbage.  That's how far we've come, at least in Toronto.

So today, I had the surprise of seeing Al Gore, former Vice-President of the USA (like you didn't know that already), and Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario, making an announcement at MaRS, where I work.  Next week, the Ontario government is going to put forward legislation that will make burning coal in Ontario illegal.  The whole event was put together by the people at Environmental Defense.

I'm not going to go much into the merits and drawbacks of this decision here, because other people with much better knowledge of power production can do much better.  But I will describe key points Gore appealed to in his speech. He's a powerful orator, and whether you love him or hate him, there's something you can take home from listening to people like Gore.  If you like working on science communication in general, he's a good politician to watch.

I've seen his major documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, before and enjoyed watching him put together his arguments, which he does very, very well.  His use of figures and speech in the video is excellent and if you're a scientist and haven't seen it, I suggest that you do.

But back to Ontario's energy announcement.  Why does Al Gore think renewable energy is in everyone's near future?  Today, his three big claims were:

Renewable energy is quickly becoming economical.   Gore told everyone a story of how in Atlanta, Georgia, Tea Party Republicans and Sierra Club Environmentalists are trying to repeal legislation that bans companies from owning solar power cells on residential rooftops.  Environmentalists and Republicans don't usually walk hand in hand.

So why are they cooperating?  It's because installing solar has become so cheap that returns from installing panels on rooftops are high enough to save the homeowner on energy bills and give the company a profit, said Gore.

The message: If you're a person that likes to save money, renewables will help you do exactly that, and soon.

The developing world will help develop the technology.  We heard Gore's example of how AT&T (then, Ma Bell) made projections of cell phone use in the 1980's.  They were way off.

AT&T predicted that around the year 2000, the global market for cell phones would surge to about 900,000 units a year, which ended up off by a factor of about 120 because they didn't take into account technological changes, dropping chip prices, increases in quality of service, and another much more important factor: the developing world.

The developing world doesn't have many of the constraints the devloping world has.  In the case of telecom, landlines keep people from adopting cell phones, but in regions where the infrastructure doesn't exists it's much easier to just go in with wireless, explained Gore.  So the developing world created a huge market for wireless phones because that was the logical thing to install.

Gore dropped in that analogy to argue that it'll be much easier for the adoption of renewable energy in the developing world.  We may be stuck with power plants and an electrical grid for the time being, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a huge market to develop technology to be used elsewhere.  If entrepreneurs do so, it will only end up helping us adopt the same technologies here, suggested Gore.

Switching to clean energy is a moral choice.   He finished the last several minutes of his speech framing the environmental choice as a choice between right and wrong.  The morally right choices will always win.

Gore passionately explained that racism and homophobia aren't tolerated anymore and that it took everyday people to stand up against these kinds of behaviour to make them unacceptable in society.

I'm actually surprised that he chose to go way past the idea of littering and polluting and went right to equating our attitudes towards coal-fired energy to say, racially segregated cafeterias, but maybe I'm just from a different time.  Pollution and racism aren't exactly comparable problems to me, but hey, he made his point.

Either way, his argument was using energy from dirty sources is morally wrong and that each person has an obligation to stand up for what's right.  There isn't much of an argument when you frame the decision to pollute as a morally right/wrong question, is there?  Here I thought I was a winner for not buying styrofoam containers anymore.

Coming back to the Ontario legislation, I'll wait and see what happens.  It's a great idea and will probably become a bit of a political football, but I think a phase out of coal energy is going to happen.  It won't eliminate all the negative consequences of power production but it's probably the easiest source to quash.

In an ideal world, we'd be able to eliminate all negative effects of producing power.   Ontario produces a rough third of it's energy from each of nuclear, hydroelectric, and thermal (coal, natural gas) sources, and there are negative aspects and pollution from each one.  If we, as a province, decide not to burn coal, other energy sources are going to have to come into play.