Saturday, March 3, 2007

Never thought I'd see the day . . .

By Donald Sensing

... when I'd be defending Al Gore. But I 've been having second thoughts about the acrimony heaped upon him because of his apparently profligate energy use in his home in the Belle Meade area of Nashville. It's been ironclad reported - and actually acknowledged by a Gore company spokesperson - that Gore's 10,000-square-foot mansion in Nashville's Belle Meade area consumes more energy in one month than the typical Nashville house does in a year. Is Gore a moralist preacher, as Glenn Reynolds and Eric Scheie have said?

Well, yes. He demands severe cutbacks in first-world lifestyles and business practices in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That means reducing the amount of energy used that is produced by burning fossil fuels. If the standard of living and economic output are to be maintained, it is necessary to replace "old" energy with non-GHG-producing energy a a scale and cost that make replacement both practical and financially attractive. Well, we ain't there yet, not by a long shot. Alternative means of producing energy are still neither scalable to offset present demand significantly, nor are they cheap enough to do so. We generally believe (and hope) they will become scalable and cheap in coming years, but we don't actually know they will.

So Gore has a house (really a mansion by any reasonable definition) that is between 4-5 times bigger than a typical house in Nashville (maybe more than that) but uses roughly 20 times the energy, both electricity and natural gas. Since he is a crusading energy moralist, does that make him a hypocrite? Needless to say, Gore says no. Through spokesperson Kalee Kreider, the former vice president and recent Oscar winnner has protested that his family,

... tries to offset that carbon footprint by purchasing their power through the local Green Power Switch program — electricity generated through renewable resources such as solar, wind, and methane gas, which create less waste and pollution. “In addition, they are in the midst of installing solar panels on their home, which will enable them to use less power,” Kreider added. “They also use compact fluorescent bulbs and other energy efficiency measures and then they purchase offsets for their carbon emissions to bring their carbon footprint down to zero.”
The Nashville Electric Service's Green Power Switch works like this: by paying an extra $4 per month to NES, customers can buy 150-KwH of electricity that is generated by means other than fossil fuel plants, such as wind or solar power or methane burning. I'm not sure how "green" that latter really is, since burning methane exhausts carbon dioxide, but let that pass. Okay, the carbon offset thing seems a shell-game scam to me, and even the vaunted Economist magazine seems to agree. Gerard Van Der Leun appropriately compared offsetting to the pre-Reformation practice of the Catholic Church of selling indulgences. It worked like this: you, a sinner, could pay money to the Church, which would draw from its (claimed) bank of religious virtue and apply it to you personally. Most often, indulgences were hawked to congregants as a means of buying dear departed Grandma out of purgatory. In fact, the most famous indulgence hawker was one Johann Tetzel, whose jingle went like this: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs." Since the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, though, the granting of indulgences has been specifically forbidden to be attached to any financial matter; they just ain't for sale no mo', folks, sorry.

Carbon offsetting is exactly like Tetzel's salesmanship. It lets you claim righteousness without repentance. And that's what brought down the blogosphere upon Gore's head, followed by a brief flare of media attention. (Just try to imagine if the exact same story had broken about the house of any national-level Republican. Really, just pick one. Then consider the media attention given to this Republican's house. Oh, wait, there's been practically none.) But . . . This morning I read Bruce Thompson's piece at American Thinker, "Deconstructing Al Gore's utility bill," in which Thompson takes Gore to task for getting his power from the Tennessee Valley Authority, routed through the Nashville Electric Service. I emailed Bruce some corrections, which he was kind enough to append to his essay, but here is the gist. I live in Franklin, Tenn., near Nashville, and my power comes from TVA as Gore's does, although it is sold to us through two different entities. I don't draw electricity from NES but from a local co-op. In his column, Bruce wrote,
Note also that all TVA customers are getting a huge bargain on their bills due to the TVA being a mostly nuclear and hydropower source utility, originally funded by the federal government (i.e. all federal taxpayers).
In fact, TVA has been self financed since 1959; neither Al Gore's nor my electricity is taxpayer subsidized. Also, TVA is neither mostly nuclear nor hydropower. According to "Fossil-fuel plants produce about 60 percent of TVA's power, nuclear plants about 30 percent, and hydropower dams about 10 percent." TVA's power production is actually mostly coal-fired. TVA was founded in 1933 not to provide power, but to control Tennessee River Valley flooding and to restore the productivity of farmland. It was not until World War II that TVA became principally focused on power generation and it was to provide wartime energy needs that TVA's hydropower facilities came to be, although some such capacity was built in before then.
During World War II, the United States needed aluminum to build bombs and airplanes, and aluminum plants required electricity. To provide power for such critical war industries, TVA engaged in one of the largest hydropower construction programs ever undertaken in the United States.
I never thought I would find myself in a position to defend Al Gore, but facts are facts. I know well the Belle Meade area of Nashville where Gore lives. My grandmother lived out her widowhood in an apartment house there, and I used to bike down Belle Meade Blvd. as a teen. Belle Meade is the "old money" section of Nashville, dating back to at least the 1920s and quite likely to the turn of the 20th century. Gore's house, at 10K sq. ft., is no tiny thing, but it's not exceptional in Belle Meade by any means. See the satellite photo of his address.

These houses are not energy efficient as first designed and built, though I assume that they have been upgraded since. But geothermal heating and cooling, like President Bush uses in Crawford, is out of the question in Nashville. The whole region sits on limestone that goes down miles. More here. I'm not sure what Al Gore could do to become greener in his home than he says he is - although it's fair to ask what's taking him so long. I'm willing to bet that his electrical usage is not far out of line with his neighbors. It also should be pointed out that Gore runs his business - and it's a big business, obviously - out of his house (or so his spokeperson claims), and that should be factored in. So I think we all should take a chill pill here. There's less than meets the eye about all this. The only item that Gore's defense offers that bothers me is the carbon offsetting claim, since it forms a crutch to prop up the profligacy of energy the Gore house uses. Even so, another correspondent to Bruce Thompson thinks it is valid, and explains why. Sure, Gore could use a big dollop of humility, but couldn't we all . . .

Update: On the other hand, the energy bill for Vice President Dick Cheney's residence at the US Naval Observatory grounds in Washington, DC, comes to whopping $186,000 per year. That's $15,500 per month, which is what Gore paid for six months of energy in 2006. On still another hand, Nashvillian Bob Krumm (whom I know personally; he's a former Army officer as am I), who lives much closer to Al than I do, says that his house is half the size of Gore's, but uses one-third or so the energy per sq. ft.
... the Krumm household consumed 7.34 KWH per square foot over the last twelve months. During the same period, Mr. and Mrs. Gore used 19.43 KWH per square foot–nearly three times our family's energy consumption. Okay, so maybe he has electric heat. We should then compare gas bills to get a complete picture. ... ... the Gore household used $6,432 worth of gas in 2006, ranging from a monthly high of $990 to a low of $170. By contrast our gas bill was only $1,137 last year, with a monthly range from $33 to $205. Again, accounting for size, in 2006 the Krumms spent 24 cents per square foot to heat our home and water, and to cook our meals. The Gores spent nearly triple that amount: 64 cents per square foot.
Again, I don't think such a direct comparison is entirely valid, since Bob doesn't run his business from his home (I'm pretty sure), nor does Bob have a seaprate guest house which in Gore's case is likely occupied more often than not. But this point of Bob's does seem relevant:
Still, in spite of the fact that the entire Gore home was under renovation for over a year, they didn't apparently incorporate significant energy-saving ideas into the design, at least not until now. The result is that they spent several hundreds of thousands of dollars on home improvements but still have a house that will consume a million dollars worth of energy over the length of a thirty year mortgage ... .
As I said, what took him so long? And here's Bob's kicker:
Four and a half years ago Al Gore bought a large home and made it larger, but did very little to reduce his own energy consumption. Instead, he spent the same time telling you how to reduce yours.
BTW, local channel 2 News (WKRN) posted online Gore's actual billing record from NES. Whether the former veep realizes it or not, this issue is a big credibility problem for him.