Stuff You Should Know About Renewable Energy

Check out Al Gore’s new TED talk, it is a remarkable speech told with stunning visuals. It makes a compelling case for action and, compared to his Academy Award-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, has a more optimistic tone.
Gore’s TED Talk has a beautiful arc with an engaging mixture of stories, video, and charts. He honed his storytelling with presentation genius Nancy Duarte on Inconvenient Truth (See her new book Illuminate and listen to a Danny Iny’s interview with Nancy).
There are three important EdLeader takeaways from this speech:

  1. Advocacy: this TED talk is a great example of case making and visual storytelling. Educators can learn a few things from environmentalists about advocacy.
  2. Integration: the speech is a reminder that the pressing global issues of our day encompass science, behavioral economics, and politics. Young people deserve the opportunity to grapple with massive issues and weigh possible futures.   
  3. Investment: Gore’s speech illustrates that together government incentives and private markets can produce breakthrough technologies that actually change the trajectory of life together on this planet.

To the last point, Gore notes how quickly America has reversed course on coal (see diagram of retired and defeated plants) and boosted investment in renewables–spending on clean energy capacity is now about double that of fossil fuels. “Can we change?” Gore suggests the data says, “Yes.”
Two of the most remarkable charts in Gore’s presentation illustrated the exponential growth of wind and solar capacity. Wind capacity (below) beat 2000 predictions by 14.5x.
The growth of solar even more dramatic. Compared to predictions from 14 years ago, there is 58x more solar capacity than was expected. Cost has dropped 10% per year for 30 years, an example of what Gore called “revolutionary breakthroughs.”
Gore closed with the words of poet Wallace Stevens, “After the final no, there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” He equated the fight for environmental sustainability with all the great fights for justice and equity in history. He’s optimistic because, “he will to act is a renewable resources.”

Friends in the fight

Gore isn’t the only one optimistic about renewables. Bill Gates is increasing his advocacy and investment. He spearheaded development of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition with a $2 billion investment. He recruited Jeff Bezos,  Marc Benioff, Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, Jack Ma, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Meg Whitman, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Bill made a guest appearances on a great episode of Stuff You Should Know last week (he was Josh and Chuck’s first guest). He was making the case for investment on Fareed Zakaria GPS this morning, “It’s a long lead time problem that needs investment today.”
Like Gore, Zakaria pointed to “grid parity,” the point at which alternatives are cheaper and more plentiful than coal. Gates said there are three ways that could happen

  • Further investment reduces the cost of solar and wind by factor of 3 and improves storage;
  • Use artificial photosynthesis to make gasoline directly from the sun (it’s promising enough that Obama mentioned this in the State of the Union); or
  • Make nuclear energy cheaper and safer (he thought fourth generation reactors could do that).

On the role of government, Gates said almost everyone agrees on funding for basic research. But it gets tricky when governments moves into the venture space and starts picking winners. Gates said “risk taking part should be in private sector,” through initiatives like the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
Educators should encourage young people to grapple with these complex multivariate problems. Educators should learn from environmentalists to make the case. Educators should take heart from the progress of exponential technology–the future is closer than it appears!
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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