Potentially huge news – Branson’s Carbon War Room merging with Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute

Update: (Video embed added Dec 18, 02:13 am) An organization that wants to harness the power of science, technology and free enterprise to solve climate change — which their CEO describes as “the single biggest priority for mankind” — cannot possibly remain adamantly opposed to the use of nuclear energy as a powerful tool. The resulting cognitive dissonance would be debilitating. End Update.

Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is merging with Sir Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room. Unlike Lovins, who has been opposing nuclear energy since the early 1970s — an illogical position that is the primary source of my animosity towards him — Sir Richard recognizes the value of nuclear energy as a tool in the battle to reduce fossil fuel dependence and CO2 emissions.

Branson was an executive producer of Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise and wrote a strong recommendation on his personal blog urging his readers to watch the film and to learn more about why he favors nuclear energy investments.

Earlier this year, RMI and Carbon War Room joined together on an initiative called the Caribbean Ten Island Challenge to encourage Caribbean islands to develop non-fossil fuel power systems. That initiative could have much longer lasting and positive impacts if it is expanded to include nuclear energy as an optional strategy.

If the merged organization sheds RMI’s long term bias against nuclear energy and truly accepts the idea that they should help island governments create “an open playing field for technology providers to deliver solutions,” one of my favorite areas could break free from the poverty that has resulted from having some of the most expensive electricity in the world.

I decided it was finally time to dust off and update a draft post that I wrote several years ago and never got around to publishing.

My love – hate relationship with Amory Lovins’s energy prescriptions

Amory Lovins has been a prominent participant in the energy strategy community for nearly 40 years. He first achieved international prominence when Foreign Affairs, an influential magazine for policy wonks, chose to publish Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken. Ever since that article was published, which happened in the late stages of one of the most energy-focused presidential campaigns of the 20th century, Lovins, a Harvard and Oxford dropout and Friends of the Earth campaigner, has been on a steady path towards his current status as an energy “guru.”

Over the years, Lovins has described a seductive energy strategy – with aggressive energy efficiency and dedicated effort to develop improved renewable energy systems, the world can prosper while eliminating the use of both nuclear and fossil fuel energy. Depending on which version of his strategy you read, Lovins accepts either a temporary doubling of coal or a rapid increase in natural gas consumption to make up for the loss of nuclear energy in the short term.

His graphs predicting energy source trends generally point the way to a nirvana sometime in the future where total energy consumption is greatly reduced, yet “energy services” remain adequate due to increased conservation and efficiency. The lowered total energy consumption is within the capability of a vastly expanded network of individually unreliable sources like wind and solar energy that are made reliable by interconnections and distributed storage.

Lovins claims to be an adherent of the “small is beautiful” philosophy where energy is produced by distributed power plants that are close to the place where the energy is consumed — unless the energy comes from the wind or the sun, in which case he accepts very long transmission paths to move power from places where the sun always shines and the wind always blows.

Aside: Obviously, there are no such places and I am exaggerating Lovins statements a little for effect. End Aside.

I happen to agree with the “small is beautiful” and “local is better” part of Lovins energy strategy. However, my work in nuclear energy, statistics, finance and systems development has led me to become a strong advocate for right-sized, beautiful, reliable nuclear energy systems that use far less material and make much less impact on the overall environment.

There are places in the grid where large plants fit; near major metropolitan areas or major industrial centers, it makes sense to build, operate and maintain fewer plants with large individual power generating capacity. In places where power demand is growing rapidly, the economy of scale works because there is enough new demand to keep up with increases in generating capacity.

In smaller cities, towns and villages, on islands, and on commercial ships smaller plants are better fits. Even in large grids, when demand is growing slowly, it makes sense to add smaller generating plants so that capacity additions match the rate of load growth. Big plants add capacity in large chunks; if they are added to a slowly growing market there are long periods of either too much capacity or not enough capacity. Smaller plants can also be designed so they can respond as rapidly as any foreseeable changes in demand.

Lovins and I are worlds apart when it comes to our acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics that limit power generation and power consumption equipment efficiency. I accept the reality that 33%-45% thermal efficiency is about as good as it gets for generation without significant constraints on flexibility and I accept the reality that reliability in fluid systems often requires a little more capacity and power consumption than absolutely needed if the system could be run at some kind of unachievable ideal. Lovins waves his hands and declares that accepting these limits reflects a lack of imagination or innovation.

While we both agree that energy should be produced cleanly, we disagree about the value of improving energy production versus the value of efforts to reduce energy use. Really cheap energy often eliminates the cost effectiveness of energy efficiency investments. It also allows customers to “waste” a little more energy in order to save time. In my personal accounting system, time is the finite resource worth conserving.

I believe that power is the valuable “service” that people really want. By technical definition, power is energy per unit time, more power requires the faster consumption of energy. When you produce energy by converting a tiny amount of mass into a massive quantity of controllable energy, power consumption becomes a minimal concern.

Both Lovins and I accept the science that says that massive dumping of CO2 is harming the stability of our global climate and that we should work hard to reduce those emissions.

We provide completely different prescriptions; he thinks it is possible to build a reliable network out of inherently unreliable components. I think that the most efficient way to build a reliable system is to connect a small number of individually reliable components with a little bit of extra redundancy. In my technical opinion, it is downright dumb to force reliable, emission-free power generation off of the grid to accommodate the fluctuating power that comes from solar and wind installations.

One of the “energy services” (to use Lovins’s terminology) that an ever increasing portion of the customer base demands is smooth, 24 x 7 power that varies as little as possible. The power grid designers of my father’s generation — like my father and the people he supervised — were smart enough to figure out how to make a system with 4-5 “9s” of reliability. Lovins apparently thinks that hard work should be undone to accommodate his favored wind and solar generators and his fossil fuel-burning distributed and combined heat and power systems. In Lovins world, anything but nuclear has a place.

Over the years, I’ve attacked Amory pretty hard over his nuclear energy blind spot. (See list of related posts below.) My numerous efforts to move him have failed, but I’m optimistic that Sir Richard will have better luck.

The struggle to overcome fossil fuel dominance over our developed society and to reduce CO2 emissions back down to a rate that natural sinks can handle can use all of the persuasive people it can find. Lovins has proven over the years that he is a skilled communicator; with the right message he could be a real contributor to a victorious coalition.

PS (added December 17, 2014 at 8:14 PM) – Les Corrice at Hiroshima Syndrome just shared a link to a Washington Post Wonkblog post published on December 16, 2014, the same day that the RMI/CWR merger was announced. Why climate change is forcing some environmentalists to back nuclear power.

I’m not a big believer in coincidence.

Arnie Gundersen tells tall tales to 1600 chiropractors

The email introducing the below video included the following description. The attached film is so ridiculous and the author is an idiot. The second clause of that sentence is not quite true; the author is an intelligent man who has created a few tall tales for a nefarious purpose. I’d like to crowd source an […]

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FOE’s manipulative legal strategy for closing nuclear reactors

During a recent discussion on James Conca’s article titled Are California’s Carbon Goals Kaput?, Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear accused Conca of trying to revise history. Gunter’s comment includes a lengthy interpretation of the events surrounding the closure of San Onofre from the point of view of a man who has been a professional antinuclear […]

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Antinuclear activists are too modest

Jim Conca has published a couple of recent posts on Forbes.com about the premature closure of nuclear power plants in the United States. One titled Are California’s Carbon Goals Kaput? focuses on some of the environmental aspects of the San Onofre debacle; the other, titled Closing Vermont Nuclear Bad Business for Everyone focuses on the […]

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Purposeful price pumping by constraining supply

James Conca recently published a commentary on Forbes titled Closing Vermont Nuclear Bad Business For Everyone. A major thrust of Conca’s initial post was highlighting the rapidly rising prices of electricity in New England that are being driven by an increasing reliance on natural gas as reliable power generators like the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant […]

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Antinuclear activists don’t like continued storage rule

Several of the usual suspects — including Dr. Mark Cooper, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, and Diane Curran — have banded together to assert their opinion that the NRC’s recently issued NUREG-2157, Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel, violates the following provision of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. In connection with […]

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Continuing conversation with NRC Chairman Macfarlane

On September 11, 2014, the American Nuclear Society hosted a roundtable discussion for nuclear bloggers with Allison Macfarlane, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The meeting was broadcast as a webinar, but there were also seats available in the conference room from which Dr. Macfarlane and Margaret Harding (the ANS moderator) were running the […]

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Crowd sourced analysis of a Lovins sales pitch

I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing an Amory Lovins talk in person three times. Each time, I left the venue with the feeling that an agnostic must have had after attending an Elmer Gantry revival. The audience for two of the events should have been more skeptical — those talks were part of a series […]

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Amory Lovins-speak: Three misleading statements in a 15 second sound bite

I had the opportunity to be in the audience during the above talk. You might notice my impolite interjections; I have often been accused of being very poor at hiding my real reactions and feelings. There is a reason why I stopped playing poker during game nights on the USS Stonewall Jackson. I was losing […]

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Amory Lovins continues Sowing Confusion About Renewable and Nuclear Energy

On August 5, 2014, Amory Lovins published a commentary on Forbes.com titled Sowing Confusion About Renewable Energy. He was responding to an opinion piece published in the July 26, 2014 issue of The Economist that was based on a working paper titled The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies written by Charles R. […]

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Atomic Insights Radar July 20-26 2014

It’s been a busy week, but the following stories appeared on the Atomic Insights radar and are being tracked for additional information. President Obama has revealed the names of the people that he intends to submit to the Senate for confirmation as NRC commissioners to replace the recently retired Commissioner Apostolakis and soon-to-depart Commissioner Magwood. […]

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Additional evidence re: nonproliferation & antinuclear alliance

After posting Nonproliferation is a disguised antinuclear energy effort, I received the following comment via email. The author has given me permission to share it, with attribution. I know John Holdren well and this article in spot on. John does not weigh energy poverty very high and weighs nuclear weapons proliferation exceedingly highly. This dominates […]

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