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 world view
Amory Lovins has been a prominent participant in the energy strategy community for nearly 40 years, ever since 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.