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. Frank of the Brookings Institute.
Lovins so strongly rejected the conclusions of that paper that he wrote a 12-page critique of the paper that is available on this page of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) web site. Here is a statement from Frank’s paper abstract that explains why it drew Lovins’s ire:
First–assuming reductions in carbon emissions are valued at $50 per metric ton and the price of natural gas is $16 per million Btu or less–nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle have far more net benefits than either wind or solar. This is the case because solar and wind facilities suffer from a very high capacity cost per megawatt, very low capacity factors and low reliability, which result in low avoided emissions and low avoided energy cost per dollar invested.
Lovins ridiculed Dr. Frank’s conclusions and the editorial decision by The Economist to publish its article about them as follows:
As soon as The Economist featured his paper, their inboxes and Twitter feeds lit up with incredulity: could his conclusions possibly be true?
They’re not (and yes, I’ve written The Economist a letter saying so). My detailed critique at www.rmi.org/frank_rebuttal explains why, and cites two other reviews and a podcast. But for anyone who knows the subject, Dr. Frank’s conclusions don’t even pass the giggle test.
The diligent Dr. Frank has collected not just one wrong number but a flotilla, together driving a false conclusion that gained a prominent platform in The Economist. The analytic lesson: rapidly changing data quickly pass their sell-by date.
Lovins describes how he and members of his staff at RMI performed a new analysis using different input numbers that supposedly reflected more modern performance and cost numbers and came to their own conclusion.
Presto! The conclusions flipped. Instead of gas combined-cycle and nuclear plants’ offering the greatest net benefit from displacing coal plants, followed by hydro, wind, and last of all solar, the ranks reversed. The new, correct, story: first hydro (on his purely economic assumptions) and gas (only if we omit its price volatility), then wind, solar, and last of all nuclear—still omitting efficiency, which beats them all.
Though this piece is not going to be a point by point answer of the Lovins’s/RMI rebuttal of Frank’s paper, there is a particular section in that work that may help to illustrate the habit that Amory Lovins has for making statements that can be misinterpreted as indicating that he is erring on the conservative side by providing underestimates of the performance of unreliable energy collection systems like wind.
It would have been simpler and far more accurate to use modern data. The missing table is in the latest (30 July 2014) online EIA data, which for 2008–13 show 31.0% average wind capacity factor (and for the first five months of 2014, 38.2%);
An uncritical reader might think that wind performance is on a rapid rise with that substantial uptick in the most recently available data set, but people who pay careful attention to weather patterns might recall that the first five months of any year (late winter and spring months) will generally be windier than the next four months of June, July, August and September.
In the comment section following the article, Amory Lovins and I have engaged in a back and forth that I’d like to preserve in an area where I have editorial control. You may or may not find it interesting. I’ve tried to organize the comments together in conversations separated by solid lines.
Read more »