Graham Jesmer of RenewableEnergyWorld.com interviewed Amory Lovins at Solar 2010 about the prospects for the renewable energy business in general and solar in particular. Lovins could not resist the opportunity to make his usual pronouncements about the superior value of distributed, but unreliable power sources like wind and solar and repeat his frequent lie about the inability of the nuclear energy industry to attract capital investments.
Sometimes, Lovins almost manages to convince me that he has something valuable to contribute to the discussion – like when he talks about the economy and rapid learning processes that are enabled by building a series of smaller units compared to the lumpy practice of focusing on “cathedral” construction projects. However, he generally follows that kind of well-reasoned statement with something illogical like asserting that local generation using wind and solar makes a user less dependent on an unreliable grid delivery system. As he points out, about 90-98% of the power failures in the US originate on the grid.
Lovins might believe that people are willing to either live within the capacity of batteries or do without power if the wind dies at night. The reality is that most people in developed economies who have local wind or solar installations either draw backup from the grid or run diesel or gasoline generators to provide power when the “soft” energy systems inevitably – and frequently – fail to deliver. Please do not blame me if you end up feeling like you have wasted your time by watching the 20 minute interview; it might be useful to listen carefully and critically to the words that flow at a rapid pace from beneath that bushy mustache. (Wait, who am I to talk about bushy mustaches?)
As Sun Tzu would say, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”
For a list of all of the federal incentives that support the “private capital” investments in alternative energy, please visit Federal Incentives/Policies for Renewables & Efficiency. The site is a project sponsored by the US Department of Energy called DSIRE – Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
You can also visit the DSIRE home page for a clickable map leading to each state in the United States with a list of their incentive programs. Here is the background of the DSIRE project.
DSIRE is a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility and federal incentives and policies that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. Established in 1995 and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, DSIRE is an ongoing project of the N.C. Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.
It is illuminating to find out just how much money is available and how many favorable rules have been implemented in order to encourage all of that “private capital” that Lovins touts as flocking to invest in non-nuclear energy projects. Hat tip to Bill for the useful links.
Update: (Posted May 31, 2010 at 4:58 am) I encourage people to click on the comment links at the bottom of all posts on Atomic Insights for some very interesting conversations, occasionally there are contributions that deserve elevation to the front page where they become permanent parts of the post and where the search engines can find them. Here are two related to this post that epitomize the kind of conversation you can find in the comment section.
The first is from Bill Rogers:
Where to start since there is so much to disagree with.
The renewable “resurgence” Mr. Lovins is so happy to chortle over is totally dependent on direct and indirect subsidies to wind and solar industries, not due to any perceived “green” benefits of wind and solar over coal or nuclear by Wall Street or utility economists. Take Renewable Energy Credits (REC’s) and Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREB’s) as well as tax credits for renewables out of the picture and utilities as well as Wall Street will walk away from renewables as those three vehicles are the primary drivers for favorable economic analysis of wind and solar from my own personal experience on this issue. REC’s and CREB’s create an artificial financial incentive and are entirely a political construction, not a construction of private business which puts holes in Mr. Lovins belief that private capital is driving the increased expenditures in wind and solar of their own device.
From my own experience in Washington State, 2020 is the big end of the timeline for REC’s and is affecting every technical and economic decision we make about power generation sources. If the Washington state legislature does not extend the REC’s provision then Mr. Lovins’ expected continued resurgence of wind and solar dies on the vine. I believe this same REC timeline will play out in many municipal utilities and states over the next 10 years. By 2015 the future status of the REC’s, if unchanged, will begin to have a negative effect on the expenditures of new wind and solar projects where I work.
Mr. Lovins also mentions individuals will drop off the grid under his plan, which will somehow magically cause utilities to change their minds on how power is generated and distributed. Once again from my own persona l experience, we could care less if 100 people were to suddenly drop off the grid since an individual’s power consumption pales in comparison to one industrial or large commercial power user. However, every user be they individual, industrial or commercial power that installs solar will still need reliable 24/7 power to supply high tech/computer usage type power requirements and storage batteries are still just too expensive to install for the foreseeable future despite years of R&D (both initial cost as well as O&M).
Moreover, what logic is Mr. Lovins using to state that a distributed network of small power sources which are directly dependant on the rotation of the earth and the vagaries of weather but yet are tied together so each consumer still maintains power 24/7/365 is more reliable then our current system. Each node of a distributed network becomes a potential backdoor for cyber hackers to attack to worm their way into the grid thereby reducing the reliability and increasing the external threats to our already highly interconnected grid system.
In addition, what world is he leaving in when he states that there are no significant technical or financial obstac
les to a totally distributed network based on renewables and big hydro by 2050? Transforming our current electrical distribution system to one Mr. Lovins and RMI envision by 2050 will have ENORMOUS technical and financial costs associated with it. Just saying he does not see those costs indicates this will be another junk science report from RMI with a large number of buzzwords and phrases that will impress reporters and media types but will have little real content that relates to our current set of current of constraints of CO2 emitting power generation system and expected consumption patterns.
I was also surprised that Mr. Lovins allowed the interview to happen in the forum it did. The constant background noise for most of the 20 minutes was sometimes overly distracting. Usually Mr. Lovins is usually much better as controlling his message including the environment where he speaks.
The second comes from katana0182 (Dave).
Lovins has Part A correct – that moving generation closer to the edges of the grid using small, agile units – distributed generation – is a good idea for a wide variety of reasons, from CHP to improved resiliency. I agree with his diagnosis regarding large plants being less wieldy and tying up large amounts of capital. I agree that increased energy efficiency is good for society, as it allows us to do more with more. I agree with his characterization of the granularity of large units as being less than optimal in this age of agile energy.
But, when Lovins starts talking about nuclear, Lovins clearly demonstrates that he neither knows his enemy, nor knows himself. Lovins is stuck in a 1960s-1970s paradigm that he views nuclear through.
Lovins does not know his enemy (nuclear). “Nuclear only does big.” Wrong. Conventional utilities do big. Therefore, nuclear did what utilities demanded from it – they scaled up the LWR to very large sizes. Nuclear is not a one-trick pony; nuclear can do small and modular, too! In fact, I would argue that the potential for nuclear in doing small is a potential far greater than nuclear doing big, for several reasons:
1. Cogeneration (combined heat and power)
2. Modularity and mass production (a nuclear Model T that is highly engineered yet mass-produced, say shipping-container size, and can be deployed on a pour, plop, plug, and play basis)
3. Nil safety risks (maximum feasible accident is guaranteed containable within limits of the highly-engineered module)
4. High reliability combined with lack of fuel input stocks in the field – when you have a plant that can run reliably for 10 years without needing refueling – and the fuel is very low cost – why use ambient, inherently unreliable renewable power?
5. Fixed cost combined with economy of scale – allows units to be handled on balance sheet, even on a leasing basis.
In sum, small modular nuclear delivers a near nil environmental impact, similar to renewables, with extremely low land use, and high reliability exceeding that of renewables, and in many cases, fossil fuels.
Lovins does not know himself (renewables):
1. He fails to understand that ordinary people don’t really want to go into the electricity business. They don’t want to install large-scale (and by definition, very low density) battery energy storage units in their apartments. They don’t want to have to hose down the solar panels every day. They don’t want to tune their diesel backup generator. They don’t want demand response systems – or the weather – to control their lives. They don’t want to play power markets or arbitrage the spark spread in their living room. They want their electrical power to work, at a fixed, constant cost.
2. He doesn’t understand that electricity is not a fungible commodity and storage of electricity is really near-impossible. He doesn’t understand the implications of keeping gas turbines turning whenever the sun ducks behind a cloud. He doesn’t understand that pumped hydro is meant to allow baseload to produce intermediate and peak load, not for inherently unreliable energy sources to pay into it, like some sort of energy piggy-bank.
3. He fails to understand the outsize roles that government subsidies – tax credits and the like – feed-in tariffs – play in getting private capital to choose renewable energy. Renewables are subsidized coming, going, up, down, left, right, front, center, etc; those subsidies are very large, yet, we still await the generation of usable quantities of power – and usable qualities of power – from renewables, excepting biomass and geothermal (which are both inherently limited.)
Lovins fails to realize that solar and wind are the bandwagon to end all bandwagons, and bandwagons have a tendency to crash. He also fails to realize that the nuclear industry – within the next decade or two – is entirely capable of producing a nuclear “Model T” – a small, modular unit, inexpensive, inherently safe, capable of being mass-produced and deployed anywhere, anytime, for a number of years, returned to the factory to be refueled – and, at that point, the party’s over and the battle becomes impossibly retrograde for the renewable folks.
He knows not his enemy nor knows himself. But we know ourselves, we know our enemy, and we realize that being unconquerable starts with ourselves.