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 of Energy Conversations held in Crystal City, Virginia just south of the Pentagon. Even though a substantial portion of the audience had nominally technical, defense industry-oriented backgrounds, they were still enthusiastic receptors for Lovins’s seductive message that we could have all the energy we need with little effort, no new government rules, no cost, and no pollution.
To be fair, Lovins makes it abundantly clear to anyone who listens carefully that his energy system will supply substantially less power than our current one because he believes we need far less energy per person that we use today. My concern is that he makes it sound incredibly easy to reduce consumption without reducing the benefits we receive by freely using energy.
There were a few other skeptics in attendance on the occasions when I heard a Lovins talk — I spoke to some after the events — but in each case, I was one of the few who picked one of his many statements and challenged his assertion as being in conflict with another phrase somewhere else in the talk.
For example, the above video presentation includes a slide detailing the contributions of various energy sources in the system that Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute envision for 2050. (You might have missed it; it was visible for just 3 seconds before he moved to the next slide.)
Look hard at those circles, read the fuel source, note the percentages and then listen again to Lovins during his wrap-up (32:00), which includes the following sweet-sounding phrase.
And, but for a little biofuel grown in ways that sustain and endure, this new fire is flameless.
A major portion of the “new fire” power sources that humans are developing are flameless, but a real energy system prescription includes actinide fission, a power source that Lovins abhors and believes needs to be eliminated.
As shown in his own graphic, Lovins envisions a world where humans have less raw power, but where at least 49% of it still requires old-fashioned flames from burning biomass and natural gas. He counts hydrogen as an energy source, even though it is just a carrier, and he projects contributions from “other renewables,” a term that currently includes such wonders of modern technology as burning municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, and agricultural byproducts.
As indicated in the title to this blog post, I’d like to offer a crowd-source opportunity to pick apart Lovins’s smoothly-delivered energy system mirage. Point out the realities that conflict with his pretty pictures. Help me find data indicating how his renovation of the Empire State Building has performed during the past couple of years. Put price tags and production plans onto the concept cars that he gushes about.
Some of you might believe that I have already focused too much on Amory Lovins. Some readers have told me that they believe he has marginalized himself and is not a major factor anymore. I believe it is dangerous to underestimate his reach and his influence on the thinking that is shaping our national energy actions. We need to encourage people to dissect his plans, understand the fallacious arguments, and recognize the hazard of following his soft energy path towards an even greater reliance on high cost fossil fuel and unreliable natural energy flows.
Not only will we be less secure and have less individual access to power, but we will also be putting more C02 than necessary into the environment, we will still be enriching some rather nasty people, and we will be disfiguring a vast quantity of scenic vistas with massive industrial installations of wind turbines and solar energy collectors.
Aside: The carbon fiber bowl that Lovins uses as a prop was at least 6 years old when he gave the above talk in 2012; he had it with him in 2006 when I saw him in Crystal City. His initial laugh line — “After that introduction, I can’t wait to hear what I have to say” — was almost exactly the same one he used on March 28, 2014 at Princeton. End Aside.
Update: (posted 9/7/2014 at 12:12)
I found another discussion that included a supplementary perspective on Amory Lovins. This one provides one more look at the seductive nature of his message; I can agree with many of the things that he says he supports. I just don’t buy his math, his faith in efficiency, his stated belief in the continued cost reductions associated with unreliables and his dismissal of nuclear energy.
His suggestion for ways to eliminate energy subsidies is quite intriguing, however. It would be nice to see solar and wind power executives reacting to an offer to eliminate the production tax credit, the investment tax credit in lieu of the PTC, accelerated depreciation, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and the loan guarantee programs where the Credit Subsidy Cost is paid by an appropriation vice charging the loan applicant.