Yesterday, I posted a link to a new anti-nuclear diatribe by Amory Lovins, a man that has been preaching the gospel of “negawatts” for more than a quarter of a century. According to his dogma, the only energy supply we need is conservation; and, implicitly, a little less of all of the sources of energy that we are using now. As a preacher, he has developed quite a flock, but his effectiveness in reducing world energy use is belied by the numbers.
His pulpit, the Rocky Mountain Institute, was founded in 1982, a year that happened to mark the fourth year in a row that world energy consumption actually decreased. In 1978, the total world energy consumption was 293.3 Quads (quadrillion BTU) and by 1982 it had fallen to 282.5 Quads. Ever since that year, world energy consumption has increased rather steadily, with only a single year that was less than the year preceeding it. In 2002, total world energy production was 405 Quads, 25% more than it was when Lovins was called to form RMI.
RMI and its chorus of followers have also been singing about the demise of nuclear power for more than two decades, but again, the numbers demonstrate their inability to comprehend reality. In 1982, total world nuclear power production stood at 9.5 Quads – 3.3% of the world’s total energy production. By 2002, the last year in which comprehensive statistics are available, nuclear power production had increased by 280% to 26.5 Quads – 6.5% of the world’s total. To put that amount in perspective, nuclear fission now produces more energy every year than Saudi Arabia.
Far from slipping out of favor, nuclear fission production nearly tripled and its share of the energy market almost doubled over that 20 year period. (Source – http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb1101.html – Table 11.1, World Primary Energy Production by Source, 1970-2002, US DOE Energy Information Agency).
Part of the way that Lovins obscures reality is by focusing on capacity, not production. That is akin to the owners of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays being proud of the fact that their stadium has more seats than Wrigley Field and thinking that makes their team more profitable than the Chicago Cubs. Of course, what really matters is that the Cubs sell almost every available seat, while Devil Rays rarely sell more than 25% of their stadium’s seats.
There are a lot of giant wind turbines being built, but they almost never produce more than 25% of their nameplate capacity over the course of a year, while the average capacity factor of nuclear plants in the US (and a number of other nuclear power generating countries) is more than 90%. Watch the scramble every two years when the incredibly generous production tax credit (remember, credits are direct cash from the government; they are far more valuable than tax deductions) for wind energy – 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour, more than the total average cost of nuclear generation in the US – gets close to expiration; no wind projects move if that credit is not available.
Lovins has always favored the use of gas as a “bridge” fuel to some future promised land where all energy needs are met by clean, renewable sources. Of course, that stance makes many of his consulting customers enormously happy (and wealthy) – they love selling natural gas, especially when the price has increased from about $1.80 per million BTU in the mid 1990s to yesterday’s price at New York City Gate (one of the many places where natural gas is priced for market trading) of $8.60. Of course, Lovins is pretty good about chosing words, in his article titled “Security Meltdown”, he refers to natural gas generation as “decentalized, non-biomass cogeneration”.
There will always be a market for the gospel according to Lovins. His well supported ministry (more than $6 million per year in revenue for 40 full time staffers) helps the fossil fuel industry continue to slow the market shift from combustion to fission, and helps prop up the prices of the very fuels that contribute most to the production of globe damaging air pollution.
Since fission is cheaper, more abundant, more reliable, and infinitely less polluting, it is a much greater threat to fossil fuel interests than are the ancient, long ago marginalized, weather dependent sources of the sun and the wind. Human controlled nuclear fission is a baby (barely 60 years old) compared to those sources, but it long ago surpassed them in terms of production and its future is far brighter. Remind me someday to talk about the fact that nuclear fission is just as natural as the sun and the wind.