Amory Lovins recently visited the Pentagon. After a glowing introduction by the flag officer who is in charge of fleet readiness and logistics for the US Navy, Lovins told people who are tasked with looking into the future and planning budgets that human society is moving from an age of carbon to an age of silicon, where both the conversion of electricity into light — in the form of white LED lamps — and the conversion of light into electricity via solar photovoltaic cells will make coal, oil, natural gas and uranium obsolete.
It’s one thing knowing that Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute publish that kind of misinformation and that it is used by academic debaters. It is quite another to experience — in person — evidence of the partial success of his sustained effort to influence decision makers that are responsible for adequately providing resources to a vital part of the world’s international security infrastructure.
I feel compelled to shine as bright of a light as I can manage on what I consider to be a risky situation that is potentially harmful to the institution that I served for 33 years.
Invited by a concerned staffer
A former colleague from my days on the Navy headquarters staff — an organization known to Navy insiders as OPNAV — contacted me out of the blue. He had received an invitation from the Director of Navy Staff (DNS) with the subject line of “Inspiring American Lecture Series: Amory B. Lovins.” He asked if I could take the time to drive up to DC to attend the talk and perhaps ask a question or two.
He forwarded the email that DNS had sent out to encourage people to attend the Friday afternoon talk on July 15. That is a very tough time slot for any speaker to a DC-based audience. Despite our mutual knowledge that some extra salesmanship might be used to encourage busy staffers to attend the talk, the email describing the talk included a line that disturbed both of us.
Amory is widely considered a modern day Thomas Edison — one of the most highly acclaimed inventors/high velocity learners of the 21st Century.
In the preface to the forwarded email, my colleague had included the following note:
The modern day Thomas Edison claim is B.S.
T. Edison 1,093
A. Lovins 1
I accepted the request and attended the talk.
Aside: In case you are interested, you can read Amory Lovins patent here. I do not want to devote enough space here to provide links to Thomas Edison’s patents. End Aside.
Though it had been about a decade since we last served together, my former colleague remembered our numerous conversations about fuel and nuclear energy. We both had sea-going and budgetary experience with the key role that propulsion and electrical power plays in the Navy’s ability to operate and carry out its historic missions of global presence, peacekeeping and — when directed — power projection.
During the time we served at OPNAV, the price of oil was a major concern to everyone on the staff. After having doubled in the five years before we met — from $15/barrel in 1999 to more than $30/barrel in 2004 — world oil prices continued their rapid rise and peaked at $147/barrel in 2008, about the time that we were each assigned to new tasks.
He’d also heard my rant one morning after having attended an Amory Lovins talk at a series called “The Energy Conversation.” Those talks were organized by people from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy for energy-interested individuals in the DC area. Audiences included staff officers, decision makers, private business and support contractors.
I’d challenged Mr. Lovins on several points, including his blanket assertion that there was no private capital interested in nuclear technology, that the only places where it worked was in centrally planned economies and his condescending lament that it was too bad so many bright people had wasted their time learning about a dead end technology.
Before the rant at work, I’d dashed off a piece for my Atomic Insights blog, which was then just a hobby.
At the time, Lovins was promoting the book he began in 2004 titled Winning the Oil Endgame.
Electricity And Oil Futures
One of my former bosses at OPNAV — Vice Admiral Phillip Cullom — was Amory Lovins’s host and apparently the ghost writer for the invitation that the DNS sent out to the staff.
During his introduction, VADM Cullom described Mr. Lovins as one of the smartest people he had ever met. He also used the “modern-day Thomas Edison” description.
That laudatory introduction — provided by an influential three-star admiral — almost guaranteed that there would be few challenging questions for the speaker even though VADM Cullom completed his introduction by asking audience to ask challenging questions.
Since I’ve heard Mr. Lovins speak on several occasions, I was not surprised to hear him telling Navy staff members that modern society is heading rapidly in the direction of eliminating oil use through hyper-efficient and electrified automobiles, biofuel and hydrogen powered airplanes and a vastly expanded network of non-nuclear alternatives to fossil fuel.
He used the same lightweight composite “helmet” that rings like a bell when struck for a visual aid that he did during the 2006 talk in the Energy Conversations series.
He told the audience that we are moving from an age of carbon to an age of silicon, where both the conversion of electricity into light — in the form of white LED lamps — and the conversion of light into electricity via solar photovoltaic cells will make coal, oil, natural gas and uranium obsolete.
He spoke about Germany’s successful efforts to increase the portion of its electricity supply produced by renewable sources like large wind turbines and roof-mounted solar collectors, complimented the fact that the German energy transition had contributed to large stock price declines for the electric utility companies and noted that much of the new energy infrastructure was owned by individuals and local community organizations instead of monopolistic corporations.
He did not mention the price of electricity for households in Germany, which is three times as high as it is in the United States.
He acknowledged that controlling the grid to ensure stable power wasn’t as simple with so many “variable” generators is was when it depended more on large central station power plants. He said, however, that smart German engineers had “figured it out” and described, complete with arm motions, how they were able to keep the power flowing in the same way that an orchestra conductor keeps the music going even though not all instruments are playing at the same time.
His near conclusion, before the last apocryphal story, was poetic enough to quote directly.
The first industrial revolution was the Age of Carbon, building our prosperity, security and the world’s mightiest industries out of coal and oil and gas. So now that obsolete age of carbon is giving way to the modern Age of Silicon. Silicon microchips, telecoms, software turn people from isolated to networked; systems from dumb to smart.
Silicon power electronics make electricity interconvertible and precisely controllable replacing fiery molecules with obedient electrons. Silicon solar cells enable the ascent of energy from mining the fires of hell to harvesting the breath and radiance of heaven.
As he often does when giving an invited talk, Lovins overran his allotted hour, leaving VADM Cullom to tell the audience that there was time for just a couple of questions before his guest had to depart for his next engagement.
A front row attendee quickly raised his hand. He noted that he had been told during a previous assignment at the Armed Forces Staff College that the US would never be able to use renewable energy for more than 20% of its electricity supply but he wondered if Mr. Lovins could explain what’s keeping the United States from being able follow the wonderful examples from the rest of the world.
Lovins said it was mostly inertia and misconceptions, including the notion that renewable growth needed a breakthrough in bulk storage. He dismissed the notion as a “common trope” repeated by people like “Bill Gates and several secretaries of energy.” He also said that the coal industry is fighting state by state to block renewables. He said that the renewable industry is strong enough to fight back and that 68% of new capacity built last year was renewable.
Before the talk, I’d prepared a question that I hoped would stimulate some thought from both the audience and Mr. Lovins. It referenced Mr. Lovins early work as a photographer and environmental activist working to protect the area that is now the Snowdonia National Park in Wales from industrial development.
I asked Mr. Lovins how he felt about the Snowdonia National Park being surrounded by wind turbines. He said he did not know whether it would bother him or not and explained that the area was historically very depressed and the target of industrial development, mainly by the central government.
He mentioned that the project he had helped to defeat was a copper mine development proposed by Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining company. They disagreed about that development, but now, “They are now our favorite customer and we’re their favorite consultant, leading the greening of the mining industry.”
Lovins also explained his opinion of wind turbines. “In general, I don’t have the same visceral reaction that some in England do to wind turbines because I think they’re kind of nice kinetic sculptures. I’m aware that if instead we brought the same power from remote thermal plants we’d be facing a roughly similar argument about pylons from transmission lines. But there’s no arguing about taste.”
An energy specialist from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) then asked Lovins about small modular reactors (SMR) and whether or not they might offer a way to overcome his objections to nuclear energy.
He said he understood their use in carriers and submarines because of their overwhelming strategic needs, but that putting them on land has no business case. He then proceeded to “do the math” to claim that the early SMRs would face a factor of 12 handicap against the cost of the renewables that they would compete against. His logic was very difficult to follow, but he advised the audience to do a Google search for “Lovins nuclear distraction.“
I remain unconvinced that wind and solar energy, even with a little help from biomass and geothermal energy can provide sufficient energy to power a prosperous society of 7 billion people. They do not offer a way to empower the currently powerless people that buy kerosene for their lamps and burn dung and twigs to cook their meager meals.
Those sources will never power ships or aircraft and they will not enable society to avoid the worst effects of adding 30 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year.
I hope that the small portion of the OPNAV staff who spent valuable Friday afternoon time listening to Lovins attempt to describe how we can “reinvent fire” will realize the unrealistic nature of his thoughts and prescriptions.
Note: A version of the above article was first published at Forbes.com under the headline “Amory Lovins Tells Navy Staff That Oil Is Obsolete”.