Saturday, October 27, 2007

Amory Lovins: True Believer or Malevolent Deceiver?

Recently I have been having an interesting exchange with Rod Adams regarding Amory Lovins. I made an offhand comment that Harvey Wasserman's misunderstanding of the Jevons Paradox reminded me of Lovins, to which I received several incredulous responses. We had no disagreement about whether the paradox is compatible with Lovins' declared theories about the economic implications of energy efficiency- rather, we disagreed about Lovins' honesty. According to Rod Adams and Stewart Peterson, Lovins is perfectly aware of the implications of Jovens' paradox, but is mendacious about it because he knows that its true economic implications keep filthy fossil-fuel lucre rolling into Snowmass.

Now, I don't like Lovins any more than Rod Adams does, but I'm inclined to think he's not dishonest. He actually reminds me of a deluded cult leader more than a con man. One of the main reasons I think so is that Lovins has earnest acolytes who emerge from Snowmass and actually attempt to implement his theories in the real world. Take, for instance, this article in Business Week, which describes the misadventures (and partial disillusionment) of one such RMI apostle. On the other hand, Rod has far more experience with Lovins than I do, and uncovered his dishonest portrayal of his educational credentials. Perhaps I need to get to know Lovins better.

I think that Lovins has a fetish for certain things- energy efficiency, small, local generation, and so forth- and an irrational disdain for others, particularly nuclear power. The problem is that Lovins' theories make economic assumptions that are utterly heterodox- neither Karl Marx nor Milton Friedman would ever accept them. This is because Lovins assumes that individual people want to "do more with less" rather than "get the best deal they possibly can"- i.e., maximize utility. Lovins actually claims that "doing more with less" = maximizing utility, but this logic is so flimsy that I cannot understand why the man has gotten away with saying it for thirty years. Resource efficiency can be a critical aspect of maximizing utility- but as Jevons discovered back when my mustache was in style, the results of this are increased resource utilization.

Similar to the Communists of old, I think Lovins has a vision for social transformation that begins with the individual. The New Efficient Man will waste little or nothing, because this will be the New Morality. But besides this, he will embrace "soft" technologies that tread lightly on the earth, apparently because he will share Lovins' disdain for things like biotechnology. For reasons I don't really comprehend, making these "right" choices would somehow result in utopia, or at least a much-improved world. I have a hard time taking any of this seriously, to be honest. Compared to Marxism or other coherent ideologies with similar utopian goals, it's a half-baked, illogical mess.

Any thoughts? Also, does anyone know of a bonified economist who's taken the time to refute Lovins?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Awesome Article in the BAS

Check out this awesome article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
Nuclear Terrorism's Fatal Assumptions

This is the best piece I have ever seen on the subject. The problem of nuclear terrorism has been completely overblown, and most of the things "everyone knows" about the subject are simply wrong. Popular misconceptions about the potential misuse of ordinary civilian nuclear technology by terrorists, or the supposed ease of acquiring nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise in the former USSR, abound.

I'm planning to write a post about the usability of reactor-grade plutonium in nuclear weapons, and the reasons that I believe that the proliferation risks of this class of material have been grossly overestimated. The incredible thing is that a critical part of the debate hinges on an appeal to the authority of a single document produced by Sandia National Lab in the 1970s- a document that is probably being misinterpreted, at the very least. Besides this, there are excellent historical reasons for believing that this material is extremely difficult to use in nuclear explosives. I'll explain this in detail when I have time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Renewable Energy and Economic Utility

I just noticed this post on the Sierra Club's new energy blog, and I was mystified by this statement:

"The opponents of clean energy like to fall back on that old chestnut, claiming it's jobs v. the environment--but never both. They argue that thousands will be thrown out of work as we transition to America's clean energy future. Unfortunately for our opponents--and fortunately for America's economy and environment--nothing could be further from the truth."

I have two major issues with this:

1) I read pretty widely on energy issues, and I have never seen this argument. Ever. I suppose someone has made it at some point, but if I had to guess it's probably somewhat less common than the "Tesla invented secret technology that could supply all our energy needs if Thomas Edison hadn't suppressed it" meme. In fact, it seems that just about everyone believes the opposite- for instance, the Apollo Alliance makes job creation the centerpiece of their renewable energy campaigning.

2) The idea that renewable energy "creates jobs" is economically dubious. Under some (probably most) circumstances job creation is good. But the supposed "advantage" of renewables in this area is based on replacing industries that aren't very labor intensive (fossil fuel and nuclear power) with labor-intensive substitutes. This is one of the reasons renewable energy is so expensive- all those new workers have to eat, after all. Now, if the marginal utility of renewable energy was vastly superior to conventional or nuclear power, the new jobs would be a net economic benefit. But a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a solar panel does the same job a kilowatt-hour from a nuclear plant does- and is several times as expensive. Taking environmental externalities into account helps renewables' case some- but I doubt that it's anywhere near enough to make up for the price difference in most cases, at least compared to a well-run nuclear plant.

Economically, this means that renewable energy isn't creating jobs at all- it's actually depriving other sectors of the economy of skilled labor while producing less utility (usable energy) than before.

This goes against the popular intuition that "more employment=better." But the problem with this logic is readily apparent from an example near and dear to my heart- the Soviet Union. In the USSR, there was "full employment." If greater employment was the key to economic success, the Soviets would have beaten us into the ground and I'd be studying the collapse of American capitalism instead of the other way around. But in an economic system that seeks to maximize utility, employment isn't about "more jobs," It's about "getting the most bang-per-buck." New technologies create jobs because they create new goods and services people want to buy, and therefore create new markets. They also free up labor by maximizing the productivity of the workers who remain. This may seem like a bad thing, but in the long run it's good for society- because the same work is getting done with fewer people and less money, and now more labor is available to create more utility. It's a cyclical process, and can be painful at times, but without it we'd be in the dustbin of history along with the Soviet Union.

So, we shouldn't be trying to "create more jobs with renewable energy." Instead, we should be building an economically rational energy infrastructure. This doesn't mean we should ignore environmental externalities or dismiss renewable power altogether. We should be trying to internalize the various externalities of energy sources- carbon emissions, toxic waste from semiconductor manufacture, wars over oil, and so on- and let the market create the energy supply we need. This supply would include "renewable" energy when it made economic and geographic sense- some wind, some hydro, some geothermal- but these wouldn't be forced into existence through Soviet-style "mandates." We need to build a better market and let the market decide.

But I believe that the real winner of this fair match-up would be nuclear power- whose spectacularly low labor intensity is an economic asset, and whose environmental externalities are, joule-for-joule, on par with renewables. In short, nuclear power can provide the clean, affordable energy America needs while fueling real economic growth.

Nuclear War on YouTube

Nice round-up on of the ongoing battle:

As an aside, I've noticed that is the only site I've seen so far where the commenters appear to be largely anti-nuclear power. I was a little disheartened by this because reader response to the entire No Nukes revival stunt has been so negative in other venues. But for a variety of reasons, I think that Wasserman's tactics may be more beneficial to our cause than his. His media grandstanding detracts attention from people like Amory Lovins who are capable of misleading people who have some actual knowledge of the issue. I'm tempted to do my own Wasserman rebuttal explaining why the example of Russia proves him utterly, utterly wrong, but I lack a camera and physically resemble a villain from a D.W. Griffith one-reeler, so I probably shouldn't.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sticking it to Harvey Wasserman

I was recently struck by an urgent desire to subvert Harvey Wasserman's current antinuclear effort at, so I used his "contact your representative" feature to send this message to Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Zach Wamp:

Dear Sir:
In light of our nation's ongoing energy crisis, as well as climate change, it is vital that we develop a diverse portfolio of energy sources that will provide our citizens with cheap, safe energy for the foreseeable future. I believe that currently, nuclear power is the only technology that fits the bill. Renewable energy is only cheap in the feverish imaginations of the rent-seekers who are eager for politicians like you to force the citizenry to buy their product via "renewable energy mandates." Nuclear is currently competitive with fossil fuels. And in real terms, nuclear is safer than either fossil fuels of some kinds of renewables. Coal plants cause global warming and release noxious, carcinogenic particulates into the atmosphere, while windmills produce so many worker accidents that in any given year they kill more people than the US nuclear power industry has in fifty. Outside the realm of wishful thinking, the expansion of nuclear power is essential to the continued health and prosperity of America. Meanwhile, the "Renewable Energy Mandate" is, in effect, a tax raise on all Americans who buy electricity. It makes as little sense as a "coal mandate" or an "oil mandate." All energy sources should be compared based on their actual virtues- and on this issue, there has been broad consensus among scientists for decades- that nuclear power is the answer.

I myself was born and raised in Oak Ridge and I know better than to believe the stories that anti-nuclear activists have promulgated for decades about nuclear power. And as a historian studying Soviet history- and in particular, the history of the Soviet nuclear program- I have considerable familiarity with the history of nuclear energy abroad as well. My professional and personal opinion that opposing the construction of new nuclear power plants is not only foolish, but irresponsible. Fortunately, our own state is moving in the right direction, but there are powerful forces working to lead our country astray.

Please work to see that our country's energy future is secured. Be willing to compromise. For instance, there is no reason that a nuclear renaissance has to be tied to the Yucca Mountain facility. Certain members of Congress are determined that this project fail. But I believe that this may not be a bad thing, and could in fact benefit our state. In light of experience in Russia, France, and Japan, I believe that we should construct a centralized interim repository for nuclear fuel, and I believe that Oak Ridge is a logical place to put it. As a longstanding Oak Ridge resident I can assure you that many Oak Ridgers would welcome this- not just because of our familiarity with nuclear materials and nuclear technology. The founders of our city had a vision- a vision of a world made, safer, healthier, and wealthier by nuclear energy. They may have built bombs, but they dreamed of nuclear desalination plants that would make the African desert green and fertile. Although most of the men and women who first had this vision have since passed away, I hope to someday help make it a reality.

Please take these thoughts into consideration when the current Energy Bill comes up for debate.
A. Sovietologist

My girlfriend suggested that the last part was over the top, but it's true. (Perhaps my childhood in Oak Ridge was a bit abnormal.) It's not like I think Lamar Alexander is going to suddenly sponsor sweeping new pro-nuclear legislation after reading my letter. I'm just sticking it to Harvey Wasserman.

Monday, October 15, 2007

How Many Atom Bombs Does it Take to Melt the Greenland Ice Sheet?

Given the current hullabaloo about Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize, I thought that I'd publish a little analysis that I did regarding the Greenland ice sheet. As you may have heard, the Greenland ice sheet is in peril- note, for instance, this 2006 study suggesting that climate change could melt the ice sheet in as little as 500 years. Since this is a worst-case-scenario (even most climatologists aren't this pessimistic), we'll probably have to wait much longer for the darned thing to melt. The problem is that the ice sheet has a mind-boggling amount of thermal inertia. Wikipedia describes the Greenland ice sheet as containing 2.85 km^3 of ice. Now, a km^3 is a billion m^3, and each m^3 of ice weighs about one metric ton (I know the density is off, but it makes the math easier.) The heat of fusion for water is 334 J/g, so melting each m^3 of ice requires 334 x 10^11 joules of energy, presuming it's already at o degrees centigrade. Since the primary sources of heat for melting the ice sheet is the dim arctic sun, it will take centuries for the ice sheet to melt.

(334 x 10^11) x 1,000,000,000 x 2.85= 9.519 x 10^20 joules

(This is the amount of energy 7,268 billion gallons of gasoline.)

Perhaps this isn't soon enough for you. Maybe you're a supervillain or someone suffering from an ice phobia. You want that ice sheet gone, by, say, next month.

Fortunately, technology has an answer.

One megaton is 4.184 x 10^15 Joules, so the amount of energy needed to melt the ice sheet is 227, 509.56 MT.

This is a very large amount of megatonnage, far more than existed even at the very height of the Cold War- but far from beyond the scale that could be built, as we will see.

The first nuclear weapon, the Mk-1 dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, had a yield of approximately 15 kT. Therefore, it would take 15,167,304 Hiroshimas to melt the ice sheet. This is an imposing number, and would require far too much enriched uranium to be practical. Large thermonuclear weapons make this far more practical. The largest nuclear weapon ever built, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, had a predicted yield of 100 MT. (It tested at 56 MT because the U-238 tamper was replaced with lead to reduce fallout.) It would take 2,275 of these bombs to melt the ice sheet. The largest nuclear weapon ever mass-produced, the American B-41, had a maximum yield of 26 MT. It would take 8,751 B-41s to melt the ice sheet. As 400-500 of the B-41 were built during the early 1960s, large thermonuclear bombs can almost certainly be built in the quantity required. The primary problem would be sourcing enough tritium and Li-6 to build the bombs (or maybe deuterium, as the bombs don't need to be deliverable.) In any case, it is definitely possible to melt the ice sheet on a short-term basis if need be.