Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Misadventures of Amory Lovins, Fossil Fuel Apologist

I've been following RMI's response to David Bradish over at Gristmill with interest, and I must say that so far I'm not exactly blown away. But the fact that I'm unimpressed isn't at all surprising; what is surprising is that it seems that regular Gristmill commenters are nonplussed as well. But I think this is to be expected, given that Lovins' defense of his anti-nuclear critique makes it abundantly clear that he's an apologist for continued fossil fuel use.

However much we pro-nuclear types may disagree with the people over at Grist, they know as well as anyone the many reasons why continued fossil fuel use is unacceptable given the realities of global climate change. On top of this, RMI's explanation of why Bradish's critique is "wrong" makes it abundantly clear that he was absolutely correct in his charges of cherry-picking data and using highly arbitrary definitions for concepts like "micropower." Most importantly, Lovins is explicitly defending onsite diesel and gas generators as an alternative to new nuclear plants--a position that any "environmentalist" worthy of the name should be highly skeptical of.

Take, for instance, Lovins' defense of "micropower." RMI claims that Bradish simply misread their "simple" definition, which they give as:
1. onsite generation of electricity (at the customer, not at a remote utility plant) -- usually cogeneration of electricity plus recovered waste heat (outside the U.S. this is usually called CHP -- combined-heat-and-power): this is about half gas-fired, and saves at least half the carbon and much of the cost of the separate power plants and boilers it displaces; [and] 2. distributed renewables -- all renewable power sources except big hydro plants, which are defined here as dams larger than 10 megawatts (MW).

I still don't see why these things deserve to be grouped together at all, other than that Lovins has been doing this since the mid-1970s. Although he digs at Bradish that " we chose and defined our terms carefully, presented data consistent with our definitions, and cannot be responsible for Mr. Bradish's pretense that we meant something different and should have said so. He's welcome to compile his own data using his own idiosyncratic definitions, but he shouldn't blame us for not adopting them," RMI's definition is so idiosyncratic by nature that it's hard to really regard it as "careful." He admits that wind doesn't really possess most of the "advantages" of micropower, but he doesn't explain why huge solar thermal plants in California deserve the "micropower" appellation but an 11MW hydroelectric system doesn't, or why diesel-fired anything deserves to be regarded as "green." Never mind as well that the Soviets operated nuclear-fired systems for decades that meet the above definition. Indeed, there's no reason that small nuclear systems can't be built that would be far more environmentally sound than the fossil-fuel alternatives championed by Lovins.

Yesterday's post mentioned Lovins' rebuttal of the claim that Jevons' Paradox seriously compromises his theories regarding energy efficiency. As he puts it:
Mr. Bradish has posted part three of his critique, claiming that RMI has overlooked Jevons Paradox, which undoes and reverses the intended energy savings from more efficient end-use. We have rebutted this invalid claim in a response to Mr. Bradish's cited primary source -- an article by Robert Bryce in his newsletter. Completion of our response was delayed by travel, but we expect to finish it shortly, and will then post it on RMI's website, in this blog, and (Mr. Bryce has assured us) on his site.

Meanwhile, readers should know that the claimed "rebound" effect -- phenomena that make net energy savings smaller than gross savings -- is real but generally very small, and has no material effect on our conclusions. This is firmly established in the empirical literature, and is well-known to knowledgeable energy economists but evidently not to Mr. Bryce, Mr. Bradish, or the theory's current standard-bearers, Dr. Peter Huber and Mr. Mark Mills. A brief introduction to some basic concepts is on Wikipedia.

It'll be interesting to see this, because Lovins isn't on very firm ground on this point. RMI's earlier attempts to rebut Bryce were unimpressive, to put it mildly. Indeed, the "Rebound Effect" is not something that can be debunked in the sense that Lovins is implying, as it derives directly from the basic economic principles accepted by free-market economists. In order for the "rebound effect" to be a myth, neoclassical economics must be fundamentally wrong.

The basic principle on which orthodox economic theory rests is the idea of utility. It is no coincidence that Jevons was an important figure in the development of the concept of marginal utility. Neoclassical economics, also known as the "marginalist" school, explains economic decision-making in terms of marginal utility. Utility is defined as "a measure of the relative satisfaction from or desirability of consumption of goods." Early concepts of utility, such as that of Jeremy Bentham, regarded utility as a concrete, quantifiable thing, but later economists moved away from this idea. Economists argue that people consume goods to the extent that gives them the most satisfaction for their expenditure.

What implication does this have for Lovins' efficiency theories? Far from having "no material effect," Lovins' arguments dating back to The Soft Energy Path are incompatible with neoclassical economics. Increased energy efficiency increases the marginal utility of consuming a particular amount of energy. If consumers are rational maximizers, the ability to produce a greater amount of satisfaction from consuming energy will, all other things remaining equal, increase energy use.

It is true that in recent first-world experience, the short-term rebound has not been 100%, or close to it. There is a simple explanation for this: in developed economies, major efficiency improvements have been driven by scarcity. In many classic instances, increased scarcity far outweighed increased efficiency. Because the cost of energy has not remained the same and also because demand for the things produced using energy is also somewhat inelastic, efficiency improvements haven't generally resulted in a large rebound. RMI seems intent on insinuating that this demonstrates that Jevons was wrong, but it really does nothing of the sort. The simple fact that global energy consumption continues to increase as the marginal benefits of consuming energy has increased with the proliferation of more efficient technology is a powerful confirmation of Jevons' Paradox.

I find it ironic that Lovins' linked to the Wikipedia article about the paradox, given that it explains why Lovins is wrong in two sentences:
At the microeconomic level (looking at an individual market), even with the rebound effect, improvements in energy efficiency usually result in reduced energy consumption. That is, the rebound effect is usually less than 100%. However, at the macroeconomic level, more efficient (and hence comparatively cheaper) energy use leads to faster economic growth, that in turn increases energy use throughout the economy. Taking into account both the microeconomic and the macroeconomic effects, technological progress that improves energy efficiency will tend to increase overall energy use.
That sounds about right. Lovins' riposte is a pretty weak given the withering critique Bryce gave Lovins in Energy Tribune last year. But I still think that RMI's big problem is that their argument is that we shouldn't go nuclear and that we should use fossil fuels more efficiently instead. These days, people like James Hansen are arguing that we really shouldn't be burning fossil fuels at all. It's hard to make a convincing argument for a fossil-fuel future, even one vastly improved on the present. We need a zero-carbon economy, and realistically that means fission. As such, "negawatts" and "micropower" are just obfuscation that only serve to cloud the energy debate.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Is That The Way I Look?

Herbert Block Political Cartoon, September 26, 1954.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Что такое АТЭЦ?

With the recent release of RMI's new piece criticizing nuclear power, there has been an upsurge in the discussion of waste heat from nuclear plants. It's important to keep in mind that there is no reason why nuclear plants can't do all the things that Lovins' beloved natural gas cogeneration plants can. In fact, in Russia they already do--and have been doing so for more than thirty years.

Although it is likely to surprise readers who associate cogeneration with Lovins' criticisms of "centralized planning," the Soviets were actually huge fans of cogeneration. This might be taken as evidence that cogeneration isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be, as anyone who has lived in St. Petersburg in the summer when the municipal hot water is turned off can tell you. I imagine it's a lot less fun when the system fails during the winter, which I've heard about but have been mercifully spared in my own experience. Because of these problems it's increasingly common for Russians to install water heaters in their apartments.

Whatever the shortcomings of the centralized water and space heating systems found in Soviet cities, they combined with the Soviet penchant for nuclear technology to inspire the creation of the Атомная теплоэлектроцентраль (АТЭЦ)--a nuclear plant designed to produce both heat and electricity. Officially, this term was reserved for a special variant of the VVER-1000 that was under construction in Odessa and Kharkov in the 1980s. These plants were canceled following Chernobyl. However, the principle of nuclear cogeneration was demonstrated before this at the Bilibinskaia AES in northeastern Siberia.

The Bilibino Nuclear Cogeneration Plant, Siberia

The Bilibinskaia plant is one of the more unusual in Rosenergoatom's fleet. Whereas most Russian nuclear plants are either VVER LWRs or RBMKs, Bilibino's consists of four comparatively tiny EGP-6 graphite-moderated boiling-water reactors with a total electrical output of only 48 MW total. The plant began construction in the mid-1960s and the first reactor went into service in 1974. It provides both heat and power to the city of Bilibino, which is a small gold-mining town of only 5700 people. In part as a result of this low demand, the plant operates at a low capacity factor--well under 40% in recent years.

So here's what I'm wondering: why isn't the Bilibino nuclear plant "micropower?" It's much smaller than some of the fossil-fuel fired cogeneration plants that RMI includes in its statistics for "micropower," and it certainly has a better claim for climate-friendliness. In Forget Nuclear, RMI defined "micropower" as follows:
1. onsite generation of electricity (at the customer, not at a remote utility plant)—usually cogeneration of electricity plus recovered waste heat (outside the U.S. this is usually called CHP—combined-heat-and-power): this is about half gas-fired, and saves at least half the carbon and much of the cost of the separate power plants and boilers it displaces;
2. distributed renewables—all renewable power sources except big hydro plants, which are defined here as dams larger than 10 megawatts (MW).
It's pretty clear that most of the combined heat and power (CHP) plants in RMI's statistics are larger than Bilibino and no less removed from the consumer. But somehow I doubt that Bilibino has ever been included in RMI's tally of "micropower," or that Soviet plutonium-production reactors that also served a similar role in their cities of residence were included. I wonder why?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How's This For A Premise?

1999: A World of Difference

On August 12, 1992, England's tiny nuclear arsenal fell on Ireland, South Africa, and finally on China. Instantly the planet went up in flames. In the first half of what was to be called the War of '92, half the Eath's population perished.

The United States was reduced to a vast underpeopled land--and, to make matters worse, Texas had seceded and taken her precious oil reserves.

But Israel, virtually untouched in a world ravaged by war, was painfully overpopulated. So Sol Ingelstein and Myra Kalen had come to America looking for a place to settle. As mercenaries on the side of the union in its war with Texas, the Israelis had been promised land in exchange for their services.

Leading their bedraggled troops into the heartland of Texas, Sol and Myra head up operation King. Mission: Resuce the President of the United States!

From The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop (Del Rey, 1974). And yes, it's about as bad as it sounds.

Why Gas Is Not Our Future

From Lovins' recent Newsweek piece:

Variable but forecastable renewables (wind and solar cells) are very reliable when integrated with each other, existing supplies and demand. For example, three German states were more than 30 percent wind-powered in 2007—and more than 100 percent in some months.

I'm not sure what parallel universe Lovins inhabits, but he can't seriously believe that because Schleswig-Holstein generates more electricity from wind than it uses in certain calendar months that it is "more than 100% wind-powered"... can he?

Micropower delivers a sixth of total global electricity, a third of all new electricity and from a sixth to more than half of all electricity in 12 industrial countries (in the United States it's only 6 percent). In 2006, the global net capacity added by nuclear power was only 83 percent of that added by solar cells, 10 percent that of wind power and 3 percent that of micropower. China's distributed renewables grew to seven times its nuclear capacity and grew seven times faster. In 2007, the United States, China and Spain each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity. Wind power added 30 percent of new U.S. and 40 percent of EU capacity, because it's two to three times cheaper than new nuclear power. Which part of this doesn't Moore understand?

This particular set of numbers is pretty illustrative of how mendacious Lovins' presentation is, and how in practice he's essentially shilling for the natural gas industry. Note that the very limited additions in nuclear capacity coming online in 2006 were 83% of new installed solar capacity and 10% of new wind power. At realistic capacity factors, the new nuclear capacity could be expected to generate about 3x the new solar capacity and about 1/3 that of the new wind capacity. However, "micropower" generally added more than 30x the capacity than nuclear in 2006. This reveals that "micropower" is really a code-word for fossil fuels, and in practice that means natural gas. Lovins' numbers reveal that the vast majority of "micropower" is really natural-gas fired cogeneration. However attractive this technology may appear at present, it is not viable as a long-term energy strategy. A brief review of Russian energy policies reveals why.

Although the Soviet Union's fleet of nuclear power plants is pretty notorious in the west, nuclear power provides a smaller fraction of Russia's electrical generation than it does in the United States. Instead, Russian cities are actually dependent upon natural gas for a very large proportion of their electrical generation and heating. There are a variety of reasons for this, the main ones being geographic. Russian coal reserves are mediocre, and they tend to be located far from urban centers. Because gas is easily transportable and the Soviet Union possessed it in abundance, this was a logical choice for domestic energy needs. Similar considerations, however, fed into the Soviets' enthusiasm for nuclear power. Nuclear plants could be sited in energy-poor regions of the European USSR, such as Ukraine. This freed up oil and gas for sale to western nations in exchange for desperately needed hard currency.

Today, Russia's gas reserves have become a source of wealth and power. This produces a significant incentive to restrain domestic consumption to maximize the profitability of state-owned Gazprom. I am convinced that this is one of the primary reasons that Russia is building new nuclear plants. There is another reason, however: the Russians understand that their days as a net gas exporter are numbered. This isn't likely within the immediate future, but sixty years from now Russian gas reserves will probably be largely depleted. It is clear that by this time the Russian government plans to create some kind of plutonium economy, and that they hope to dominate the fission-powered future as much as they do the fossil-fuel present.

This should give serious pause to anyone considering major increases on natural gas as an energy source. It is not likely that sustainable biofuels will be available in the quantities needed to supplant natural gas for the range of applications it is currently used. If we take the path that Lovins has prescribed for us, and make our economy and our way of live much more dependent on this resource than they currently are, what will happen when it runs out? Obviously, nothing good. Indeed, it would rapidly become untenable as gas becomes scarcer and more expensive. Even with aggressive efficiency measures, by the late 21st century this path would have played itself out. The fact that the nation with the world's largest natural gas reserves doesn't think that natural gas has a very bright future is a sign that we should be divesting from dependence on it.

Never mind as well that natural gas is a fossil fuel. If James Hansen is right and we need to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to 350ppm to avoid catastrophic climate change, burning fossil fuels is simply unacceptable as a climate strategy, no matter how efficiently they are used. This also puts the kibbosh on "negawatts" generally, because using coal-fired electrical generation just isn't going to cut it. Even if Jevons' Paradox doesn't eat all the gains (a likely scenario, given past experience), we really need to supplant all fossil-fuel fired generation as quickly as possible.

Lovins concludes that:

The punch line: nuclear expansion buys two to 10 times less climate protection per dollar, far slower than its winning competitors. Spending a dollar on new nuclear power rather than on negawatts thus has a worse climate effect than spending that dollar on new coal power. Attention, Dr. Moore: you're making climate change worse.

Lovins simply does not get it. In the long run, negawatts do not really offer credible climate protection, whereas a new nuclear plant does. Neither does "micropower," a mendacious concept that has only served to distort the energy debate. In the present circumstances, the only thing that matters is developing a non-carbon energy infrastructure. In the long run, any apologist for fossil fuel dependence--even magical, ultra-efficient fossil fuel dependence--is making climate change worse. And it would appear that Amory Lovins is such an apologist.