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.


DV8 2XL said...

Good post, one of your better in fact.

Of course Lovins is in the pocket of Big Carbon, and always has been. Few people realize just how deep.

Rod Adams wrote a item about his time as a consultant for the natural gas industry, and advocating the use of coal in the article Blast from the past from a "clean coal" advocate - Amory Lovins over at Atomic Insights

His work in these areas helps explain some of his current stands, I would think.

Charles Barton said...

Another excellent post.

David Bradish said...

Well done. I didn't see Lovins' second rebuttal until this morning and seeing that it had been up since Friday, I would have thought there would be more than three comments. I didn't know what to think of the few comments, but your insights seem right on.

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

That was hilarious wasn't it!

Roman said...

Почему так негативно)) ?
микрогенераторы - имеют свое применение. Безусловно, атомные реакторы - очевидный выход, но с дешевеющими солнечными панелями, 3-5 киловатт с каждой крыши - только плюс, и все более и более реальный))

Успехов с диссертацией,


Sovietologist said...

Thank you for your kind wishes with regards to my dissertation.

My main motivation in writing this post, however, was my frustration with Lovins' insistence that microgeneration will solve a broad spectrum of environmental, economic, and social problems. I have to admit that I've always found Lovins infuriating, since he's quite adept at misleading people who should really know better into thinking that there's an easy answer to our energy problems.

If solar panels eventually become cheap enough and nuclear fuel becomes sufficiently expensive, it is possible that rooftop PV will become a reasonable investment. At the moment, though, it makes much more sense to encourage the development of domestic solar water heaters. Due to qualitative problems, it's unreasonable to expect small-scale renewables to form the backbone of our future energy infrastructure, but they could conceivably provide supplemental power provided that a certain number of technological innovations come through. This would require considerable reductions in price, improvements in grid infrastructure, and in all likelihood some form of cheap electricity storage. Right now, however, they are an extremely inefficient use of capital expenditure. Until this changes, I cannot endorse their large-scale adoption.