Saturday, August 29, 2009

Amory Lovins in the Buff

In previous posts on David Bradish's debate with Amory Lovins, I noted that Bradish had posted a multi-part critique of Lovins online and that Lovins had responded to the first two parts of Bradish's critique. Lovins was unwilling to respond to criticisms of his defense by Bradish and others. When Loving failed to produce promised defenses of three further phases of Bradish's critique, he gave every appearance of abandoning the field to Bradish.

I wish to now consider the third part of Bradish's critique and the implications of Lovins failure to respond to it. Bradish pointed to a short essay titled "Forget Nuclear" in which Lovins and his associates had argued
An even cheaper competitor [to new nuclear plants] is end use efficiency (“negawatts”)—saving electricity by using it more efficiently or at smarter times.
There was nothing new in this statement. Lovins had repeated the same views on efficiency on numerous occasions for well over three decades. What was relatively new was the extent that scholars had attacked Lovins view on efficiency during the last decade. These attacks were summarized in the Energy Tribune by writer Robert Bryce in the fall of 2007. Bradish quoted Bryce:
The final – and most important – area in which Lovins has been consistently wrong is his claim that efficiency lowers energy consumption. And when it comes to arguing the merits of energy efficiency, Lovins’s prime nemesis is a dead guy – William Stanley Jevons – a British economist who in 1865 determined that increased efficiency won’t cut energy use, it will raise it. “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” And in the 142 years since Jevons put forth that thesis, now commonly known as the Jevons Paradox, he’s yet to be proven wrong. . . .

But when it comes down to brass tacks, energy efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean less energy use, it usually means more energy use. And that usually means more carbon dioxide emissions. Thus, the idea of “saving the climate for fun and profit” may be just a bit more complicated than Lovins claims.

Bradish pointed out as evidence against Lovins views on efficiency:
Below is a chart that shows the electric intensity vs. electricity consumption per person for the U.S. The chart shows that the U.S. became more efficient with its electricity (electric intensity) starting in the 1970s but continued to consume more electricity per person. If efficiency supposedly curbs demand, then the chart should show the red line following the blue line after the 1970s (or at least some change in that direction). It does not.
Bradish pointed out that Lovins had attempted a previous attempt to defend his views against Bryce and others, but had committed to what amounted to an Freshman level blunder in Economic theory:
RMI and Amory Lovins are well aware of the Jevons Paradox and the Energy Tribune article. They attempt to rebut the two by citing the improvements in refrigerators, the implementation of hybrids, and the reduced energy consumption per-capita in California and Vermont. The Paradox describes macro-level behavior. Micro-level data on refrigerators and hybrids do not refute it. For example, the energy savings from refrigerators could simply have gone to plasma-screen TVs, XBoxes, computers or other electrical equipment. The energy savings from hybrids could simply have gone to a new lawn-mower, boat or car
In addition to David Bradish, the blogger who goes by the title "the Sovietologist" focused on the problem which the Jevons paradox issue confronted Lovins:
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.
The Sovietologist's comment suggests why Lovins has never responded to Bradish. Simply put, Lovins, a college drop-out, is over his head in issues dealt with in Freshman economics.

Lovins failure to defend his view from criticisms by Bradish and numerous others should have destroyed Lovins' reputation, and it has among people who think seriously about energy. But it hasn't for the sort of "energy expert" who offers pat answers. Lovins is way too useful to far too many people. Lovins provides easy answers for politicians, and of course the energy foxes of the Energy Collective, many of whom make their living parroting Lovins discredited views. The Emperor may be unclothed , but lots of people would prefer to ignore that.


Anonymous said...

Wow! You outted Lovins... Congratulations.

Is the utility of nuclear power going up or down? Seems like it's going down?

Have you ever worked in the nuclear field or the energy field in general? What qualifies you as a chemist to talk about all these energy related matters.

Charles Barton said...

My father was a nuclear chemist,who helped todevelop the light water reactor and spent nearly 20 years on nuclear safety and Molten Salt React9r research. He spent the last years of his career researching radiation safety issues involving natural gas. I have learnedf directlyfrom myfather, from reading hispaper,and in studying the history of the development of nuclear technology in theUnited States, which wasthe context in which my father worked. i also have done case study analysis of renewable energy sources, based on published available information.

bobcat said...


One word.


Soylent said...

"Is the utility of nuclear power going up or down?"


It is necessary for greens and fossil fuel interests alike to ignore the actual record of nuclear power and apply increasingly bizarre double standards and non-sequiturs.

Coal particulates in the US kill ~30 000 people per year; that's equivalent to having several Chernobyl accidents every year. Where are the protests? How are the still running?

Coal plants never have to restore the site to greenfield and they never have to set aside funds in advance to do so. Where are the protests?

Solar and wind are near useless and crushingly expensive(mums the word on cost, unless it's nuclear). They are inextricably linked with burning vast quantities of natural gas which is on par with coal on greenhouse gas emissions(no, you do not get to ignore the contribution of the 2-3% of natural gas that leaks into the atmosphere). Natural gas is also on par with oil in terms of scarcity.

"What qualifies you as a chemist to talk about all these energy related matters."

Having a functioning brain in his skull and defering to experts when necessary.

Anonymous said...

"What qualifies you as a chemist to talk about all these energy related matters."

"Having a functioning brain in his skull and defering to experts when necessary."

I don't buy the, "I stayed in a Holiday Inn last night" argument. My great-grandfather was offered a job with Edison. I've got family in Bechtel. My dad installed power plant turbines for many years. That's a neat history but my heritage provides no direct indication of my expertise. Could you find your way around a power plant? Have you ever worked on the project engineering side of things? Have you taught power plant operations/nuclear science stuff/electricity theory etc?

"Coal particulates in the US kill ~30 000 people per year"

Hypothetically let's say we're trading these 30,000 lives for electricity that is a few cents/kWh cheaper. 1 cent saves 35 billion, 2 cents saves 70 billion etc. At some point we can save more than 30,000 lives with the money that is saved with coal.

Charles Barton said...

Som It would be inpossible for a lay person, to make some well informed judgements about energy technology? You believe that only people with PhD's in chemistry or some other science can make judgement involving technology. Are you an advocate of the Soviet of Engineers?

Charles Barton said...

since I am not trained as an astronimer, I suppose that I cannot judge if the earth circles the sun, or if the sun is a star, or if the moon is made of green cheese.

Anonymous said...

What authority do you have on the subject at hand. Apply the same criteria to yourself as your last post applies to Lovins.

Charles Barton said...

Anonymous i claim no authority other than the credibility of the facts I base my arguments on and the validity of the logic I employ. I am of course fallible in both, so I attempt to be careful about what claims I make.

DocForesight said...

Anon - Lovins is touted as an energy "expert" and has made public pronouncements and predictions regarding that. His record of those predictions over the last 30 years are subject to assessment and judgement. Since his record is demonstrably weak, his "expert" status is likewise weak.

Charles has not made public pronouncements, but has judged Lovins based on sound logical principles. One needn't be an "expert" to assess the accuracy of someone's predictions - one just needs to be willing to be objective when looking at the data.

BTW, using the "Anonymous" handle doesn't add credibility to your critique. I realize you could call yourself "Rumplestiltskin" and it wouldn't be any more credible, but at least it would show some creativity.


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