Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Soft Road to Copenhagen: Bridges to Nowhere, Path to Failure

Amory Lovins created a sensation in 1976, with his famous Foreign Affairs Essay, Energy Strategy, The Road Not Taken. Lovins argued that the 1976 American path of energy use was leading the United States toward unnecessarily and increasingly wasteful patterns of energy use. The pattern was illustrated by Figure 1.
The Figure 1 pattern cannot be sustained, Lovins argued that
The flaws in this type of energy policy have been pointed out by critics in and out of government. For example, despite the intensive electrification—consuming more than half the total fuel input in 2000 and more thereafter—we are still short of gaseous and liquid fuels, acutely so from the 1980s on, because of slow and incomplete substitution of electricity for the two-thirds of fuel use that is now direct.
Not only did the movement toward electrification lead to increasing energy inefficiencies, but
the most intractable barriers to implementing Figure I is its capital cost.
Lovins challenged the notion, which he attributed to Chase Manhattan Bank which in 1973
saw virtually no scope for conservation save by minor curtailments: the efficiency with which energy produced economic outputs was assumed to be optimal already.
Lovins asked,
what have more careful studies taught us about the scope for doing better with the energy we have? Since we can't keep the bathtub filled because the hot water keeps running out, do we really (as Malcolm MacEwen asks) need a bigger water heater, or could we do better with a cheap, low-technology plug?
Lovins offered solutions to what he argued was a growing energy shortage:
First, we can plug leaks and use thriftier technologies to produce exactly the same output of goods and services—and bads and nuisances—as before, substituting other resources (capital, design, management, care, etc.) for some of the energy we formerly used. When measures of this type use today's technologies, are advantageous today by conventional economic criteria, and have no significant effect on life- styles, they are called "technical fixes." . . . Technical fixes . . . . include thermal insulation, heat-pumps (devices like air conditioners which move heat around— often in either direction—rather than making it-from scratch), more efficient furnaces and car engines, less overlighting and overventilation in commercial buildings, and recuperators for waste heat in industrial processes. Hundreds of technical and semi-technical analyses of both kinds of conservation have been done; in the last two years especially, much analytic progress has been made,
The other remedy for the energy shortage was moral:
In addition, or instead, we can make and use a smaller quantity or a different mix of the outputs themselves, thus to some degree changing (or reflecting ulterior changes in) our life-styles. We might do this because of changes in personal values, rationing by price or otherwise, mandatory curtailments, or gentler inducements. Such "social changes" include car-pooling, smaller cars, mass transit, bicycles, walking, opening windows, dressing to suit the weather, and extensively recycling materials.
Lovins stated that his goal was :
To fuse into a coherent strategy the benefits of energy efficiency and of soft technologies, we need one further ingredient: transitional technologies that use fossil fuels briefly and sparingly to build a bridge to the energy-income economy of 2025, conserving those fuels—especially oil and gas—for petrochemicals (ammonia, plastics, etc.) and leaving as much as possible in the ground for emergency use only.
Lovins warned :
These choices may seem abstract, but they are sharp, imminent and practical. We stand at a crossroads: without decisive action our options will slip away. Delay in energy conservation lets wasteful use run on so far that the logistical problems of catching up become insuperable. Delay in widely deploying diverse soft technologies pushes them so far into the future that there is no longer a credible fossil-fuel bridge to them: they must be well under way before the worst part of the oil-and-gas decline. Delay in building the fossil-fuel bridge makes it too tenuous: what the sophisticated coal technologies can give us, in particular, will no longer mesh with our pattern of transitional needs as oil and gas dwindle.
The fossil fuel Bridge for Lovins involved more efficient use of fossil fuels, combined heat and power systems, co-generation, the use of previously wasted heat for district heating. in other words the use of fossil fuels with greater efficiency. For Lovins the soft path represented a return to the rural and small town past:
While soft technologies can match any settlement pattern, their diversity reflecting our own pluralism, centralized energy sources encourage industrial clustering and urbanization. While soft technologies give everyone the costs and benefits of the energy system he chooses, centralized systems allocate benefits to suburbanites and social costs to politically weaker rural agrarians. Siting big energy systems pits central authority against local autonomy in an increasingly divisive and wasteful form of centrifugal politics that is already proving one of the most potent constraints on expansion.
Lovins contrasted the virtues of the small town, and rural American values, with the vices of big city life that was promoted by hard path energy.
In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you. Decisions about who shall have how much energy at what price also become centralized—a politically dangerous trend because it divides those who use energy from those who supply and regulate it
Lovins offered a "We've got trouble in River City" pitch as he described the hard path energy system:
The scale and complexity of centralized grids not only make them politically inaccessible to the poor and weak, but also increase the likelihood and size of malfunctions, mistakes and deliberate disruptions. A small fault or a few discontented people become able to turn off a country. Even a single rifleman can probably black out a typical city instantaneously. Societies may therefore be tempted to discourage disruption through stringent controls akin to a garrison state. In times of social stress, when grids become a likely target for dissidents, the sector may be paramilitarized and further isolated from grass-roots politics
Lovins attack against nuclear power contains some curious echoes from the Middle American past:
Any demanding high technology tends to develop influential and dedicated constituencies of those who link its commercial success with both the public welfare and their own. Such sincerely held beliefs, peer pressures, and the harsh demands that the work itself places on time and energy all tend to discourage such people from acquiring a similarly thorough knowledge of alternative policies and the need to discuss them. Moreover, the money and talent invested in an electrical program tend to give it disproportionate influence in the counsels of government, often directly through staff-swapping between policy- and mission-oriented agencies. This incestuous position, now well developed in most industrial countries, distorts both social, and energy priorities in a lasting way that resists political remedy.

We hear the voice of a self serving championed of lower middle class interests against big business, Ralph Nader. Like Nader, Lovins associates nuclear power with the vices of bigness, and is furthermore leading us down roads that are distinctly un-American.
But fission technology also has unique sociopolitical side-effects arising from the impact of human fallibility and malice on the persistently toxic and explosive materials in the fuel cycle. For example, discouraging nuclear violence and coercion requires some abrogation of civil liberties; guarding long-lived wastes against geological or social contingencies implies some form of hierarchical social rigidity or homogeneity to insulate the technological priesthood from social turbulence; and making political decisions about nuclear hazards which are compulsory, remote from social experience, disputed, unknown, or unknowable, may tempt governments to bypass democratic decision in favor of elitist technocracy.
Thus in his attack on nuclear power, Lovins claims that there could be no future for nuclear power. If we look at the nuclear power industry as it exists in 2009 we must ask, where is the attack on freedom which Lovins anticipated. Given that this essay is already far too long, I will not burden my readers with a further account of Lovins' criticisms of nuclear power. All the relevant issues were addressed by David Bradish in his 5 part refutation of Lovins critique of nuclear power. Lovins withdrew from a debate with Bradish, with most of Bradish's criticisms unanswered. Nor has Lovins chosen to address the views of numerous other critics, thus if we must assign a grade to Lovins defense of his views on energy and nuclear power, it would be an incomplete. What then of Lovins' soft path?

The soft path of today is not that charted in Lovins famous Figure 2. Nuclear power has not disappeared from the energy picture. Nor does coal, oil and natural gas, seen as destined to disappear from our energy picture by 2025, seem to be going away. But beyond that there are complaints that Lovins 1976 article failed to predict many important trends. Energy scholar Vaclav Smil is one of the few scholars who has paid serious attention to Lovins's forecasts. Smil's comments on Lovins contain no small expression of academic sarcasm:
Amory has become a celebrity after wholesaling his fairy-tale of “soft” decentralized small-scale energies as THE solution (with its deep counter-cultural, Berkeleyish appeal), and it is the first law of celebrity-hood that, right or wrong, coherent or not, you retain the status. Combine that with the just-noted mass scientific ignorance of the population and with Amory’s sleek offerings of no-pain solutions (nothing will cost anything, or as he famously put it, “abating climate change for fun and profit”) and you have new believers signing up every time he speaks. By the way, by this time we all should have been driving nothing but Lovinsian hypercars (something like 200 mpg, made like new Boeing 787s solely from carbon composites) whose conceptual design he launched more than a decade ago; have you seen any?
Smil attributes to Lovins numerous failed predictions including:
1. Renewables will take huge swaths of the overall energy market. (1976)
2. Electricity consumption will fall. (1984)
3. Cellulosic ethanol will solve our oil import needs. (repeatedly)
4. Efficiency will lower consumption. (repeatedly)
Smil, of course, knows all about Jevons and his famous energy efficiency paradox, the paradox which Lovins ignored in "The Road Not Taken."

Clearly then Lovins, who Time Magazine named one of the hundred most influential people in the world, is to the extent of his influence, a fount of disinformation. No doubt that Amory Lovins will have enormous influence on what is said and done in Copenhagen this December, that is a handicap that must be overcome. if we are to make any real progress in the war against climate change


Atomic Khan said...

Even though I agree there is a lot of waste in energy use, Lovin’s utopian mentality and forecasts just show how brain dead he was in his predictions. This guy would be far better religious preacher for the weak minded. When it comes to energy expertise, too many of his “Soft” brain cells were at play.

The North Coast said...

The designations "hard" and "soft" have been employed to great advantage to sway an emotional and uninformed public in favor of inefficient and unworkable solar, wind, and geothermal.

Well, a little bit of cursory searching and reading makes it pretty obvious that there is no "soft" way to produce the energy we need. All forms of energy production have steep price tags attached, whether in capital costs or in environmental consequences, and the the term "soft" has kept people from recognizing the steep environmental costs of solar, wind, and geothermal.

Trouble is, people are very uninformed and most of the people we need to reach, will never find the information they need, or be able to make sense of it even if they did. Nuclear just does not have enough promotion.

What's needed is for someone to produce a well-written, catchy book. The posts on this blog and a couple of others put together would make a great, readable book. Make the book available either in paperback or by a cheap PDF download. Then email every politician at the state and local level with an ad for the book.

But you would have to dumb it down a bit. Get yourself an editor who can help you "simplify" it, maybe "dumb" it down to 6th grade level reading skill, so that even a state legislator or a Chicago mayor can understand it.

Nathan2go said...

North Coast,
Here's a free on-line book I recommend: The Nuclear Energy Option, by Bernard Cohen. http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/

It's not exactly light reading, which I believe is a good thing, since facts that are dumbed down tends to be indistiguishable from fiction.

Thanks for another good post. Reading about Lovins' early wrong-headedness makes it easier to understand his present wrong-headedness.

Duncan said...

Charles, I just saw this awesome example of sockpuppetry on treehugger:

Wouldn't want you to miss a chance to go toe-to-toe with RMI, and I'm sure you'll do a better job than I would.


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