After the luncheon panel on “Green Technology: What’s Now & What’s Next” at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, in Aspen, I confronted Amory Lovins and asked him a simple question: “Is there any potential technological innovation that would cause you to reconsider your views on nuclear power?”
Lovins is the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and his anti-nuclear stance is well-known, as exemplified by this article entitled “Forget Nuclear.” Lovins claim is that nuclear is both unsafe and uneconomical as compared to new wind and solar capacity. His answer to my question was, essentially, “No.” When I mentioned that I am the writer of the thorium feature that ran in Wired last year he replied “Well, I recall thinking that you got the economics and the technology backward.”
I have great respect for the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute and I will not detail here the ways in which he has it wrong on thorium-based nuclear power (for that please see the book version of the thorium story, due out next spring from Macmillan Science)—other than to note that the close-mindedness epitomized by his reply is what got us into our current energy crisis in the first place. What I will do is share some of the insights from the panel, which featured futurist Peter Schwartz, co-founder of Global Business Network, and Andy Karsner, CEO of Manifest Energy. The consensus was that there’s great reason for optimism on the technology side and little reason for it on the policy and politics side.
“We’re in a remarkable period of this great storm of innovation worldwide,” said Schwartz. “The problem is in the U.S.” The problem, he added, was the inability of the government to take concrete, rational policy steps that will clear the way for green-technology innovation to reach the market and for innovative companies to succeed.
The unexpected boom in natural gas from shale deposits, said Karsner, could serve as a relatively low-carbon bridge to the renewable-energy-based economy of the future, but that the obstacles of pervasive regulation and perverse incentives could prevent that from happening.
“We’re just an anti-energy development country,” declared Karsner. “That’s where we are.”
In his new book Reinventing Fire, due out in the fall, Lovins argues that by 2050 we can build a non-fossil-fuel based energy industry that includes no nuclear, significantly less natural gas, no oil, and that essentially runs on wind and solar and other renewables, with an 80 percent decrease in carbon emissions and 180 percent growth in GDP. (I do not share that optimism.)
Schwartz—who does not share Lovins’ knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power—mentioned that we are on the verge of a “new industrial revolution” based on new energy technologies, that will transform many businesses. “Where that will lead manufacturing, energy, and other industries is an open question,” Schwartz added. “What’s unquestionable is that the range of options will continue to grow.”
Mutiplying options was another theme that each of the panelists promoted. Lovins mentioned the work of RMI spinoff FiberForge, which has led the way in developing cars made from ultralight materials, chiefly carbon fiber, that will require one-third the energy to power them. He claimed that at least three carmakers (including most visibly BMW) have adopted this strategy and four others are in process of adopting it—representing a “radically different competitive path in automaking.”
As options for energy sources, particularly in transportation, multiply, one risk is “consumer confusion,” said Schwartz. If there are cars on the market with multiple forms of power sources—plug-in hybrid, hydrogen battery, serial hybrid, diesel, biofuel, and so on—the question for buyers become “What do I want, and how amI supposed to think about that?”
Given the rapid advance of clean-energy technology, the larger question, said Karsner, is one of national competitiveness: “Will we use these new resources, including natural gas and the new technology ideas, to address our greatest problems [in the United States] or will we export the gas, deploy solar manufacturing facilities, and send our better ideas to China, to collateralize our debt to China to pay the Saudis?”
Three things to point out about this discussion:
a) It’s remarkable how many discussions of the future of energy come down to Us vs.Them, i.e., the U.S. vs. China.
b) There is broad agreement that technologies will be available to meet broad carbon-emission goals by 2050, if national policy is shifted.
c) It’s remarkable that in a discussion that centered around energy density and efficiency, nuclear power was hardly even mentioned.