The Green Road not Taken

Not far west from the ruined community of Cefn Croes lies the Snowdonia Mountains of Wales, the site of one of the United Kingdom’s most beautiful National Parks. It was to Snowdonia in 1971 that a young Amory Lovins came at the behest of David Brower. Young Lovins, a three-time college dropout with an unearned MA from Oxford – don’t even ask, suffice to say Oxford does not issue earned MA’s in physics, the appropriate earned degree for Lovins would have been a BSc, which Lovins never received – who, that is Lovins, a short while ago had become acquainted with environmental firebrand Brower. Brower was in the UK to participate in the organization of the UK branch of the Friends of the Earth. Lovins’ youthful interest in experimental physics had diminished, and he was open to a new direction in his life. According to Lovins, it was Brower who encouraged him to drop out of Oxford, and pursue a career that began with a Brower-commissioned book on the Snowdonia Mountains.

Brower had originally been pro-nuclear, having seen nuclear power as a more environmentally friendly alternative than the Glen Canyon Dam, but during the late 1960’s Brower had signed on to the anti-nuclear movement. Lovins’ ideas appealed to Brower:

“Amory set a standard by inventing the soft-energy path, which challenged everything,” says Brower. “He said America had too much energy, that the hydro-nuclear-coal-electric grid was silly, often unnecessary, heavily subsidized by taxpayers, dangerous, and uneconomical, that the peaceful atom was a myth masking a bloated war machine. This shook some of us, but Amory had the figures to back himself up. He always does.”

It was Lovins’s very bright idea to apply Ben Frankin’s saying “A penny saved is a penny earned,” to energy. For Lovins, a watt saved was a watt earned. Lovins’s gospel of efficiency struck a deep chord in the American psyche. The belief in efficiency as an economic solution is an old one in the United States, and is called Hooverizing after the 31st president of the United States, who was a great proponent of efficiency and enemy of waste. Lovins is very much a one-trick pony, and that trick is the word efficiency. In 2007, Lovins wrote that triumph over climate change, “will not cost you extra, it will save you money, because saving fuel costs less than buying fuel.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” There must be something more to it, you say. Perhaps not. Robert Bryce recently asked polymath Vaclav Smil,

In your writings, you point out how many times Amory Lovins, the energy efficiency advocate who heads the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been wrong in his predictions regarding the adoption of renewable energy. I laughed out loud when I read your line, ‘Inexplicably, Lovins retains his guru aura no matter how wrong he is’. Why has Lovins been wrong so often? And why does he continue to get so much fawning press coverage?

Smil responded,

Amory has become a celebrity after wholesaling his fairy-tale of “soft” decentralized small-scale energies as THE solution (with its deep countercultural, 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 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?

According to Bryce, 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 ignores. If knowledge and accuracy were not Lovins’s strong points, what he did offer was not wisdom, but the belief that energy solutions could be bought at little or no cost, simply by fighting waste. Thus politicians can avoid making hard choices, retail owners can put a few photovoltaic modules on the roofs of their stores, and home owners can drive to Sams’ Club to purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs, each in perfect realization that there is no solution to the energy crisis that energy efficiency would not fix.

Amory Lovins’ ascent into the regard of the leadership of the Democratic Party was amazingly swift, and only superficially difficult to explain. Lovins rehabilitated Hooverization among Democrats without ever mentioning Hoover’s name. When Herbert Hoover told the country that it could end the Great Depression by fighting waste, Democrats scoffed. When Amory Lovins told Jimmy Carter that an energy depression could be avoided by fighting energy waste, Democrats rejoiced. Hard choices, likely to be unpopular with the voters, could be avoided. That was Amory Lovins’s message to politicians. One could speak of Lovins’s glide to the top. In October 1976 Lovins had his essay, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” published in Foreign Policy. Within a year Lovins was in the White House chatting with Jimmy Carter about energy issues. The next day, Carter announced to an excited audience that he was considering an alternative to nuclear power. For Carter Lovins offered both a personal and a political out. As a young naval officer Carter had been given the frightening assignment of helping with the clean up after a major Canadian reactor accident in 1953 (NRX-1). Working in such frightening circumstances could very well affected Carter’s views of nuclear power. Although historians usually attribute Carter’s resignation from the Navy to the death of his father, Carter’s Chalk River experience could have been more of a factor than he acknowledged.

Carter also had political reasons for wishing to discount nuclear power. Amory Lovins provided Carter with political cover. Thus by November 1977 Amory Lovins was a force to be reckoned with, despite the slight intellectual foundation for his reputation.

I would not for one moment hold Lovins responsible for the decline of the fortune of nuclear power in the United States. The decline of the United States nuclear establishment began in 1969, when Amory Lovins was hiding from his draft board at Oxford. Politicians wishing to cut the fat from the budget, or placate environmentalists, or a public that feared the China Syndrome, could always use Lovins as a cover. So Lovins has been accorded glory for his bad advice, and jets all over the planet in a quest to save it from Global Warming. The Lovins gospel is that we don’t have replace fossil fuels with expensive, dirty and dangerous nuclear power, and we can actually save money at the same time. Fossil fuels can be replaced by efficiency. If we need more electricity than we can save through efficiency, the sun and wind – both of which are free – will do the rest. Be happy, don’t worry about energy shortages.

During the upward glide that took Lovins to his meeting with Jimmy Carter, Alvin Weinberg invited Amory Lovins to his think tank in Oak Ridge. There Lovins presented an early version of The Path Not Taken, and as Weinberg had done on many occasions, he began
to question the young man. Weinberg found Lovins articulate, but “so wrong headed”. Weinberg thought Lovins “longed for a simpler world”. In his own way, Weinberg who regarded himself as a friend of Lovins was far kinder to Lovins than Smil was.

Weinberg’s forte was to get the best out of scientists. In doing so, he would first ask to hear what the scientist had to say, and then offer a response. At ORNL it was well known that if Weinberg offered you the criticism that you were wrong headed, you best ought to listen to avoid humiliation later on. Not that Weinberg would do the humiliation, rather that the mistakes which Weinberg had caught would cause a scientist’s career to suffer. But when your mistakes come from telling people what they want to hear, your career may flourish rather suffer.

It was Alvin Weinberg, a trained biologist as well as physicist, who understood ecology in a way Lovins never did. Weinberg understood the danger of CO2 emissions and in 1974 had warned Congress about global warming. During his brief stay in Washington, Weinberg pushed for CO2 research. When Jimmy Carter chose coal over nuclear power, Lovins did not utter a word of protest, but Weinberg wrote of the choice:

The difficulties and risks of the nuclear path have been delineated often and in detail. Of these, proliferation of nuclear weapons probably poses the greatest risk, though one must always remember that power reactors and chemical plants provide a sufficient, not necessary, technical basis for proliferation. The major risk in the coal path is the possible CO2 catastrophe. In a way this is the coal analogue of nuclear proliferation: it is global, uncertain, possibly catastrophic. Thus we see the dimensions of the dilemma: the two energy systems upon which we are expecting to depend, at least over the medium term, are flawed to a degree that is at present essentially impossible to fully estimate, and that indeed may never be fully possible to estimate. To those who embrace coal as a fission-free bridge to a solar future, the CO2 question should inject a note of prudent concern: we can turn the phrase around and ask whether fission based on reactors of current design perhaps will have to serve as a coal-free bridge to a fusion, breeder, or solar future. We must also consider the possibility that both nuclear energy and coal will be judged by future generations to be fatally flawed and the question, “Can we make it on solar energy alone?” will have to be rephrased: “How can we make it on solar energy alone?”

There were consequences using the cover Lovins provided as Weinberg understood. Although energy efficiency did improve over the next generation, so did CO2 emissions from electrical generation. Lovins, of course, never fought against coal the way he fought against nuclear. If society seemed to follow Lovins lead, rather than Weinberg’s, it was because society wanted to follow that path, not because of Lovins leadership or his prescience. Lovins, unlike Weinberg was not gifted with foresight.

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