Green Energy at Fortune Brainstorm

(guest posting by Richard Martin, author of “Superfuel”)

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.

8 thoughts on “Green Energy at Fortune Brainstorm

  1. It is interesting to see those who challenge the narrow minded establishment, slowly become the new narrow-minded establishment. It is selective innovation.

  2. I wouldn't in any way give the 'green' technology scammers like Lovins any credit for challenging a narrow minded establishment.

    If anything they challenged those of broader mind then them, i.e. those who had a broad enough mind to be able to imagine how we could use more energy (Lovin's opposition to nuclear really only comes about because he thinks it bad to use energy and nuclear can provide us with a lot more than he thinks we should use, an advance in technology allowing wind and solar to be useful would probably cause him to oppose them).

    As for selective innovation, Luddites aren't actually about opposing technology for it's own sake (with a few crazy exceptions) but about keeping the economic status quo or going back to an earlier time they prefer (note that the original Luddites didn't destroy any looms owned by those who kept the old system instead of moving to mass production). Thus why they support technologies which don't actually work (e.g. wind and ground based solar).

    As for Carbon Fibre cars, you can certainly build a light and strong car from the material but it's quite a bit more expensive than Steel so we shouldn't expect to see it on anything which isn't a Luxury car any time soon.

  3. Richard – thanks for the post, and I'm glad you were able to speak to Lovins without throttling him. I think you summarize the conference nicely. I had a look at the program, and there's an underlying presumption that the future will have more than enough energy to operate all of the high technology goodies the speakers want.

    Your point c) in your summary is especially apt when you recall that nuclear energy is the only energy field where there can be two orders of magnitude or more of efficiency improvement. All we have to do is switch from fissioning about 1% of the uranium (U235 with minor contributions from other actinides) to fissioning 99%+ of uranium and thorium in converters and breeders.

    A site I found via a guest post on The Oil Drum, Galactic-scale energy: Part 1, led me to an efficiency discussion on the blog Do The Math. The discussion is Can Economic Growth Last? and here's how the blog's author, Tom Murphy, bridges into a discussion of efficiency:

    My focus, as a physicist, is to understand whether the impossibility of indefinite physical growth (i.e., in energy, food, manufacturing) means that economic growth in general is also fated to end or reverse. We’ll start with a close look at efficiency, then move on to talk about more spritely economic factors.

    His discussion is well worth reading IMO; his approach is like David MacKay's in Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air. He sums his discussion up:

    Given that two-thirds of our energy resource is burned in heat engines, and that these cannot improve much more than a factor of two, more significant gains elsewhere are diminished in value. For instance, replacing the 10% of our energy budget spent on direct heat (e.g., in furnaces and hot water heaters) with heat pumps operating at their maximum theoretical efficiency effectively replaces a 10% expenditure with a 1% expenditure. A factor of ten sounds like a fantastic improvement, but the overall efficiency improvement in society is only 9%. Likewise with light bulb replacement: large gains in a small sector. We should still pursue these efficiency improvements with vigor, but we should not expect this gift to provide a form of unlimited growth.

    On balance, the most we might expect to achieve is a factor of two net efficiency increase before theoretical limits and engineering realities clamp down. At the present 1% [per annum] overall rate, this means we might expect to run out of gain this century.

    For me, this is in stark contrast to the gains available in fission energy. I think Amory Lovins needs to revisit his reasoning; of course, any change would damage his credibility as a guru who had received the Complete Truth… 😉

  4. Lovins is a priori opposed to using energy so the fact that fission can provide all our energy use right now and still has a good couple of orders of magnitude improvement possible (even more if we can figure out how to get fusion to be useful) means that he's vision of us all using less energy would not be possible.

    The simple fact of the matter is that if you make it possible for people to use a lot of energy they (or at least most of us) will and he doesn't want that (not for any of us), not even if we can use all that energy without damaging the environment.

    For Lovins to come around and support nuclear power he would have to give up his belief in the virtue of a low energy society and his desire to force a low energy society on all of us.

  5. Most of what you need to know about Amory Lovins is summed up in the following statement that he made during an appearance on Democracy Now! on July 16, 2008:

    "You know, I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil."

    Lovins does not hate energy and he does not hate money. He makes money by helping energy companies keep energy "scarce" and expensive. Limiting the supply of any commodity is always beneficial to the producers of that commodity whose portion of the supply was not limited.

    When society artificially constrains nuclear fission and encourages natural gas, it benefits natural gas producers in two ways. They sell more product and they obtain a higher price for the product that they sell.

    Lovins sold out to the oil and gas companies more than 35 years ago, but some people still give him credit for being a green energy guru.


    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  6. Ouch! I did not realize until I read the comments here that Amory Lovins was the unholy spawn of the Devil and one of the oil companies!

    Look- he is, and has been, very pro renewable-energy, very in favor of local/nondistributed power, and a huge proponent, perhaps even over the first two, in efficency- saving energy thru more efficient . This is not a bad thing- he wants the same things in the end- energy independence and a cleaner environment.

    I am disappointed that he is so closed-minded on LFTR nuclear- I can only hope that as he is educated more on its benefits that he will have a change of heart- such a voice could be a potent ally for LFTR. But I doubt attacking his character is going to make it easier to sway, or at least broaden, his future view of our energy posibilities.

    I'm glad you had the chance to interact with him, Kirk- sometimes where blogs and books fail, relationships can succeed. Perhaps you will have some future opportunites to 'confront' him;-)

  7. @Paul C

    You seem to believe that it is important to sway people like Lovins. I don't; I think it is important to sway those who have been seduced by his line of BS for nearly 40 years.

    I point to his own words – he has worked for the oil companies for more than 35 years. One of the messages that those companies have been spreading since at least 1970 is that someday solar and wind will start to make inroads into their markets. We are still waiting.

    I believe it has all been a well orchestrated marketing message – distract the people with tall tales about how unreliables will somehow be able to provide the energy we need (but not the energy we want), using mouthpieces like Lovins.

    Heck, I have even found a few smoking guns with ads that Lovins would love that were directly paid for by fossil fuel focused interests.

    Here is a link to one example:

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