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Amory Lovins vs. Stewart Brand - Part Three (The “Portfolio Myth”)

The third part of our series that debunks Amory Lovins’ study which criticizes Stewart Brand’s nuclear chapter discusses the need for all emission-free technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The “portfolio myth”

On page 82, Brand states that:

climate change is so serious a matter, we have to do everything simultaneously to head it off as much as we can.

Stewart Brand backs up his statement by citing Princeton’s wedge concept which proposes that a number of different technologies will be needed to avoid CO2 emissions. Lovins, of course, doesn’t buy this (pdf, p. 17):

There is no analytic basis for Brand’s assumption that all energy options are necessary, nor is it sensible.

Lovins goes on to criticize Brand for misinterpreting parts of the Princeton study. As well, Lovins dings Brand for offering only one piece of evidence to back up the concept of a portfolio approach.

Well, there isn’t just one piece of evidence that says we need a portfolio of technologies. The Electric Power Research Institute has been presenting their analysis on how to reduce emissions for three years now (pdf) and below is their chart that shows the amount the US has to build for each technology to help reduce emissions (p. 3):

Each color represents the incremental reduction in emissions projected as feasible for a given technology under a given set of assumptions.

EPRI’s model builds out the maximum amount of capacity that they believe is possible to achieve for each technology. For example, by 2030, they project that the US nuclear industry could feasibly build 64,000 megawatts of new capacity and renewables could build 135,000 MW.

Lovins also argues on page 17 that:

The more urgent you think it is to protect the climate, the more important it is to spend each dollar to best effect by choosing the fastest and cheapest options—those that will displace most carbon soonest.

Here’s what the EPRI analysis found (pdf, p. 16):

The analysis confirms that while the cost of implementing major CO2 emissions reductions is significant, development and deployment of a full portfolio of technologies will reduce the cost to the U.S. economy by more than $1 trillion. Less than half of these savings would be achievable if the future electricity sector generation portfolio does not include advanced coal with CO2 capture and storage or advanced light water nuclear reactors.

EPRI’s results from their economic model conclude that nuclear IS a good buy to reduce emissions, contrary to Lovins’ assertions. If we don’t invest in nuclear, it will cost more for other technologies to reduce emissions. Lovins says that “we have only so much money.” EPRI found that we’ll be saving money if we invest in nuclear.

Further, other economic models from other sources came to many of the same conclusions as EPRI did on nuclear. Below is a table of many more studies that found that nuclear is projected to have a large role to play in a CO2-sensitive world. The table highlights the amount of new nuclear capacity projected to be built by a certain year under various climate change proposals and analyses.

For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s economic analysis of the House of Representative’s climate change legislation (Waxman/Markey, H.R. 2454), 187 new reactors are projected to be built by 2050 if we assume all existing nuclear plants retire after 60 years.

According to the Energy Information Administration’s economic analysis of the Waxman/Markey bill, in the shorter term, the United States would need to build 69 new reactors by 2030 to meet the bill’s CO2 reduction goals. This would result in nuclear energy supplying 33 percent of US electricity, more than any other source.

Here are even more studies we’ve compiled highlighting what others are saying about nuclear energy's role in averting climate change and protecting the environment.

Back to Lovins (p. 18):

Nuclear expansion, [my] papers show, is about the least [cost] effective way to displace carbon (or achieve any of its other professed goals).

That’s just it, only Lovins’ papers show nuclear is the least cost effective way to displace CO2. Everyone else’s economic modeling comes to opposite conclusions. Lovins again on page 18:

These—efficiency and micropower—are the solutions that the global marketplace is overwhelmingly choosing in preference to nuclear power, where allowed to.

For those who weren’t around a year and a half ago when we debunked Lovins’ previous study, we showed that his data for “micropower” was mostly made up of decentralized fossil-fuel plants. As Sovietologist pointed out a few weeks ago, Lovins admitted in his latest post at Grist that he still doesn’t know the carbon intensity of “micropower.” How can Lovins claim “micropower” is a better climate solution than nuclear when he doesn’t even know its CO2 footprint? Stewart Brand sums it up more eloquently (p. 100):

It turns out that [Lovins’] arguments against the economics of nuclear power work only within the narrow commercial boundaries he defines, which increasingly no longer apply, and he focuses mainly on the US. His reasoning has no traction in relatively dirigiste economies like France, Japan, and most developing countries, especially China and India; if those governments want nukes, they build nukes. More important, the loom of climate change has altered everybody’s perspective on costs and risks.

It would be presumptuous to exclude any technology that has the ability to reduce emissions, generate vast quantities of electricity and provide reliable and affordable power. Nuclear already does this. Wind and solar have a foot in the door to possibly make a meaningful contribution. The world, however, has very little experience of successfully integrating high amounts of wind and solar. Wind capacity is booming right now but how do we know if it’ll sufficiently perform in a potentially warmer climate? We already know wind generation declines in the summer (pdf). Thus, it would be a bit foolish of us to put all of our eggs in one basket, especially with technologies dependent on the whims of the sun and wind.


tedrock said…
The question is not whether building a windmill is better than building a fossil plant, or better than doing nothing. The default choice is nuclear, the only non-fossil energy source to prove itself after 36 years of subsidized encouragement after the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.

During that trial period, nuclear was unilaterally penalized by having to pay for all expenses up front, including shutdown and decommissioning to "green field cleanliness."

So as each new untested contestant shows up, it should be asked to prove it will be better than simply building another proven nuke.
Tom Blees said…
Lovins says that “we have only so much money.”

Good point, Amory! So let's not throw it away like Germany and Spain have been doing, okay? Check this out.
Or if you might grudgingly admit that solar might not be the be-all and end-all but that wind is the way to go, try this:
Stephen Kennedy said…
Would be nice to believe that we can do the rational thing, but whether we do or not, the news out of China and India is fairly amazing. China announced yesterday the selection of the first 3 sites for development of indigenous AP1000 reactors (2 at each)---the result of the technology transfer agreement they insisted on with Westinghouse. They plan to start within a year! And the first AP1000 (being built by Westinghouse and Shaw) won't be complete until 2013. They also plan 2 more reactors at each site, and are considering an additional 6 sites. I have also read that when the have the supply chain and factories for building AP1000 modules up and running the expect the cost to be below $1B / AP1000. They are going to show the way and we are going to have to follow.
Friakel Wippans said…
There is no analytic basis for Brand’s assumption that all energy options are necessary, nor is it sensible.

For once, I'll agree with Lovins. Doing it all is pointless. There is one solution and only one: Nuclear.

The rest is pointless.
Jeroen said…
Im not blind for the main issues surrounding nukes (radwaste, prolliferation, reactor safety), but lately there is a true renaissance in reactordesigns (ie travelling wavereactor) that achieve high burnup rates, more juice, less (proliffic) waste and rely on natural phenoma such as gravity instead of humans operating rusty pumps and valves for their safety. Indeed not put all eggs in one basket, but nuke should be in there
Rod Adams said…
Choosing fission does not mean putting all of our eggs into one basket. We have several different fuel options - including huge reserves of uranium, thorium, and already mined "waste" products - and an incredible array of creative designs that include LFTRs, PWR, BWR, SBWR, HTGR, PBMR, 4S, Hyperion, mPower, Traveling Wave, LWBR, and probably dozens more abbreviations and acronyms.

The energy world worked reasonably well based on a single chemical process called "combustion" for a long time - until we figured out that there was a far better choice called fission.

Stewart Brand has specifically defended Lovins against my accusation that Lovins's 35 years as an oil industry consultant has something to do with his continued defense of fossil fuel consumption in the form of "micro-power". He claimed that there is no evidence that Lovins is anything but sincere in his misguided efforts to move towards a renewable utopia.

I remain convinced, however, that Lovins cannot possibly be ignorant of the ultimate effects of accepting his "analysis" as gospel. Lovins arguments have the designed effect of distracting people. Their purpose is to extend the period of fossil fuel dominance. That has been their purpose ever since Lovins was employed by David Browder, the founder of Friends of the Earth in the late 1960s. Browder left the Sierra Club because they had supported "atoms, not dams". The official story is that the organization was not radical enough for his tastes, but I think that the real problem was that the organization had some leaders who were pragmatic and really dedicated - at that time - to protecting wild areas from hydroelectric dam sprawl. (Long after his defection, the Sierra Club was taken over by people whose vision was more in tune with Browder's and allowed them to accept donations from natural gas suppliers.)

Every year of delay increases the transfer of wealth from energy consumers - most of us - to those who control the limited fossil fuel supplies. That makes the fossil fuel consulting contracts for the RMI worth every penny - even though the specific studies recommend systems that do not work very well.
Anonymous said…
How does the Obama Administration's tariff on steel pipe from China affect the nuclear business in the US?

Those AP1000 modules fabricated in China will have pipe attached and if imported into the US will have to pay those tariffs.

Joe Somsel
perdajz said…
Props to Fraikel Wippans for cutting through the clutter.

In a portfolio of generation sources, what weaknesses does nuclear power have that can be addressed with wind or solar power?
Brian Mays said…
"In a portfolio of generation sources, what weaknesses does nuclear power have that can be addressed with wind or solar power?"

Value for environmental branding and greenwashing.

Wind turbines and solar panels make for a better picture to place on the cover of the company's annual report to show that the company really "cares" about the environment.
perdajz said…
Yes, Brian Mays, the main weakness of nuclear power are the legal, regulatory, and public relations hurdles. I'm not really all that much against wind or solar power, per se. Just want to make it clear the portfolio will of necessity be overwhelmingly nuclear.

Some might respond that wind power doesn't have any radioactive waste - a weakness against nuclear power. So I once asked a wind power fan about the cost to clean up a wind farm back to a green field. He said about 4% of the cost of the electricity generated by the turbines. Funny, but this is just about the cost of the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, which is 1-5% for decommissioning and spent fuel handling. Even on this issue that would appear to be an advantage for wind power, it's really kind of a tie.

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