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Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion – Part One (The Art of Deception)

Yesterday, I introduced a series of blog posts aiming to show you the errors and limitations in the latest nuclear bashing paper from Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute. This first part (and the longest of this series) deals specifically with the graph below in the RMI paper (also found in their condensed version). There are many details and flaws in the graph, so please bear with me while I walk you through them. If you get lost, don’t despair. Just take your time and if you have questions, please comment.
Nuclear’s “true competitors”

For years now, Amory Lovins and RMI have been claiming that nuclear power’s “true competitors” are not big coal and gas plants but energy efficiency, small scale renewables and decentralized cogeneration. From the condensed version:
While nuclear power struggles in vain to attract private capital, investors have switched to cheaper, faster, less risky alternatives that The Economist calls “micropower”—distributed turbines and generators in factories or buildings (usually cogenerating useful heat), and all renewable sources of electricity except big hydro dams (those over ten megawatts). These alternatives surpassed nuclear’s global capacity in 2002 and its electric output in 2006. Nuclear power now accounts for about 2 percent of worldwide electric capacity additions, vs. 28 percent for micropower (2004– 07 average) and probably more in 2007–08.
After digging into the numbers from their Excel spreadsheet and the methodology (pdf) for the above graph and paragraph, I found the story is much different than what the paper claims. According to the graph above, nuclear’s “true competitors” are already beating nuclear … except that they aren’t.

With the exception of nuclear, the data for the chart aren’t actual generation numbers. RMI collected the capacity and capacity factor data for the other sources to calculate the generation. Most of the capacity and capacity factor assumptions are reasonable but there is one capacity factor the methodology assumes that grossly overstates the contribution from nuclear’s “true competitors.”

By far the largest non-nuclear source of electricity in the above chart is decentralized generation (the big orange block) which the Excel file calls “Non-Biomass Decentralized Co-Generation.” The paper assumes an 83 percent capacity factor for this source. The problem with the 83 percent capacity factor is it is twice as high as what it should be. Here is RMI’s explanation for the 83 percent capacity factor found in the methodology (pdf) on page 6:
Having neither electrical output nor capacity factors from any traditional sources, we again turned to help of Michael Brown of WADE. He provided an estimated average capacity factor in terms of hours per year: “7000-7500, possibly more.” Running 7,250 hours per year equates to a capacity factor of 82.8%, which we applied uniformly to all years under consideration.
Michael Brown’s statement is ambiguous. Does his statement mean non-biomass decentralized plants operate at full capacity 83% of the time? Or does it mean they are available to run 83% of the time? Being available to run is very different from actually running.

The methodology’s source for decentralized data is the 2005 Survey by the World Alliance for Decentralized Energy (pdf). According to the survey, there were 281.9 GW of decentralized capacity in the world as of 2004 (page ii, the survey also says 282.3 GW on page 32 which is what RMI uses). RMI’s methodology backed out the decentralized renewables’ capacity from the 282.3 GW to find the “non-biomass decentralized cogeneration capacity” at 266.3 GW.

What’s off about WADE’s 2005 Survey is that the surveyed countries reported a total of 341.6 GW of decentralized plants, not 281.9 GW (this was found by adding up each country’s data on pages 13-27). When the generation data of decentralized plants also are added up for the reporting countries, I calculated the capacity factor to be 40.1 percent (excluding Russia because they didn’t report generation numbers). I also added up the same numbers from the 2006 WADE Survey (pdf) and found the capacity factor to be 38.9 percent, pretty close to the 40.1 percent value found from 2005 WADE Survey.

If the capacity factor for all decentralized plants is only 40.1 percent, then it is impossible for “non-biomass decentralized co-generation plants” to achieve an 83 percent capacity factor since they make up the majority of the decentralized capacity. If we substitute a 40.1 percent capacity factor for the incorrect 83 percent capacity factor, here’s what the graph would actually look like:There’s more.

After 2007, the “Total renewables plus decentralized generation” line begins to increase faster than in the previous seven years. Since 2008-2010 are projections, one would think there is a methodology for this increase. There is not. According to the RMI paper, the “non-biomass decentralized co-generation” projection is a “target” based on personal communications with WADE. There is no model, study, or methodology mentioned to support the projection.

Here’s page 6 from RMI’s methodology:
The 2005 WADE survey cites, as a target for decentralized energy, 14% of total world capacity by 2012. In personal communications with WADE director Michael Brown, he conceded that realistic projections would be closer to 12%.
Wow. If I were claiming that decentralized generation and renewables are supposedly beating nuclear’s generation, then I would rely on something a bit more meaningful than a “target.”

Distorting the Graph According to Edward Tufte

The original graph from the paper distorts the contribution the “true competitors” are actually making. Edward Tufte, described by The New York Times as "the da Vinci of Data", is a big opponent of chartjunk. Here’s what chartjunk means:
The interior decoration of graphics generates a lot of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new. The purpose of decoration varies — to make the graphic appear more scientific and precise, to enliven the display, to give the designer an opportunity to exercise artistic skills. Regardless of its cause, it is all non-data-ink or redundant data-ink, and it is often chartjunk.
RMI’s graph is all “chartjunk.” The graph displays a lot of ink for the “Total renewables plus decentralized generation” data that deceives the eye. Graphical representations of data help people understand the big picture. But there are correct ways and incorrect ways to show the data. If we take away this “chartjunk” and not stack nuclear’s “true competitors” on top of each other, here’s what the graph actually looks like (including the correct capacity factor data for the orange line).From 2000-2007, it looks like all lines have increased the same as nuclear (which is not much). Contrast this with the following statement in RMI’s condensed version:
These alternatives surpassed nuclear’s global capacity in 2002 and its electric output in 2006.
Doesn’t quite look like it.

Cherry-Picking the Data

The definition of cherry-picking is:
the act of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.
My two altered graphs above paint a different picture than what the RMI paper claims. What’s more interesting is that the 2005 WADE Survey (pdf) also tells a story different than that of RMI. Here are some examples:
The US decentralized cogeneration market grew significantly up to 2002 but its subsequent slowdown continues in the face of high gas prices and persistent regulatory barriers. The capacity added in 2004 was the lowest for six years. (Page. ii)

Europe continues to emerge slowly from an extended period of market paralysis. … The US market for cogeneration, according to US government data, continues to show growth but the rate of expansion has slowed markedly in the last year or so, and this is mirrored overall by unenthusiastic market sentiment. (Page. 1)
It’s hard to imagine the rest of the world booming with decentralized plants if the U.S. and Europe are slowing down. Especially since the total electrical capacity in Europe and the US (xls) is nearly 50 percent of the total capacity in the world. Yet according to RMI’s condensed version:
negawatts and micropower have lately turned in a stunning global market performance.
It is clear that RMI is picking and choosing agreeable data points. This, however, is only one example of cherry-picked data. The rest of my posts will show you other instances in which it appears RMI depends on selective use of data.

Is Coal Included in the “Non-Biomass Decentralized Co-Generation” Data?

Here’s page ii in the 2005 WADE Survey (pdf):
Global installed DE [decentralized energy] capacity stood at around 281.9 GWe at the end of 2004, the great proportion of this consisting of high efficiency cogeneration systems in the industrial and district heating sectors, fuelled by coal and gas and, to a lesser extent, biomass-based fuels.
Coal? Nowhere in RMI's condensed version, 52-page paper, or methodology is coal mentioned as being included in the data. This must be why the RMI uses the obscure term “non-biomass decentralized co-generation.” RMI clearly doesn’t like coal since they label it “carbon-spewing”, yet the distributed generation data includes coal to show it beating nuclear. What are we to make of this?


Let’s sum up the apparent mistakes evident in just this one graph. First, RMI’s analysis erroneously uses twice the actual capacity factor for “non-biomass decentralized co-generation.” Second, RMI’s analysis distorts the actual contribution from nuclear’s “true competitors" with the use of chartjunk. Third, RMI’s analysis makes selective use of data in order to state that nuclear’s “true competitors” are turning “in a stunning global market performance” when in fact one their own sources actually says the opposite. Finally, RMI’s analysis misleads the reader by not stating that coal is included in this graph, when actually it is.

This is about as much as I’m going to go into RMI’s so-called numbers and sources. The rest of my posts will focus on the following themes from RMI: centralized vs. decentralized energy; big plants versus small plants; energy efficiency and “negawatts;” nuclear and grid reliability; and costs.


Flagg707 said…
Way to dig into the numbers! Keep up the great work.
Luke said…
Very impressive! Great work.

Something which I can't help but point out to people regarding these kinds of claims from Lovins and those who cite his work (say, Caldicott) is simply this:

What percentage of this "clean, green, renewable" energy is being generated by burning natural gas, or coal, and dumping the dangerous fossil fuel wastes straight into the atmosphere?

The answer: The majority of it.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful work, David. It takes a lot of time and effort to put together a post like this, but the result is outstanding!
Anonymous said…
Brilliant stuff that needs to be read and distributed to anyone who ever interviews Lovins or refers to RMI data.
Lisa Stiles said…
You da man, David.
Matthew66 said…
The RMI loves to talk about distributed micro generation. Distributed generation has a long and mostly dirty history. Until the centralized generation plants and their distribution networks were put in place, most factories had to generate their own energy, usually through coal fired boilers. Just take a look at photographs of cities from the early twentieth century, there are usually clouds of coal smoke and pictures of smoke stacks billowing black smoke.

Fast forward to the early twenty-first century and switch on the DIY Network and one will see many advertisements for natural gas fired home generators to be used as backup in the event of a blackout.

Distributed generation was phased out in part to clean up the air in our cities. A return to distributed generation will result in lots of diesel or natural gas generators, which can be kept fueled and ready to be switched on at a moment's notice. Wind and solar are too unreliable for most practical applications, unless of course you are fortunate to live in a place with constant wind.
Anonymous said…
Good analysis and "deconstruction" of a fabulist.

Distributed generation sure seems to make sense - in the abstract. In reality, useful distributed generation applications based on co-generation are largely fished out. The free market has found and exploited all the economically rational sites.

Distributed generation as a bunch of stand-alone generators out at the substations or end-user's premises is a pipe dream. In spite of hopes, there are still strong economies of scale with gas-fired generation, especially with efficiency.

As an alternative to electric grid investment, distributed generation just moves the issue from electricity distribution wires to natural gas distribution pipes.
Anonymous said…
I might be paranoid, but I am beginning to see a pattern here. As a fossil fuel (e.g. natural gas) producer I would be afraid of a nuclear resurgence. By promoting gas powered microgeneration I could kill multiple birds with one stone:
1. I decrease overall efficiency, hence increase demand and therefore price per kWh for my product.
2. I fractionalize my customer base. Therefore I can control the price more effectively without being put under pressure by the buying power of fewer large customers.
3. I take away the incentive for those large customers to develop and build effective alternatives to my product.

RMI seems to be fossil fuel powered to me.
Rob said…
Interesting reading. Thanks for that deconstruction.

It is absolutely vital that we understand, in substantial detail, the flaws of all approaches to energy generation. If nuclear power's affordability rests on subsidies, what of that? If those wishing to see "renewables" instead are guilty of fanciful accounting or muddled thinking, knowing that is valuable.

kla -- that, too, is an interesting comment, but I wouldn't be too quick to see a conspiracy where none exists. Amory Lovins' motives should be certainly taken at face value, unless someone unearths compelling evidence to the contrary.
Ondrej Chvala said…
rob, "nuclear power's affordability rests on subsidies" only when it is regulated to near-death by the government in the first place.

Reasonable approach would put the same environmental etc. regulation (emission limits, regulatory fees) on the power sources indiscriminately of the source type.

Then the economics of nuclear power would be very much different.
Ray Lightning said…
Very nice analysis. Thank you for exposing the truth behind the Amory Lovins propaganda.
Charles Barton said…
I have posted a further Lovins piece this morning.
Anonymous said…
"RMI seems to be fossil fuel powered to me."

David Bradish, take note of comments like this, next time you challenge someone to point out specific posts on this blog alleging that antinuclear opposition is funded by big coal. Especially when such intimations are offered with ZERO documentation.
Anonymous said…
"Wind and solar are too unreliable for most practical applications, unless of course you are fortunate to live in a place with constant wind."

Again with the same old bromide. Has NO ONE on this blog ever heard of energy storage?

The California ISO has; it's looking at large-scale projects to store wind power generated off-peak, which can then be put on the grid when the wind isn't blowing.
Matthew66 said…
Anonymous, storage of energy can occur and takes many forms. In my home country of Australia, wind energy has been used for generations to pump water from subterranean aquifers. The water is store in tanks or troughs above ground for watering livestock, the storage is large enough that wind is not needed all the time. Pumping water up behind a dam is another oft used storage technique, however many have come to question the environmental wisdom of damming rivers, which is why it is so difficult to get new hydro approved anywhere in the world.

Storing electricity with batteries is also possible, but is expensive and the usual batteries are lead acid, which have their own environmental consequences. Brighter minds than mine have been studying energy storage for generations and have yet to come up with a system that is economical, practical, environmentally responsible and able to be implemented on a large scale. The Californian ISO may be looking at energy storage, but has it found any solutions? I believe not.
Anonymous said…
Even if energy storage is possible and becomes practical for wind-based generation, there is still the fundamental limit of storage capacity. Batteries can hold only so much charge. Pumped storage reservoirs can hold only so much water before they are filled or your water source is stretched thin. You're always beholden to environmental conditions to ease before you run out of storage capacity. If you exhaust your storage capacity and your primary energy source is still unavailable, what happens? Blackout.
Anonymous said…
And yet 6 times more energy is produced with renewables than with nuclear.

It's cheaper to heat water on the roof than to build new nuclear power plants to power wasteful electric heaters.

Ironically, if France couldn't depend on all the electric heaters running at night and all the powerful energy storage lakes in the Alps, it would not know what to do with all its inflexible nuclear power plants.
Nowadays the energy storage lakes store nuclear power, in the future they store renewable power:
Last year Europe installed 8554 MW wind power and got rid of -1203 MW nuclear power.

Germany net-exported 14TWh of electricity last year even though 6 of their nuclear power plants were not running.

A swiss nuclear power operator is currently running an ad against renewable power, claiming the sun is not always shining. Ironically the same operator just had a plant not running for 6 month providing almost 20% of the electricity of the entire country. When was the last time the wind didn't blow or the sun didn't shine for 6 month?

And the power consumption during daytime is 3 times higher than at night - having a power source that generates power only during day time is very useful.
Anonymous said…
85% of Kopenhagen - a very clean city - is powered with flexible, combined heat-power plants.

Instead of wasting heat during electricity generation it is used for hot water generation and heating homes.
David Bradish said…
And yet 6 times more energy is produced with renewables than with nuclear.

Anon 4:33 PM, your statement above is only true if the data is manipulated which is what your reference did. Your reference (Renewables 2007 Status Report) used the International Energy Agency's data. But apparently your source didn't like IEA's methodology for some of the numbers and instead went with BP's methodology.

According to BP's data (pdf), nuclear energy provided 6% of the world's energy in 2006. IEA’s data also has nuclear at 6%. Your status report you cite only has nuclear at 3%, yet it uses both IEA and BP as references. A bit contradictory don’t you think? Apparently it's appropriate to take IEA's original data, rework the methodology to inflate renewables' contribution, and then claim it as correct.

What's more interesting is that if you go to IEA's 2007 Key Stats Report (pdf), you can find on page 6 that nuclear energy’s world fuel share went from less than 1% in 1973 to 6.3% in 2005. Renewables' fuel share hardly moved between those same years.
Anonymous said…
Actually, hydro power produced more electricity than nuclear power worldwide. And this is what is relevant or do you seriously want to suggest that some homes are heated with uranium directly just like others are with wood?
According to your link:
Nuclear: 2768 TWh
Hydro: 2994 TWh
And your same link claims that Nuclear has a 6.3% share while Hydro only has a 2.2% share. Indeed, very contradictory. According to your data, the nuclear share should only be 2.1%.

The energy that went through the cooling towers doesn't benefit anybody. On the contrary it requires tremendous amounts of additional cooling water. It's absurd to account for it.

Now, who is manipulating what data?
David Bradish said…
Now, who is manipulating what data?

The US EIA also counts nuclear's waste heat as energy. Both the EIA and IEA find nuclear at 6% of the world's energy production (as well as BP). But according to your definition, these three independent organizations manipulate nuclear's data. I guess we should take your word over the word of well-known institutions.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous, if Germany exported 14 TWh in 2007, then it's going down badly.

It was 33.89 TWh in 2006 (net gen 579.38 / net comp: 545.49).

Source :

I would not quote that as a sign of success, all the more that Germany is the 3rd worst emitter of CO2 in the OECD after the US and Japan.

For comparison, 80% nuclear France exported 92.13 TWH in 2006.
Anonymous said…
I'm sorry but facts are facts.

Nuclear: 2768 TWh
Hydro: 2994 TWh

As long as you can't any show data, where Millions of homes are heated with the waste heat from nuclear waste or nuclear plants, attacking organizations won't change the facts regarding the actual useful energy produced.

Or are you suggesting these numbers are wrong?
Nuclear: 2768 TWh
Hydro: 2994 TWh

I guess I should take your word over the facts of well-known institutions.
David Bradish said…
You're right, facts are facts and the nuclear and hydro numbers you provided do not show that renewables produced six times more energy than what you originally claimed.

As long as you can't any show data, where Millions of homes are heated with the waste heat from nuclear waste or nuclear plants, attacking organizations won't change the facts regarding the actual useful energy produced.

We've already been over this. The experts at EIA, IEA, and BP think the waste heat is relevant. Also, where's the attack?

I guess I should take your word over the facts of well-known institutions.

What do you mean my word!? I'm giving you direct links to their data.
Anonymous said…
Ironically, you can't even show with your own data, that renewable power does not produce 6 times more useful energy than nuclear.

If the waste heat of nuclear power plants according to the experts is relevant, why doesn't anyone sell or buy it?

Don't you think the the data is slightly more important than the opinion of an expert?
I'm sorry but I don't make decisions based on opinions - I prefer facts and data.
David Bradish said…
Anon June 8, 2008 1:36 PM,

I'm done arguing with you. I've shown your original claim is false and I'm not going to continue to argue about waste heat with an anonymous person especially when all of this has nothing to do with my original post. I'm focused on rebutting Lovins' and RMI's latest paper. If you can rebut the claims in my posts, then do it.
Anonymous said…
And the power consumption during daytime is 3 times higher than at night - having a power source that generates power only during day time is very useful.

Not in my household. No one is there during the day. We're all up and out by 7 am, the kids are in school, the parents at work. We throttle back the heating during the day. About the only thing on is the fridge. Things start picking up about 4 pm when Mom and the kids get home. I'm there by 6 pm, just as dinner is on the table and we're watching TV or on the computers. Daytime peaking generation wouldn't do me much good, and we're not all that atypical.
Anonymous said…
One doesn't buy or sell "energy." It is much too broad of a concept. Energy products are specialized - grid electricity, natural gas, heating oil, gasoline, residual oil, AA batteries, propane, etc... with multiple grades and delivery options within each. While all can be quantified in terms of energy units like BTUs, that metric does not command the same price in the market.

An important concept, easily and often ignored in policy debates, is "energy quality." Waste heat from a nuclear power plant can indeed be measured in BTU but is often too diffuse even for home hot water. The exit temp might be 100 deg F while home hot water heaters deliver 120 deg F.

In my opinion, the prime application for solar is domestic hot water.

However, critics of nuclear continue to confuse BTUs and ignore quality differentiation. Ultimately, people buy and use products based on quality - the higher the quality the higher the price per BTU, all else equal.
Anonymous said…
Not in my household. No one is there during the day. We're all up and out by 7 am, the kids are in school, the parents at work.

Are you suggesting, all the parents at work and the schools don't use any electricity?
Anonymous said…
Waste heat from a nuclear power plant can indeed be measured in BTU but is often too diffuse even for home hot water. The exit temp might be 100 deg F while home hot water heaters deliver 120 deg F.

Actually, the combined heat and power plants do sell their waste heat, because it is sellable.
Anonymous said…
"The Californian ISO may be looking at energy storage, but has it found any solutions? I believe not."

That's incorrect. They're currently considering a wide array of available technological options. They haven't decided yet because they're in the midst of a public participation process, not because no storage options are available.
Anonymous said…
Are you suggesting, all the parents at work and the schools don't use any electricity?

No, but where I work, and where my wife works, and where my kids go to school, the energy usage is going to be the same whether we're there or not. The incremental change is going to be insignificant. But my home energy use isn't going to give a crap about a daytime peaker, because we won't be there using it.

My point is, we need reliable baseload capacity, something that will produce the juice when we need it regardless of the hour of day. If you're going to try to run an industrialized society that is in any manner beholden to peak influx conditions or any other kind of natural phenomena, you're going to have supply-demand management issues that will blow you away. Either that or live a third-world lifestyle, with similar standard of living.
Anonymous said…
"Brighter minds than mine have been studying energy storage for generations and have yet to come up with a system that is economical, practical, environmentally responsible and able to be implemented on a large scale."

Yes, that's what they told young nuclear engineers at university in the 1960s and early 1970s, and at that time it was true. Fast forward to the 21st century...
Anonymous said…
Nuclear power plants can sell heat - if designed for serving that market. Midlands was to provide process steam to a Dow chemical plant next door but floundered on structural issues.

However, there is little market for 100 deg F water which is produced from a plant optimized for electricity production. Your home hot water heater delivers water at 120 deg F. I've seen a scheme where the warm discharge water would be used in a commercial shrimp farm (Crystal River 3).

The shrimp produced from that place were HUGE! It would have been poor marketing to claim the big shrimp were grown at a nuke.
Anonymous said…
Fast forward to the 21st century...

And read a lot of blather from people in the storage business but no substance whatsoever on the storage technologies. Drill into the CAL ISO "report" and find out it's just a powerpoint presentation that does a good job of listing the issues, desirable properties, and some of the possible technologies, but provides no analysis crossing the technologies with the desired properties. How very 21rst century...oops, gotta run, it's time for American Idol.
Anonymous said…
See RMI's response to this post here:

and here:

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