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Amory Lovins vs. Stewart Brand - Part One (The “Land Footprint Myth”)

Three weeks ago Mr. Amory Lovins released a very pointed critique of Stewart Brand’s chapter on nuclear in Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline. After reading both Brand’s and Lovins’ pieces, I understood why Lovins was so critical of Brand. It was because Brand was quite critical of Lovins in his book (p. 99):
In early 2009, in Ambio magazine, Amory Lovins declared: “Nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it’s grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete.”

How can someone [Lovins] so smart be so wrong about a subject he knows so well? [Emphasis added]
Ouch. It’s now clear to us why Mr. Lovins came out with his critique of Brand when he did.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been able to digest Mr. Lovins’ latest claims in his new study (pdf) and have generated quite a few thoughts to share. In Lovins’ response to Brand’s chapter on nuclear, Lovins takes Brand to task on four issues he believes are myths about nuclear: baseload energy, land footprint, the need for all options, and the role of government. Because there is a lot to discuss about each topic, we’re going to present blogposts addressing each of the myths to show how Lovins’ latest critique is nothing more than the usual cherry-picked junk that we’ve always seen from Lovins.

Lovins’ supposed “footprint myth”
One issue the Lovins clan has with Brand is the claim that wind and solar generating facilities need a tremendous amount of land to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear plants. Here’s the quote from Brand (p. 81):
As for footprint, Gwyneth Cravens points out that “A nuclear plant producing 1,000 megawatts takes up a third of a square mile. A wind farm would have to cover over 200 square miles to obtain the same result, and a solar array over 50 square miles.”
Here’s what the Lovins study says in response after making their own calculations (p. 16):
windpower is far less land-intensive than nuclear power; photovoltaics spread across land comparable to nuclear if mounted on the ground in average U.S. sites, but much or most of that land (shown in the table) can be shared with lifestock or wildlife, and PVs use no land if mounted on structures, as ~90% now are. Brand’s “footprint” is thus the opposite of what he claims.
When comparing land footprints among the three technologies, the Lovins study used a total nuclear lifecycle footprint of 119 square meters/GWh from a study written by two national lab scientists (Fthenakis and Kim). As usual, the new Lovins study cherry-picked only one chart from F&K’s study and that was a chart showing the amount of land nuclear plants need during the entire life cycle of a nuclear energy facility (mining, power plant, etc.). F&K’s study, however, didn’t just look at nuclear, they also showed the amount of land needed for the life cycle of all other technologies. Below is the chart:
As can be seen from the chart highlighted in red, nuclear’s life cycle land use requirements come in several orders of magnitude lower than wind’s and solar’s. Yet this chart and the study’s conclusions are ignored in Lovins’ paper and only the number for nuclear is used.

As well, if we continue to use the 119 square meters/GWh land use for nuclear, other studies cited in the Lovins paper also show nuclear uses much less land than wind and solar. Below is a chart from the source the Lovins study uses for its solar number (pdf). Even using the lowest range of land needed per year from the last column shows that solar needs at least 42 times and wind needs more than 1,100 times the amount of land as a nuclear plant.
For wind’s footprint, the Lovins study cited “the Bush Administration’s 20% Wind Energy by 2030” study but again cherry-picked the data to support its claims. Here’s the full paragraph from the wind study (pdf) of which only the last half was mentioned in the Lovins study (p. 110-111):
Wind development also requires large areas of land, but the land is used very differently. The 20% Wind Scenario (305 GW) estimates that in the United States, about 50,000 square kilometers (km2) would be required for land-based projects and more than 11,000 km2 would be needed for offshore projects. However, the footprint of land that will actually be disturbed for wind development projects under the 20% Wind Scenario ranges from 2% to 5% of the total amount (representing land needed for the turbines and related infrastructure). Thus the amount of land to be disturbed by wind development under the 20% Wind Scenario is only 1,000 to 2,500 km2 (100,000 to 250,000 hectares)…
So, for 305 GW of wind, the required area of land is estimated to be 50,000 square kilometers or 19,300 square miles. Dividing 19,300 by 305 GW, we find that a wind farm requires 63 square miles of space per GW. If we multiply that area by three to account for wind’s 30% capacity factor compared to nuclear’s 90%, we find that a wind farm requires nearly 200 square miles of land “to obtain the same result as a [1,000 MW] nuclear plant.” Close to what Brand and Cravens said.

Yes, the actual land “disturbed” by a wind turbine is only 2-5% of that, however, a wind turbine needs a huge amount of open area to produce meaningful quantities of electricity. This requirement can’t be ignored, even though Lovins calls it “erroneous,” else wind turbines would be stacked right next to each other. It would be disingenuous to tell the Iowa farmers that a wind farm doesn’t take up much land when all they need to do is walk outside their homes and see their entire horizon blanketed by turbines.

Further, on closer look at Lovins’ sources, cherry-picking again appears. On pages 13 and 14, Lovins cites a study written by Spitzley & Keoleian (pdf) which Lovins picks a few convenient nuclear numbers and ignores the rest. Yet those authors also wrote a study analyzing all technologies, not just nuclear. Below is a picture of S&K’s page 31, which shows the amount of land needed for all technologies. Highlighted in red are the numbers that show nuclear uses much less land than wind and solar.
Three sources cited in the Lovins study concluded that nuclear uses much less land than solar and wind. Clearly, the authors of those studies consider the open areas between wind turbines and the large arrays for solar plants a requirement to function. Yet the Lovins study clearly manipulated the numbers from those sources to fit its own beliefs. Thus, it’s not Brand and Cravens who believe in a land footprint “myth”, it’s Mr. Lovins.

Stay tuned as we’ll get into what qualifies as baseload energy.


perdajz said…
Amory Lovins always abides by the first rule of antinuke dogma: never compare apples to apples. This rule says that you list the cons of nuclear power in absolute terms and never compare to the benefits in relative terms. List the benefits of nuclear power alternatives (wind, solar, "negawatts") in absolute terms that sound good at first glance, but never compare to cons in relative terms.

From a risk perspective, if a wind farm is to meet the same standards as those applied to a nuclear power plant, the land around a wind farm cannot be used freely. Wind power can't meet the public health and safety standards set by the nuclear power industry. Blades losses, ice throws, tower collapses, turbine fires, and so on, suggest that if wind power is to be as safe as nuclear power, people and animals need to stay away; an exclusion zone makes sense for a wind farm.

Go ahead and read the Caithness compilation of wind power accidents, and decide for yourself if you would work in the middle of a wind farm.
Gwyneth Cravens said…
The open land mandated around a nuclear plant tends to be forest or grassland or desert. Large sections are undisturbed and therefore wildlife flourishes. Oconee and McGuire nuclear stations, just to name two, have won environmental stewardship awards. There are gardens of native plantings that feed the wildlife. Idaho National Lab's vast acreage is home to many test reactors, and environmentalists love that land because so much of it is in pristine condition and home to a lot of wildlife and native vegetation.

Thanks for doing battle, David.
donb said…
Wind turbines may actually use only a small fraction of the land on which they are sited. This does not mean that the rest of the land is undisturbed. Beyond the safety issues that 'perdajz' mentioned, the noise and motion of the wind turbines make the land much less usable for housing. There are many reports of negative effects on livestock. Wildlife is disturbed, certainly by bird kills if not other effects. Most likely agricultural plants are not affected, though the farmers do need to navigate their equipment around the turbine base structures and access roads. And one may find that various wireless devices don't works as well around wind turbines.

I am realistic enough to know that I cannot have electric power without some disturbances in exchange. But wind turbines are not as benign as Mr. Lovins might have us believe.
harlz said…
How much energy could we get from the fire on Lovins' pants?
Anonymous said…
There's also this report that was done on behalf of The Nature Conservancy (a pro-wilderness environmental group!).

It shows solar thermal, solar PV, and wind to be 6, 15, and 30 times as land intensive as nuclear, respectively.

Jim Hopf
Anonymous said…
How much energy from Lovins' pants? Do you mean in "negawatts"?
Unknown said…
Thanks David. It's really important that this community responds to this nonsense.

Any plans to tackle the Nuclear Option chapter in Al Gore's new book? It's more-or-less a rehashing of Lovins' talking points.
David Bradish said…
I didn't have any plans to tackle Al Gore's chapter on nuclear but will take a look now, thanks.
Stewart Brand said…
Search Google images for "solar farms" and you will see land bulldozed absolutely flat and bare. So much for any formerly wild desert life. Lovins's description of solar collectors interspersed like wind turbine towers is not how it works.
Anonymous said…
As someone who comes to the nuclear industry from the humanities rather than the sciences (i.e., as a disciplinary interloper), I tend to be more sensitive to the sociopolitical reverberations of arguments such as these, as opposed to the scientific content.

I suppose the nuclear industry could be characterized as ‘technocratic” or “rationalist” or “pragmatist” in the good or bad senses of those terms, but Lovins strikes me as deeply utopian. It’s almost touching, in fact, to see someone so committed to ignoring sociopolitical reality that he will bend every fact or statistic he encounters into the same utopian shape. I’m not sure if it is intentional, but his language is heavily freighted with utopian concepts, many of them paradoxical: universalized localism, for example, or collective individualism or stable variability.

In any event, I also find it interesting that Lovins never seems to consider objectively what he himself so often indulges in subjectively: The simple fact that science itself is sociopolitical, which means that it has an agonistic streak, an element of human contest. How can the same person who claims to possess the objective truth not understand the import of characterizing one’s adversary as “insouciant” or “sloppy”? Lovins can formulate a sociopolitical analogy based on dictators excluding formidable rivals from the ballot, but he seems to assume that his own schemes are invulnerable to similarly sociopolitical phenomena.

How would Lovins respond, I wonder, to Senator Diane Feinstein’s recent upbraiding of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu for DOE’s support of solar projects in areas the senator has worked to “protect” by designating them nature preserves? What will happen when the “in vogue” renewable sector begins to confront the “NIMBY” factor on the scale already experienced by the nuclear industry? We’ve already seen the harbingers: from the outcry over bats and birds dying in literal droves, to the surprising resistance by locals to proposed renewable energy projects. What happens when the inevitable impacts of this sector are fully fleshed out?
Alex DeVolpi said…
“Nuclear Nonsense” from Amory Lovins

Arguing that Stewart Brand’s whole-earth reassessment does not hold up to “scrutiny,” Amory Lovins labels it “nuclear nonsense.”

However, Lovins’ track record regarding nuclear power has been demonstrably inaccurate, undermining his credibility and integrity.

Lovins’ asserts that “Today [2009], most dispassionate analysts think new nuclear power plants’ deepest flaw is their economics. They cost too much to build and incur too much financial risk.” To prove his point, Lovins sets up a strawman: “In its first half-century, nuclear power fell short of its forecast capacity by about 12-fold in the U.S. and 30-fold worldwide.”

But back in 1981, Lovins had already ominously warned that the “global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing.” He insisted that “nuclear power is not commercially viable.”

In the intervening years nuclear power has grown at least by a factor of two. Lovins’ predictions of its demise remain starkly premature.

Essentially none of his predictions, claims, or assessments has withstood the test of time or critical analysis.

Thirty years ago, Lovins vehemently opposed nuclear power on the additional grounds that “The nuclear proliferation problem ... is insoluble” and that “nuclear power is ... the main driving force behind proliferation.” That too has not turned out to be the case.

Lovins’ reasoned based on unproven assertions that weapons-plutonium could be readily made in power reactors. He stated without verifiable evidence that “high-burn-up plutonium from power reactors can produce powerful and predictable nuclear explosions.... Power reactors are not implausible but rather attractive [and peculiarly convenient] as military production reactors.... Weapons-grade Pu ... can be readily produced in any power reactor without necessarily and significantly decreasing efficiency, increasing costs, or being detected.”

None of these assertions have come to pass. All were disputed at the time, thirty years ago. No operating civilian power reactor has been converted to make military plutonium; no proliferation is directly attributable to nuclear-power plants or nuclear-power fuel.

The marginal proliferation meanwhile had little or nothing to do with the civilian nuclear-fuel cycle or civilian-reactor plutonium. Since 1980, just a few nations, far from the number implied by Lovins, have undertaken programs to develop nuclear weapons. Those that did obtained their weapons-grade fissile materials from dedicated military facilities, not from civilian nuclear power.

Although Mr. Lovins proclaimed proliferation as “insoluble,” it has leveled off after his ominous prediction. The nuclear-armed “crowd” he forecast 30-years ago is thinly populated by self-indulgent nation-states.

The dangerous hegemonical superpower nuclear-inventories expansion has come to a halt and is now in the process of being reversed.

Subsequent nuclear-weapons proliferation has taken place primarily for geopolitical reasons. Proliferation is very loosely linked to nuclear-power generation or technology capability.

Civilian reactors now routinely burn (consume as fuel) weapons uranium and plutonium. Fissile burnup in nuclear reactors is irreversibly demilitarizing nuclear materials. About half the reactors in the United States are now destroying at least some former weapons uranium or plutonium, contributing to nonproliferation and nuclear arms control.

So many events have proven Lovins wrong that you no longer find him promoting his rampant-proliferation thesis. Nor do you find him acknowledging that he was incorrect or reckless in unfounded predictions.

– A. DeVolpi, MS, PhD
Alex DeVolpi said…
“Nuclear Nonsense” from Amory Lovins (Part II)

Although science is supposedly self-correcting, wrong results or theories are costly for those in government and industry who have to manage resources. The propagation of inaccurate information, even if rectifiable, misleads the public and decisionmakers. Noticeably lacking or marginal in all Lovins’ publications that I have scanned are several criteria for scientific methodology: established relevant expertise, peer-reviewed publication track-record, quantifiable evidence with stated rates of error, and confirmable or confirmed results. A particularly blatant violation of scientific methodology by Lovins is the absence of uncertainty characterization; that is, he makes scientific or functional predictions without reporting probabilistic parameters such as the range of estimated error.

Even though standards exist for scientific methodology, there are no uniform professional guidelines for individuals who identify themselves as “physicists” or “scientists.” At the end of “Nuclear Nonsense,” Amory Lovins lists himself as a “Physicist” and “Chief Scientist.” Despite protracted inquiry, nothing that I can find in the public record confirms that he has an advanced or even relevant academic degree.

Lovins is blind or indifferent to his own “nuclear nonsense.”

– A. DeVolpi, MS, PhD

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