People believe what they want to believe.
Here is Amory Lovins talking about the growth of renewables in a rather fawning piece in the Guardian this week:
“Worldwide it is faster than mobile phones. More Kenyans now get first electricity now from solar than the grid. China got more generation from wind in 2012 than from nuclear and it added more generation from non-hydro renewable energy than fossil and nuclear combined. It is now the world leader in seven of the 10 renewable energies and wants to be top in all 10. It appears to have added 12GW of photovoltaics in 2012 – that’s more than the total that have been installed in the US.”
Where exactly do you begin with such nonsense?
The idea that energy systems are like mobile phones has long been discredited, yet people continue to think this way. The easiest way to realise they aren’t comparable is to ask how long your mobile phone lasts: about 2 years. Power plants however are designed to last a lot longer. The US is currently seeing retirements of coal power plants, almost all of them 50 years old. Growth of energy infrastructure is inherently slower than that of mobile phone infrastructure.
Things are even worse if you do some quantitative comparisons. In 2000 wind and solar provided about 0.1% of global primary energy consumption. Last year they provided about 1%. By contrast mobile phones were an essentially niche product in almost all affluent countries two decades ago. Here are the statistics for ownership in affluent countries today: United States 94%, United Kingdom 97%, Australia 86%, South Korea 99%. In India it is 81%, in China 89%.
And think about smart phones. Who used one before the iPhone was released in 2007? Do you know anyone? Yet, in Australia, the UK, the US, and almost all affluent countries the majority of people now use a smart phone. Compare this with renewables. Germany, which supposedly is a world leader, gets only 5.4% of its primary energy consumption from wind and solar. Denmark is the world leader in wind penetration, yet still, it only gets 14% of its primary energy consumption from wind. So, clearly renewables are not growing like mobile phones. Now, this is not to be critical of renewables, but simply to point out basic realities.
Did China “add more non-hydro than fossil and nuclear combined”? Absolutely not. Where exactly Lovins gets this strange idea from is beyond me. Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force looked at the actual statistics, and the numbers are clear: China added around five times more new coal power production last year than came from wind and solar. We also must remember that coal power plants can easily run for more than 50 years, wind and solar less than 25. And China uses coal for a lot more than generating electricity. If you add up all the new factories for producing steel and cement etc. then the picture is clear, renewables are nowhere near to replacing coal. Lovins however is a man with a long track record of slick pronouncements divorced from reality.
Talking about China wanting to be number one in all ten renewables is impressive (10 renewables? What are they? Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, wave, tidal, I still have a few fingers remaining here), but what really matters is what else China is number one in: coal. From a public relations point of view building 12 GW of solar is quite good (and probably little more than a make work project for China’s solar panel manufacturers to tide them over until the global market picks up), but what really matters is coal, coal, coal. See any signs that China is not building new coal mining infrastructure, or building large numbers of plants to convert coal to synthetic gas to help clean the air in its cities? The wishful thinking some western greens display on China could power the planet.
Of course Lovins doesn’t stop there. Here’s another one:
“Texas is best for wind, it now gets 10% of its energy from wind because it’s good at business.”
Texas produces 10% of its electricity from wind, not energy. Such nuances perhaps pass energy visionaries by.
Lovins of course is always at his best when it comes to not acknowledging his failed prophecies. Hypercars he told us two decades ago should be dominating the place by now. Instead they are nowhere. As with most prophets he does not acknowledge failure, but just shifts the timing:
“2014, says Lovins, sees the commercial birth of the Hypercar, with the arrival of the all-carbon electric BMW i-3 family and the 313 miles per gallon Volkswagon XL1 with emissions of just 20g/km. “The car industry is notoriously slow to change,” he says, but “you could say the era of the hyper car is starting now.””
Lovins even weeps for Britain, telling us:
“”Britain’s plan for a fleet of new nuclear power stations is … unbelievable,” he says. “It is economically daft. The guaranteed price [being offered to French state company EDF] is over seven times the unsubsidised price of new wind in the US, four or five times the unsubsidised price of new solar power in the US. Nuclear prices only go up. Renewable energy prices come down. There is absolutely no business case for nuclear.”
Britain’s plan for a fleet of new nuclear power plants may or may not be economically daft, but it’s hard to imagine how comparing the cost of nuclear power in the UK with solar power in the US is not. Is Lovins actually incapable of looking up these costs for the UK? It isn’t that hard. Perhaps he did and realised that onshore wind was not seven time cheaper than nuclear in the UK, but a very similar price. Either that or wind farm operators are ripping off the UK government with the strike prices they are accepting – £95/MWh versus £92.50 for the recently agreed Hinkley C nuclear power plant.
But what is most disturbing about Lovins is his continual desire to peddle cheap solutions to climate change:
“In the future I see radically cheap renewable energy and storage, new types of battery, super-windows, cheap ways to instal LEDs in large buildings to eliminate wiring, many advances in insulating materials, smart thermostats that learn what comfort you want and buildings that do not need heating or cooling.”
This statement by Lovins was published in the Guardian on 17th February 2014. Anyone familiar with the matter will no that it could have been published any time in the last forty years. Where is that long promised radically cheap renewable energy and storage? Have you seen it lately?
Pain free solutions have been offered up by Amory Lovins for four decades, and pain free solutions have not been forthcoming. How long will we wait?