Amory Lovins, an energy visionary who cannot check facts

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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?

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7 thoughts on “Amory Lovins, an energy visionary who cannot check facts

    Thomas Gerke said:
    February 19, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Hello Robert.
    I know that you love to make this kind of posts. Quick and easy – properly hitting close to your core motivation to publish your thoughts. Indeed the failure to distinguish total energy and electricity demand is a unfortunately very common error in the energy debate. It’s very worthy to point out.

    However even you should know that the UK strike price for onshore wind at £95/MWh is not a benchmark of real cost (LCOE) in British wind conditions.
    First of all the onshore wind strike price is set only for a 15 year period and there is no denying the fact that pre-development costs in the UK are high due to regulatory barriers, as well as small/restricted market volume.

    In Germany new land based wind in 2014 gets an avg. FIT of £48-73 / MWh over 20 year (depending on local wind conditions). The low end might even be cut, due to technological advances of the newest turbine generation. Investors are able to make a decent return on these conditions without being having to tap into subsidized captital (government guranteed loans).

    Anyhow. It is of course relatively easy to attack people who dare to look into the future and paint the picture of what could be possible. While they are in danger of being ridiculed, they serve an important purpose in motivating people to break out of their mental barriers and analyse the possibilities without the constraints of conventional wisdom.

    Armory Lovins might not be extremly precise in his commentary (energy / electricity) but he gets many basics right that are shared by many scientific institutions & industry groups. The most imporant one: We already have great alternatives and have to implement them. On all fronts (energy efficiency, integrated energy technology, transportation, ressource efficiency, … )

      Robert Wilson responded:
      February 19, 2014 at 11:20 am


      Please tell me what my “core motivation” is? I would love to hear what you imagine it is.

        Thomas Gerke said:
        February 19, 2014 at 11:43 am

        Well, you spend a lot of your publishing time framing issues based on data in order to put the challenges we face into a factual perspective. Despite our clashes, I actually do respect you for that work and enjoy your style of writing.

        But you are right. Since I am not you, I can obviously not be sure that this is what “drives you”. So if you are not driven by the wish to nurture a fact & data based debate, forgive me for misinterpreted your writing.

        Of course I passionately disagree with you on issues like the feasibility & potential of solutions to our worlds energy crisis.

        Robert Wilson responded:
        February 19, 2014 at 11:48 am

        You do no such thing. Instead you have repeatedly accused me of wilfully misleading people, lying and having a hidden agenda. Or perhaps someone else peretends to be Thomas Gerke.

      Donough Shanahan said:
      March 19, 2014 at 1:11 pm


      You do realize that the FiT is not the total cost or the retail cost of wind energy in Germany?

    Thomas Gerke said:
    February 19, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I said “passionately” disagree. ;-)

    Now look, if somebody who seems to have a good grasp of things as you do, appears to be re-enforcing faulty conventional wisdom, that hits a nerve with some people. While you obviously strive to be “balanced” and fact driven, your little side notes do unfortunately often sound like anti-renewable myths.

    Of course you can say: “It’s not my business considering what kind of impressions people get about my positions”, but since you did chosen to publish your opinions/views, isn’t that part of your responsibility?

    I do & did admit, that I at times wronged you in the comments,.. which I did even apologize for.
    Sorry if you are now holding a grudge against me and view everything I write with pre-conceived ideas about my position. I can not help that.

    Though it’s a pity, because I don’t think we are that different.

      Robert Wilson responded:
      February 19, 2014 at 2:15 pm


      This is now getting tiresome, and I don’t have the time to deal with your silly comments. Anyone who reads me knows I am not anti-renewables. You however keep coming along and saying that I am. Why should I bother with you? Please tell me! All I get is “you just reinforce conventional wisdom”. You can’t be bothered providing a single substantive argument about why anything I write is wrong. And anytime you do, your arguments normally assume that the laws of physics are violable.

      And I have absolutely no memory of you apologising for anything. As always your comments show a complete lack of good faith, but then go on to accuse me of this.

      As a result of this I am adding you to the blocked list. Life is too short to deal with people like you.

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