Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants? A Guest Post


Amory B. Lovins is the energy maven’s energy maven, viewed variously as a visionary or a heretic in his assessments of how the U.S. and the world should be generating and using energy. More specifically, he is the chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a man who has won many awards, written many books, and, as if that weren’t enough, was a fan favorite for Energy Secretary when we asked blog readers a few months ago to give incoming President Obama some advice.

Lovins has written a guest post for us today, which I am guessing that everyone who cares about energy will find instructive in one way or another. It is especially interesting in light of forward-looking projects like this one about battery-exchange stations for electric cars — for as eager as we may be to wean ourselves from oil, it’s worth remembering that all that newly-demanded electricity doesn’t grow on trees.

Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants?
By Amory B. Lovins
A Guest Post

If I told you, “Many people need computing services, so we’d better build more mainframe computer centers where you can come run your computing task,” you’d probably reply, “We did that in the 1960’s, but now we use networked PC’s.” Or if I said, “Many people make phone calls, so we’d better build more big telephone exchanges full of relays and copper wires,” you’d exclaim, “Where have you been? We use distributed packet-switching.”

Yet if I said, “Many people need to run lights and motors, Wii’s, and air conditioners, so we’d better build more giant power plants,” you’d probably say, “Of course! That’s the only way to power America.”

Thermal power stations burn fuel or fission atoms to boil water to turn turbines that spin generators, making 92 percent of U.S. electricity. Over a century, local combined-heat-and-power plants serving neighborhoods evolved into huge, remote, electricity-only generators serving whole regions. Electrons were dispatched hundreds of miles from central stations to dispersed users through a grid that the National Academy of Engineering ranked as its profession’s greatest achievement of the 20th century.

This evolution made sense at first, because power stations were costlier and less reliable than the grid, so by backing each other up through the grid and melding customers’ diverse loads, they could save capacity and achieve reliability. But these assumptions have reversed: central thermal power plants now cost less than the grid, and are so reliable that about 98 percent to 99 percent of all power failures originate in the grid. Thus the original architecture is raising, not lowering, costs and failure rates: cheap and reliable power must now be made at or near customers.

“Central thermal stations have become like Victorian steam locomotives: magnificent technological achievements that served us well until something better came along.”

Power plants also got irrationally big, upwards of a million kilowatts. Buildings use about 70 percent of U.S. electricity, but three-fourths of residential and commercial customers use no more than 1.5 and 12 average kilowatts respectively. Resources better matched to the kilowatt scale of most customers’ needs, or to the tens-of-thousands-of-kilowatts scale of typical distribution substations, or to an intermediate “microgrid” scale, actually offer 207 hidden economic advantages over the giant plants. These “distributed benefits” often boost economic value by about tenfold. The biggest come from financial economics: for example, small, fast, modular units are less risky to build than big, slow, lumpy ones, and renewable energy sources avoid the risks of volatile fuel prices. Moreover, a diversified portfolio of many small, distributed units can be more reliable than a few big units.

Bigger power plants’ hoped-for economies of scale were overwhelmed by diseconomies of scale. Central thermal power plants stopped getting more efficient in the 1960’s, bigger in the 1970’s, cheaper in the 1980’s, and bought in the 1990’s. Smaller units offered greater economies from mass production than big ones could gain through unit size. In the 1990’s, the cost differences between giant nuclear plants — gigantism’s last gasp — and railcar-deliverable, combined-cycle, gas-fired plants derived from mass-produced aircraft engines, created political stresses that drove the restructuring of the utility industry.

Meanwhile, generators thousands or tens of thousands of times smaller — microturbines, solar cells, fuel cells, wind turbines — started to become serious competitors, often enabled by IT and telecoms. The restructured industry exposed previously sheltered power-plant builders to brutal market discipline. Competition from a swarm of smaller electrical sources and savings created financial risks far beyond the capital markets’ appetite. Moreover, the 2008 Defense Science Board report “More Fight, Less Fuel” advised U.S. military bases to make their own power onsite, preferably from renewables, because the grid is vulnerable to long and vast disruptions.

Big thermal plants’ disappointing cost, efficiency, risk, and reliability were leading their orders to collapse even before restructuring began to create new market entrants, unbundled prices, and increased opportunities for competition at all scales. By now, the world is shifting decisively to “micropower” — The Economist‘s term for cogeneration (making electricity and useful heat together in factories or buildings) plus renewables (except big hydroelectric dams).

The U.S. lags with only about 6 percent micropower: its special rules favor incumbents and gigantism. Yet micropower provides from one-sixth to more than half of all electricity in a dozen other industrial countries. Micropower in 2006 (the last full data available) delivered a sixth of the world’s total electricity (more than nuclear power) and a third of the world’s new electricity. Micropower plus “negawatts” — electricity saved by more efficient or timely use — now provide upwards of half the world’s new electrical services. The supposedly indispensable central thermal plants provide only the minority, because they cost too much and bear too much financial risk to win much private investment, whereas distributed renewables got $91 billion of new private capital in 2007 alone. Collapsed capital markets now make giant projects even more unfinanceable, favoring lower-financial-risk granular projects even more.

In short, many, even most, new generating units in competitive market economies have already shifted from the million-kilowatt scale of the 1980’s to the hundredfold-smaller scale that prevailed in the 1940’s. Even more radical decentralization, all the way to customers’ kilowatt scale (prevalent in and before the 1920’s), is rapidly emerging and may prove even more beneficial, especially if its control intelligence becomes distributed too.

Global competition between big and small plants is turning into a rout. In 2006, nuclear power worldwide added 1.44 billion watts (about one big reactor’s worth) of capacity — more than all of it from uprating old units, since retirements exceeded additions. But that was less capacity than photovoltaics (solar cells) added in 2006, or a tenth what windpower added, or 2.5 percent to 3 percent of what micropower added. China’s nuclear program, the world’s most ambitious, achieved one-seventh the capacity of its distributed renewable capacity and grew one-seventh as fast. In 2007, the U.S., Spain, and China each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity, and the U.S. added more wind capacity than it added coal-fired capacity during 2003 to 2007 inclusive.

What part of this story does anyone who takes markets seriously not understand? Central thermal stations have become like Victorian steam locomotives: magnificent technological achievements that served us well until something better came along. When today’s billion-watt, multi-billion-dollar plants retire, we won’t replace them with more of the same. I’m already experiencing a whiff of prenostalgia.

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  1. DB says:

    And if I told you “Many people need healthcare, so we better create a centralized full-service national network, so that when people get sick they can go apply to a federally funded doctor database for immediate care” you’d tell me…..

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    Distributed power is a great idea. Assuming we have a “smart grid” to share it, so much the better.

    The big problem is that coupling a large number of small power “stations” leads to a much higher cost per kilowatt hour.

    This fact drives engineering decisions.

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  3. PLW says:

    “Central thermal power plants stopped getting more efficient in the 1960’s, bigger in the 1970’s, cheaper in the 1980’s, and bought in the 1990’s.”

    This is, perhaps, the best written sentence ever to appear on Freakonomics. Bravo.

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  4. nate says:

    the lags in nuclear development make your comparisons of recent installed capacity disingenuous.

    plus let’s make sure to add all the costs of intermittancy to those solar and wind facilities.

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  5. Chris Dudley says:

    There are some very good points here. On reliability, there is a core reliability to distributed generation in the face of natural disasters that we don’t always appreciate because we don’t have enough of it. In a disaster that disrupts grid power for several weeks, if there is a home in walking distance with solar power, you could perhaps keep your medicine refrigerated.

    That kind of reliability is not the same thing as having the lights come on when you turn on the switch 99% of the time but it can be a very important kind of reliability nevertheless.

    The most expensive kind of central generation is nuclear power. Lovins and Sheikh have looked at the issue here:

    Because nuclear power is the least competitive of a set of uncompetitive technologies, we can be pretty darn sure that the tax payers will be left holding the bag as companies like Constellation Energy default in federally guaranteed construction loans.

    One thing especially concerning new nuclear power is the long planning horizon for a plant. Fifteen years to build is added to sixty years to run which is added to 20 years to cool off enough for decommissioning followed by another 20 years to decommission. We must plan well into the next century with this kind of plant. Yet, the places we are considering for new nuclear power plants are often a sea level or very close: Clavert Cliffs of South Texas for example. We know that these places will face substantial sea level rise on a century time scale which may well force a shortening of the operating lifetime of the plants, making them even more expensive. It would seem that we need to consider climate in nuclear licensing decisions where we would not for other technologies. What, for example are the projected cooling water resources over the rest of the century? It would be foolish to build where drought might be expected to make power production impossible as happened recently in Alabama.

    Co-gen is not the exclusive domain of combustion. Solar shows a great deal of promise to both generate power an usable heat together:

    And, there may be a time when we start to produce fuels from wind power in a manner that generates heat that can be used for buildings. This is not co-gen but similar to it. A small scale is described here:

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  6. winsome? says:

    Dear Eric;

    great idea is not enough- “an idea must be correct” for the purpose of accomplishing worthwhile matter. that;s where the buck stops. so that’s why am happy to share `mine’ windmill idea with friends. The path has become clear and obvious.

    So as far as I can tell- no higher cost- From a scientifically sound– engineering standpoint mutually `shared’ benefit..

    There is still — as far applications-almost wide open field and almost untouched toppings (with a few exceptions including fairchild). if you are having difficulty- just listen to the sound, the physical and other sightings, the news- .

    So as far as certain q’s and a’s- it’s your score.

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  7. Jason Goodman says:

    In the early 20th century, “micropower” (the Edison DC system) didn’t lose to “macropower” (the Tesla/Westinghouse AC system) because of reliability or construction costs: it lost on the grounds of efficiency. Electrical transmission losses with Edison’s DC system were so high that he had no *choice* but to use local micropower: by using high-voltage AC and transformers, Westinghouse was able to make transmission losses negligble.

    Once your transmission system isn’t leaking watts, the battle is fought between different power plants on a pure “megawatts out per dollar” basis. I would argue that the basic economics of this haven’t changed for most of the century: big plants can run at higher temperatures, making them thermodynamically more efficient, and lose less energy from parasitic losses. It’s more than economics, it’s physics.

    The author argues that improvements in micropower have made it cost-competitive to macropower, but doesn’t present any good statistics to confirm this. It’s certainly true that private companies (especially telecommunications, government, and hospitals) have been adopting micropower in a big way in the last couple of years, and electrical utilities are also installing lots of small gas plants. But they’re not doing it because it’s cheaper: they’re doing it because these micropower gas plants switch on in a few seconds, allowing them to be used in emergency and unexpected-demand situations. Heat energy from coal costs 1/3 as much as heat energy from natural gas, so gas plants are not a good idea for long-term everyday use.

    Now, renewable sources are another matter, but if the only consideration is whether smaller is cheaper, I’m not buying it unless I see a clearer cost analysis between micropower and macropower.

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  8. Jon S says:

    You are assuming away all of the government grants for renewables and even more egregiously ignoring all of the bogus negative political pressure nuclear receives. Then you conclude by saying the market supports your argument?

    Sorry, not convinced.

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  9. David Roberts says:

    Bravo, Amory. Again.

    What’s particularly ironic about this is that the allegedly “pro-market” political party in the U.S. is absolutely and monomaniacly *obsessed* with nuclear power, which is perhaps the largest and most needy welfare recipient ever to bestride the nation’s budget. Don’t they value hard work and self-sufficiency? Or is that just for poor people?

    Still, though it’s futile to say so, this comment thread should not devolve into yet another quasi-religious argument over nukes. The Lovins point is broader:

    Commodity prices are rising, almost across the board. Meanwhile, the cost of processor power — intelligence — is falling steeply.

    The rational economic response is to *substitute intelligence for material* — that is to say, substitute smart design and use for size and brute power. And indeed, that’s what markets are doing, even against the many legal and regulatory barriers referred to in the piece.

    In 10-15 years, this debate will seem quaint.

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  10. Hydra says:

    Cogeneration offers good savings. There are even hom e scaled natural gas cogenerators that that scavenge the waste heat for air conditioning and water heating. they use the prime mover mainly to turn the compressor and secondarily to generate electricity that is sold back to the grid.

    But, distributed maintenance is an issue.

    And with anything but the smallst units, so is NIMBYism and zoning.

    I beleive Amory is fundamentally right, but glossing over many problems yet to be resolved, not he least of which is Jevon’s Paradox.

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  11. Mike99 says:

    Here’s the problem with Nuclear Power: It’s a PERFECT example of a Taleb Distribution.

    One terrorist attack or serious accident WIPES OUT ALL Previous Profit.

    We’ve just seen what happens with you ignore Black Swan’s in the Stock Market. I’m voting against researching this using nuclear power.

    Global Warming is another example. Water sources dry up, land becomes barren, forest fires, acidic oceans, high frequency storm are all Heavy-Loss, Catastrophic, Events.

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  12. William Tucker says:

    Quite briefly, Lovins is drawing a false analogy between the miniaturization and distribution of computing and telecom instruments and the production of energy. Computers and telephones can be miniaturized and distributed according to Moore’s Law because they involve information. You can use less and less energy to store each bit. For that reason you can have as much computing power on your desktop today as Univac had in an entire room in the 1960s. Computers can be distributed because they have become so powerful.

    But things don’t work that way with energy. A kilowatt is a kilowatt, whether it’s generated in your backyard or at a power station. You can “distribute” generation anywhere you want but you still have use the same amount of fuel or wind or whatever. We could replace central thermal stations with gas turbines on every street corner, but the fuel is going to be expensive and produce a lot more carbon emissions, which is something Lovins conveniently overlooks.

    The real irony, however, is his suggestion that wind fits this small-is-beautiful scenario. Sure wind is “distributed.” After all, you need 125 square miles of 45-story windmills to generate the same 1000 megawatts that can be generated in one square mile at a central thermal station. You’ve got to put them somewhere! And that’s just their nameplate capacity. To produce 1000 MW of base load electricity, you’d need at least three or four 125-square-mile wind farms scattered at diverse locations around the country.

    That’s the reason Lovins himself has suggested covering all of North and South Dakota with wind farms. Al Gore matches him by asking for 1/5 of New Mexico, the fifth largest state, for solar collectors. On top of this, they want to rebuild the entire national grid to 765 kilovolts in order to ferry all this electricity from the remote areas where it’s best generated to population centers. And Lovins calls 1000-MW power plants operating on the current transmission system “irrationally big!”

    What Lovins never wants to acknowledge is the energy density of nuclear power. With nuclear, the energy produced from 500 square miles of windmills can be generated with a fuel assembly that would fit in the average living room. Why “distribute” all this generating capacity into big, ugly structures that litter the landscape and only work when the wind blows? Why not concentrate it all in one place? Then once every 18 months a single tractor-trailer can come in with a new set of fuel rods.

    In one respect, though, Lovins may be right. Maybe we shouldn’t be building nuclear reactors to 1500 MW. Hyperion, a New Mexico company, has invented an 80-MW mini-reactor the size of a gazebo that can power a town of 20,000. You could put it in someone’s basement and no one would ever notice. While “alternate energy” has gotten more and more gigantic, nuclear is getting smaller and smaller.

    Who would have thought it would be nuclear that is small and beautiful?

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  13. William Tucker says:

    Can I add one word? In the third from last paragraph:

    What Lovins never wants to acknowledge is the INCREDIBLE energy density of nuclear power.



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  14. Sunflower says:

    The cost of building a solar burner is less than the cost of building a new coal burner. That makes solar steam less expensive than coal steam even when coal is delivered at no cost — solar is cheaper than free lumps of coal.

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  15. Chris Dudley says:

    Mike99 (#11),

    Right now I think that we are looking at a possibly horrible product of your Taleb distribution and Murphy’s Law: if we were to face a Price Anderson Act payout right now for a nuclear accident, I’m not sure that the federal government could keep up with its debt service obligations. One nuclear accident could make us Iceland.

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  16. Ed says:

    Those who would like to know Lovin’s (and the RMI’s) current views of nuclear energy should be interested in a new report
    Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly?

    “This 15-page January 2009 update and expansion of “Forget nuclear” in RMI’s Spring 2008 Solutions Newsletter adds the latest data, expands the discussion of capital-cost escalation, and includes June 2008 cost comparisons by preeminent financial advisors Lazard. It summarizes why nuclear power cannot in principle deliver the climate-protection or energy-security and reliability benefits claimed for it. (January 2009)”

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  17. Rick Answer Analyst says:

    Bigger is not better. Governments don’t understand that yet eitiher. Interesting that during Enron’s rule our local paper company brought in some generators and parked them outside the plant. It was cheaper than getting electricity through the grid. The other question comes up as to pollution from multiple sources versus handling it from one main location where it is easier to monitor.

    The future will be different.

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  18. Sourendu Gupta says:

    This makes for good reading, but links to original sources. would have been nice. They could, for example, allow me to check which of the statements about price advantages and competetiveness carry over to other countries.

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  19. Kimota94 says:

    Whenever solar and wind power comes up in discussions like this, and is contrasted with coal-burning, gas-burning, or nuclear power generation, I’m also amazed at the people who attempt to compare renewables with resource-depleting. I realize that solar power, for example, isn’t terribly efficient just yet. But it’s getting better every year, and eventually it’ll be just fine in that regard… because the solar energy is already raining down on us, every day, just waiting to be used. Imagine if coal fell from the sky and had no negative effect on our atmosphere when burned? Wouldn’t we be crazy not to use it? Instead, it comes out of the ground, takes millennia to form and kills us in all kinds of ways when we burn it. Sunlight? Not so much! Solar and wind power are just waiting to be used, and no matter how much we use today, there’ll be just as much waiting for us tomorrow… and next year… and next century… and long after we’ve died off as a species.

    Even if solar power costs more in the short term, the source of that power lasts until our sun burns out (by which time, if we’re still around, we’ll have much bigger issues to deal with than the loss of some solar power).

    Are people really that stupid that they can’t see how fundamentally different those two categories of energy sources are?

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  20. Carl Christopher says:

    As always, Amory Lovins has very insightful and interesting ideas. I like to read his writings and listen to his speeches.

    But Lovins has a terrible track record in predicting the future. He’s been wrong for decades. I think he is wrong here as well.

    Micropower makes a lot of sense in a lot of cases. But it’s not taking over the world. Not now, and (I think) not in the future either.

    Of course, I’m only a few years younger than the Prophet of Snowmass, and I’ve done no better at predicting the future. I’ve invested a fair amount of money in wind energy over the past two decades. I’ve lost it all.

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  21. Carl Christopher says:

    Since posting my comment above, I read Lovins’s report Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly? That report covers the same ground as this Lovins guest post, but in much more detail.

    I’m not convinced that wind and solar electricity are better than nuclear electricity. Look to France and Denmark for a comparison as to how nuclear and wind do in the real world at generating electricity.

    France produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear (and most of the rest from hydro). Its electricity generates the least (per capita) carbon dioxide in Europe at the cheapest price in Europe.

    Denmark has the capacity to generate 20% of its electricity from wind. Yet Denmark’s electricity generates the most (per capita) carbon dioxide in Europe at the most expensive price in Europe.

    In practice, there are lots of reasons why that is. And that is not to say that all countries would be better off abandoning wind and solar and going with nuclear.

    That being said, Lovins’s proposals work on paper but not in the real world. History has shown they do not work. And history has shown us what will work. Watch Nobody’s Fuel, by Douglas Lightfoot, to see more about that.

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  22. matt says:

    AC is less efficient for long distance power transmission. Look it up, the problem is with impedance. The overhead of conversion into DC is worthwhile for lines long enough to be a quarter-wavelength of a 60Hz signal. An AC signal along a wire of that length effectively causes the line to behave like an antenna, radiating energy.

    Just pointing that out for a previous commenter.

    As for the distributed computing analogy, well, it also depended upon sophisticated networking infrastructure which allows every node to participate as fully as possible. That isn’t so easy for our power distribution hierarchy.

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  23. Rod Adams says:

    As usual, Lovins has produced a seductive piece that contradicts itself in several ways. Unfortunately, like many glib people who have more training in sales than in physics, he is able to convince some of the people some of the time.

    He confuses capacity with production – in Lovins world a kilowatt of capacity from emergency generator purchased by a cell phone provider that runs a couple of hours per year from a local fuel tank counts just as much as a kilowatt of capacity from a nuclear power plant that runs 8050 hours per year. In the real world, the nuclear kilowatt of capacity produces thousands of times more useful power when most people need it – nearly all the time.

    He talks about how most power failures occur in the grid, not the power plant, and then advises that a microgrid of small, distributed units can be more reliable than our current model. The problem with that statement is that central station power plant reliability is partially a result of careful engineering, redundancy and professionally trained operators that would not exist if units are too small. Microgrids also have many of the same vulnerabilities of the existing grid, but they will be less carefully engineered and less carefully maintained.

    Lovins likes to use the evolution of computers as an analogy, but anyone who is commenting here who has paid close attention to the computer revolution knows that reliability has not been its strongest measure of effectiveness. They also should know that local area networks are difficult beasts to manage, especially if there are a wide variety of devices on the network, each with special characteristics. Network admins know that mixing up a bunch of different operating systems can provide headaches, electrical power network admins know quite a bit about the challenges of mixing in intermittent sources like wind and solar, small and relatively unreliable sources like gasoline generators, medium sized and very expensive marginal cost generators like natural gas fired turbines, and large, low marginal cost generators like nuclear and coal.

    Lovins definition of “micropower” also happens to include some existing nuclear power plants in places like Sweden, Russia and Switzerland since they are designed and operated to use the waste heat from electrical power production for district heating in a cogeneration mode. There are also a large number of “cogeneration” nuclear plants operating out on the ocean that use waste heat for a variety of useful purposes. Bet he did not know that.

    As William Tucker pointed out, Lovins is not totally wrong – there are some significant advantages to right sized power plants that can be manufactured in a factory rather than stick built and that can be delivered in far less time than is typically assumed for a large central station power plant of any kind. There are at least three companies who have publicly announced plans to build nuclear power plants in unit sizes of less than 50 MWe (150 MW thermal). They are Toshiba, which has designed a 10 MWe unit that can run for 30 years without new fuel; Hyperion, which has designed a 70 MW thermal heat source useful for assisting in enhanced oil recovery, district heating and which can be connected to a 27 MWe steam turbine for power production; and NuScale, which has designed a 45 MWe power plant that can be delivered as a single 300 ton unit to a site that has water or rail access.

    For my money, those smaller nuclear plants have a HUGE advantage over the types of systems that Lovins advocates – they produce reliable power without producing ANY polluting emissions at all. They also need very little in the way of fuel delivery infrastructure. In a world powered by Lovins microgrids, there will be a large demand for diesel fuel and natural gas to fuel the generators that must back-up intermittent wind and solar power. That vision also includes a whole lot of excess capacity that must sit idle for much of its existence.

    One final thought. When listening to a salesman like Lovins, it is always important to understand where his bread is buttered. During a Democracy Now! interview in July 2008, Lovins let slip just why he has been so adamantly opposed to nuclear and so interested in fossil fueled micropower for his entire career as an energy “guru”:

    “You know, I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil.”

    I think that says it pretty clearly. Lovins has some very powerful friends with plenty of money to back his marketing campaigns. You can find my own disclosure below.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
    Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

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  24. Ian says:

    This is a very humbling piece to the nuclear industry.

    Almost any power source could be scaled. There are tiny hydorelectric facilities, there are tiny natural gas units, tiny wind generators, tiny solar cells, etc.

    There cannot be small scale nuclear plants from an economic perspective not to mention an engineering one. They are an expensive power source as it is. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

    How dare you make me rethink my pro nuclear power stance!

    Thanks, I guess.

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  25. Mike M says:

    Rod “Atoms”.

    Great name for someone in your field!

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  26. chance says:

    I’ve read about those small nuclear reactors, small enough to power a small town or even just a neighborhood. Even if I thought they were a good idea (and I’m not sure they are) NIMBY makes it a dead issue from the start.

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  27. keith says:

    I thought the single biggest line-item of consumption of electricity was the arcs used in aluminum smelting; is this still the case or no longer (it’s possible that the cooling of data centers is bigger nowadays)? The Icelandic plans to build a dedicated geothermal electric system to supply the new Alcoa Fjardaal smelter is one of the most exciting recent developments I’ve seen in power systems. For other aluminum operations, do macro plants still make economic sense?

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  28. Eric M. Jones says:

    Dear “winsome?”

    The cost per kWh is the driving factor in power generating. Imagining a wonderful world or tiny spinning power plants ignores the reality of $$/kWh’s delivered. Wishing won’t make it so, On the other hand, the real cost of kWh’s delivered to us don’t include the military budget, or the future emergency spending when the Saudis get pissed at us, so considerable accounting adjustments need to be done.

    On another topic….Let’s be sure to understand that the picture above shows just water vapor coming from the massive hyperboloid cooling towers and the one chimney. The two chimneys on the right are the pollution…and they look pretty clean.

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  29. James D says:

    I’d agree distributed generation’s role needs to grow, but we also need those big central station power plants. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, so people with those systems in their homes will still have to draw power from the grid when they aren’t. Combined heat and power has it’s limits as well, it makes next to no sense for individual homes and small businesses because it just costs too much.

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  30. Dwight Nager says:

    It’s not clear to me at all that Lovins is a guru. And I’d like to see the Times take the responsibility to back up the case.

    He seems to be endemically incapable of understanding the biology of money.

    His writing strikes me as the John Denver of economics. All earnestness, airiness, and hope. But then, cotton candy. Clouds in the coffee.

    Sure, the car of the future is fun to dream about. And yes, if there is Nimbysm and hope so that the only big projects that can, maybe, be passed are wind and solar farms…then as others have pointed out, our ‘guru’ can take a factoid and say mega is done.

    But…but…but…dear Guru, we have distributed power everywhere. In our cars. And the motors only get 30% efficiency, if that, with the rest lost to heat. And big centralized plants can recapture that heat, getting more efficiency.

    Mr. Lovins sees what he wants, and says what he wants. He says the grid is wasteful; it is. But he ignores the math around efficiencies in centralized plants.

    And the Times prints him up like a guru. Maybe the Times editor would be better suited to the poetry or music section. We all like airy hope. I’m just not much for it in the supposed economics pages.

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  31. Lea Kosnik says:

    I am an energy economist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and I recently received two grants to study the prospects for increased micro HYDROpower in the United States. There are actually a huge amount of potential sites, all across the U.S., for distributed small hydropower development. It would cut emissions, cut reliance of foreign oil, increase stability by being decentralized, etc. And the ecosystem effects are small because these are micro hydro, run-of-river plants. Now we just have to figure out the actual COSTS of developing these sites – which is what my work is about. Stay tuned….I should have results within the year….!

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  32. D iversity says:

    Whatever way you add it up, the USA needs a much smarter power grid. Pity that the USA is apparently not going to get one.

    We need a smarter grid because wind, tide and solar power are imtermittent at any one location, because big central power plants will be with us for more than a generation, both meaning that cutting transmission losses will remain important, and because a dumb grid cannot be relied on to prevent chain consequences spreading from a grid element failure.

    The underlying technical factor that a kilowatt is a kilowatt and the costs of transmitting it from one place to another will never be as low (barring ambient temperature superconductivity) as the cost of transmitting information means that the long term technical trend is likely to be towards generating closer to usage. A lot of small scale generating technology exists or is at prototype stage (even nuclear). But my expected life span is about 12 years and I do not expect to see local generation become dominant.

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  33. question says:

    I understand that a priority will be upgrading the electrical grid to a 760 KV spec or DC (correct me please if I’m wrong). I read nothing about a grid that uses higher frequency AC (200-500Hz) instead of higher voltage (maybe the current physical grid can be upgraded for transmission at higher freq).
    And in the “distributed” vs. “centralized” model, it will surely be a place for the mini-nuclear plants and natural gas-fired and coal and wind and solar and geotermal.
    I’m sure that there are many competent electrical engineers to design and maintain such a grid.
    Another thing that was not mentioned at all: hydrogen
    Anybody here that can share driving Honda Clarity or BMW 7H? (I would propose in a blink to any single, hydrogen-engined-car-leasing chick out there! :)

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  34. Careysub says:

    An interesting treatment, but one that is incomplete in some very misleading ways.

    The key one is in lumping renewable and fossil fuel energy production together as “microgeneration”. These are power sources that have very different prospects for the future.

    Sure, natural gas co-generation turbines are great, as long as natural gas is assured to be an economically priced fuel with ample supply into the forseeable future, and with no long term environmental consequences. But none of these things are true. It is substantially less harmful than coal for global warming (and much less so for immediate pollution), but it isn’t zero, nor is it available in such quantities that it can become a mainstay of power production into the indefinite future.

    And while photovoltaic solar power is true distributed microgeneration, solar thermal plants (on of the best prospects for replacing coal base-load plants) are not: they are centralized large scale (if not gigawatt scale) facilities typically remote from the consumer. The same is true of wind farms – you can’t call a single wind pylon a “microgenerator” because they aren’t used that way.

    Finally, when a system is finally set up that imposes carbon costs on fossil fuel burners (as it must soon, one way of another, to provide the economic incentive to address global warming) the economics of nuclear power will improve, as it may also improve with “right sized” (100 megawatt scale) nuclear power plants that have been proposed (jury is out on that, we’ll have to see some built).

    With fossil fuels not having to carry the cost of carbon pollution nuclear power is currently at an unjustified disadvantage, which makes the lack of recent plant starts (which Lovins seems to gloat about) an unreliable predictor of the future.

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  35. ShowMe says:

    I look forward to the day that I can be totally off the grid. Conservation can save a great deal and make the people more resilient. Green building can generate many jobs.

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  36. Johnny E says:

    Yes, but then that would obsolete big-energy CEOs with their mega-salaries and bonuses. They would never go for that.

    If we could land a moon in less than a decade why can’t we install a wind turbine and solar panels on every family farm in 10 years. That would make a great farm-subsidy to keep them in business, save the environment, wouldn’t depend on a grid upgrade, and it would pay for itself by harnessing free energy. The technology is already there, it’s just the political and financial will to get it going. The income generated could reduce the deficit.

    And we could convert postal trucks to V2G ( ) technology. You could even use solar collectors as body panels. Then you’d really have distributed power.

    Every town could have a plant converting garbage to energy.

    There are probably lots of airliners and military jets past their operational life with engines that would still be efficient for the turbine plants you were talking about.

    There are probably still nuclear subs that were put in mothballs because of SALT treaties that could be used to add power to the grid.

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  37. Giulio Flore says:

    Without going into suggesting micro-nuclear, the crux of the matter is load management, which is a nasty thing at best of time, as noted above.

    It is true that there is a development in software and high energy electronics that can lead to the ability of better managing oscillating loads – but the point is that you need to guarantee a baseload for a class of intensive and continuous users (in short, factories, transports) vs intermittent highly variable users (in practice house, to a degree offices).

    The true is that there should be (so to speak) a trunk network of heavy users around which clusters of small/intermittent users, whose – possible – shortfalls can be filled in by spare capacity of the main network.

    It must be noted that given the high reliance on NG, to decouple small users from the big ones is a blessing, because if gas supply goes to put in a Winter (we are familiar to this in Europe) you get a double whack – gas must be kept at a pressure – but to keep heating going, mostly done with NG it meand that power generation get switched off and with factorties etc.

    So micro/local grids would increase overall robustness of the system. And micro grids can be made reliable provided that you invest in it. The grid is bad now in the USA, because, so I understand, of underinvestment and the fragmentation.

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  38. Mike K says:

    Good points all.

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  39. Norm says:

    Distributed power is the only viable way out of the current power paradigm, and here’s a suggestion:

    Put solar panels on the flat or suitably angled roofs of all state, county, and municipal government buildings and schools, Small-scale wind turbines on adjoining sites could also be installed where appropriate.

    Then connect them to the grid by net-use metering. As these building are usually only open for part of the day and are usually closed on weekends and statuatory holidays, and in the case of most schools, throughout the summer. a considerable percentage of the power generated would be returned to the grid.

    Make federal loans, fully repayable, available to the municipal, county, and state agencies and institutions which qualify; with a loan payment schedule based on the net savings (or profit) realized at each installation.

    Such a plan would ultimately cost the federal government nothing, as the loans would be paid back in full using the savings or profits generated. There would be no costs involved for the borrowers, as they would pay the loans using only the savings or profits generated as well.

    Ultimately, there would be savings for everyone – the federal government would have a multiply-redundant, non-polluting local source of energy for the nation. The local, county, and state agencies would have reliable (backed by the larger grid) source of energy, either cheaper or with continuing profits.

    The benefit for everyone else would be more non-polluting power and fewer large power plants and massive power transmisstion corridors, plus the jobs created in the manufacturing and installation of the solar and wind generating units and electrical panels (especially if the loans specify use of American-made products.)

    The same kind of arrangement could be offered to businesses as well, perhaps more attractively through tax incentives, rather than direct loans (or some combination of the two.)

    Win, win, win, as I see it – other than the nation’s coal producers and huge energy companies which have a vested interest in keeping us all dependent and indentured .

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  40. scott wayland says:

    I think it’s going to take a combination of DG and new, large solar plants in the desert regions that feed new, long DC lines.

    I think we are going to NEED both.

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  41. Ian Reilly says:

    I’m interested in the railcar-deliverable, combined-cycle, gas-fired plants derived from mass-produced aircraft engines – can anyone tell me more about this? I’m in the dying aviation industry – s j r g i a n @ y a h o o

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  42. C.J. says:

    Howdy, does anyone know where I can find more articles indicating that Micropower is increasing now or why other alternative energy systems would trade off with it such as nuclear power? My purposes are academic and research based. Any help would be much appreciated.

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  43. John, Boston says:

    I couldn’t say anything as far as the actual per dollar costs, but an interesting subject that isn’t really discussed here is placing wind turbines in sea or bay area location. They place the wind turbines roughly 25 to 50 miles off the shore. It’s a new thought, something I can’t say for the above.

    One apropriation was recently carried through in delaware or maryland. I don’t remember which. I suggest you all take a close look at that.

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  44. Lafayette says:

    ABL: In 2007, the U.S., Spain, and China each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity, and the U.S. added more wind capacity than it added coal-fired capacity during 2003 to 2007 inclusive.

    Wind capacity is fine, but it is by no means 24/24 & 7/7, even on the seaside.

    Where established, it has to be far from residences due to the simple fact that they spoil the countryside panorama and can be noisy. These two factors will limit their use in countries where land exploitation must be preserved for residential habitation. Spain has large expanses of empty territory, which it may exploit for Wind or mirrored Sun Farms. Perhaps the US is similar, but Europe does not have the expanse of land that the US does.

    Even the largest implementer of Wind Farms, Denmark, is employing them offshore … far offshore.

    Ideally, I might suggest, would be small nuclear facilities — but this will never pass muster with those responsible for Internal Security, as they are far too vulnerable — a shame really because their kilowatt-hour costs are very interesting once amortized.

    France generates two-thirds of its residential electricity from now amortized nuclear generators and for a kilowatt price that is the envy of Europe. It’s next generation nuclear generator has just obtained government financing — and an international project to develop fissile generation is underway.

    Both of these non-renewable nuclear energy sources intend to employ large, but protected, generator plants.

    I suggest that the final word on what works best for whom is yet to be said. There are far to many complex variables to decide a universally unique solution to alternative energy. Only one objective has current unanimity: We must move away from fossil-fuel generation for environmental purposes.

    That places countries like America in a bind because it has large vested interests in fossil-fuel electricity generator plants.

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  45. Jen says:

    Being in the industry, and on a smart metering project, it is intriguing idea, and likely where we’re headed. You’ll have to decouple most utilities first, and reduce the rate of return on large scale projects. The political hurtles can’t be overlooked.

    You’re ignoring one big point though – Not In My Back Yard. One very big reason power plants are concentrated is because people don’t like them. Once the patina wears off of green energy solar systems and wind energy will experience much the same issue. Look at the issues going on the solar project in California’s Mojave desert.

    Distributed generation is definitely where we are heading, but it will take some time.

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  46. sqgrey says:

    Before another power plant of any kind is built, it would behoove us to make maximum use of the negawatts built into our current systems. Once we have wrung out all feasible waste, then we can talk about new plants and new systems. Amory Lovins used to say that we used only about 1/2 the electricity we were generating, the rest lost to inefficiencies at various points along the way.
    Nuclear is so much more expensive (and biosphere damaging) than what we are billed for ( or propagandized about ). Huge amounts of power are required for the mining, processing (especially), transportation of fuel and waste (oh, wait, all the waste is still sitting on site!) and storage and securing of same. To say nothing of the question of where the uranium is being mined and at what costs. Really folks, most of the true costs (both environmental and economic) of nuclear power have been hidden from us. Add in all the government giveaways to the nuke industry, and splitting atoms is hardly a cost effective way of boiling water.

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  47. Terry says:

    Um, isn’t the trend in computing to move everything to an interconnected web (or, “cloud”) where the actual processing is done at some large facility elsewhere?

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  48. Bill says:

    Perhaps this will be useful when natural gas is inexpensive – as it is nuclear & coal provide a substantial amount of the baseload energy.

    When wind turbines & other renewables are as cheap and reliable as nuclear energy is today, they will be worth building.

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  49. scientella says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, in principle.

    However in practice, if the US government, NOT private companies and big contractor Cheney friends, but the GOVERNMENT, immediately started on a program of building 100s of nuclear power stations, then in a year when they come on line we could reduced our use of coal to NIX. This is not an ideal solution and the one you desribe is way better. However it wont work soon enough and if our future is nuclear I would rather it be immediate, next year, to stop climate change before it obliterates plants and animals, burns people alive (as in Australia) sweeps them up in Tsunamis, or freezes them in a gulfstream free Europe. NOW. we have to do it NOW, and with all else the same Nuclear, with whatever enormous government injection of capital, and stringent government controls, and recycling of fuels – would do it!

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  50. TJ says:

    All you pro-nuke folks and your talk of not producing any CO2 or all you coal power plant advocates and your talk of the smaller footprint of coal power plants compared to wind turbines – have you ever been to a mine and seen the footprint of it? Have you ever considered the amount of energy necessary to bring that uranium/coal out of the ground, process it, transport it and then dispose of the waste products?

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  51. Evan says:

    Some of these points are legitimate but I am concerned about Lovins’ conflation of cleanliness and smallness. He cites impressive figures for newly installed wind capacity, but that capacity is not in micro-scale turbines, it’s in massive wind farms that are as centralized as any nuclear or fossil fuel plant.

    Also, showing that renewables are outpacing nuclear is completely different from showing that small is outpacing large. The most blatant omission is statistics for new fossil fuel capacity!

    Final point: cogeneration certainly offers significant gains in energy-to-emissions efficiency. However, a widespread shift to distributed cogeneration would require huge capital investments, only to end up with a system that, even with improved emissions efficiencies, would still be based on fossil fuels. If we really want to drop our carbon emissions dramatically, the best way forward is utilization of large-scale, centralized clean power (wind, nuclear, solar, etc.) plus a revamping of the national grid infrastructure.

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  52. Roger says:


    Re reactors being inundated by rising sea levels:
    1. Calvert Cliffs is on the Chesapeake Bay, not in Texas.
    2. As the name implies, there is substantial elevation above sea level. The coastal plants on the west coast are also above sea level.
    3. Is it really true that new reactors will be at sea level?

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  53. Joseph Sherman says:

    We should look to solutions where each building can create its own power – solar, wind, hydro. If large companies are not willing to invest in these projects then groups of leaders will emerge to connect independent power systems.

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  54. kerry bradshaw says:

    You can always spot a con when the argument compares capacities of nuclear and those of wind, solar or aother unreliable power generators. “rated capacity,” which is used in this article, is not the appropriate comparison metric, even if renewables power siupplies had anywhere near the dispatchable quality of a generation technology such as nuclear. As for “more new power added than nuclear” in 2007,” I don’t even beleive that any new nuclear plants went into operation in 2007, at least not in the US. And right now, the number of new nuclear plants planned for just the US alone is over 30, and worldwide over 300.
    One single nucelar plant of 1700 megawatts can geenrate power at above 100% capacity, while wind and solar are generally below 30%. And that nuclear plant wil also not be more expensive to build and but it will last three times longer and be a far cheaper source of power. Right now existing nuclear plants are capable of producing power at between 1/5th and 1/15th the cost of wind or solar(without the enormous subsidies provided for those “renewable”
    technologies) And that cost includes the .2 cents per kilowatthour that wil provide more than enough to decommission the plant when its lifespan is over. Distributed energy systems are not intrinsically more efficient and they generally cannot exist without grid hookup, at least not unless the customer wants to get involved with a lot of battery costs. Centralized production of energy is cheaper because centralized production of ANYTHING is cheaper. Every homeowner his own
    power engineer is absurd.

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  55. Chris Dudley says:

    Roger (#54),

    I had a typo there. It should have been Calvert Cliffs _or_ South Texas.

    The British have been considering this issue and find that sea walls might do the job in protecting power plants. The cooling scheme for Calvert Cliffs is actually in the Bay so it would need its own adjustment. South Texas has a cooling pond which might become susceptible to breach by storm surge with a higher sea level. It would be an extensive sea wall in the case of the cooling pond. One big unknown is the amount of sea level rise before the core of a plant can be removed to higher ground. Hansen suggests 5 meters could occur by then or it could be just a meter and a half. The British have only looked at the lower level.

    I would say that the best approach would be to avoid sites close to sea level until the science on sea level rise is clearer. The science on the effects of drought may be clear now so that inland sites might be evaluated sooner. At least some studies seem to suggest that summer drought may affect the US Southeast so that TVA may want to avoid new nuclear power.

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  56. Rod Adams says:


    Though I have not yet been to a uranium mine, I have been to coal mines and I have virtually visited both using Google Earth. I have also dug through a wealth of data published by various energy agencies.

    The good news story about uranium mining is that very little is actually needed. The world demand for uranium dioxide in 2008 was about 91,000 tons, compared to a world demand for coal of about 6,000,000,000 tons.

    Uranium mining often requires moving a lot of earth at least a little ways to the mill, since many ores have a fairly low percentage of uranium, but after the material is milled, the only portion that has to be transported is the actual U3O8. The energy required for those shipments is miniscule compared the energy required for the massive movement of coal all around the world.

    The energy consumed in mining, milling, enriching and fabricating commercial nuclear fuel elements can be quantified. It is a tiny portion of the amount of energy that is eventually released by the fuel elements, even when the original uranium source is from ores with very low uranium content like those at the Rossing mine in Namibia.

    At that mine, production of a ton of uranium releases about 64 tons of CO2 equivalent. Completing the process to make commercial fuel from mined uranium approximately doubles the emissions, but that estimate is very dependent on the actual fuel enrichment process used and on whether or not the fuel is enriched at all.

    Only about 1% of mined uranium is fissioned in our current – rather wasteful and obsolete – once through process. However, since uranium contains about 3 million times as much energy as high heat content coal, a ton of mined uranium is equivalent to about 30,000 tons of mined coal. Moving a ton of uranium requires a single truck, moving 30,000 tons of coal would require about 850 trucks loaded to the maximum road limit of 40 tons (allowing some weight for the truck itself). Even on rail, moving 30,000 tons requires 250 train cars loaded to the current maximum of 120 tons per car.

    Fissioning uranium does not release additional CO2, burning coal releases about 3.4 tons of CO2 per ton of coal. Storing used nuclear fuel is also an emission free process, handling coal ash residue is not.

    In other words, putting power production from coal and uranium into the same phrase is patently ridiculous.

    One of the reasons that I find Lovins to be such a charlatan is that he has spent his entire career working hard to fight against nuclear power, but he readily accepts the fact that his plan leads to continued increases in fossil fuel combustion. Here is a quote from his landmark 1976 Foreign Affairs article. (Note: you have to read the whole article, not just the summary to find this.)

    “Properly used, coal, conservation, and soft technologies together can squeeze the “oil and gas” wedge in Figure 2 from both sides—so far that most of the frontier extraction and medium-term imports of oil and gas become unnecessary and our conventional resources are greatly stretched. Coal can fill the real gaps in our fuel economy with only a temporary and modest (less than twofold at peak) expansion of mining… ”

    Lovins was partially correct – the US has doubled its coal consumption since 1976. Fortunately, it has also increased its nuclear power production by a factor of more than 4 (191 billion kilowatt hours in 1976, 806 billion kw-hrs in 2007) while its oil and gas consumption has also continued to rise. Just think about how much more coal, oil and gas we would be burning if Lovins had more fully succeeded in his mission to halt the development of nuclear power.

    Of course, I also think about just how much less coal, oil and gas would we be burning, and how much cleaner and more prosperous the world would be if we had simply continued the nuclear development that was in progress before Lovins and his adherents began working so hard to protect coal, oil and gas interests. By now, coal would be almost a complete anachronism, but that would have put a few King Coal and Big Oil/Gas capitalists out of business. (The miners could have found productive employment in the nuclear power industry.)

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  57. Chris Dudley says:

    Kerry Bradshaw (#56),

    Nuclear power is not usually considered to be dispatchable.

    Lovins is considering the cost of new generation in this article so saying what old generation costs is not really to the point. In levelized costs for generation built today, wind costs between 4.4 and 9.1 cents per kWh while nuclear costs between 9.8 and 12.6 cents per kWh without subsidies such as loan guarantees. However, the Price Anderson subsidy is probably included.

    Thin film PV comes in a little cheaper than nuclear today and much cheaper in a few of years. That is peaking power, which is more valuable than baseload, at a lower cost.

    To understand why it does not make sense to compare what current nuclear power stations say their cost is with new wind power, consider a plant built in 1970 with money borrowed at that time. It needs to pay back in that 1970s money so 3 cents per kWh is more like 16 cents per kWh if the money had to be borrowed today. That is not perfect since some costs are incurred today not 40 years ago. But, this shows the need to compare new with new.

    Once you’ve done that, I hope you’ll agree that new nuclear power is very expensive.

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  58. Lafayette says:

    1space: “For example, my local power company will only reimburse what I *actually use* – yet they keep the $$ if I produce more power than I need.”

    In France the policy is to pay the source for any electricity that is submitted to the grid at the amortized cost price (of the source, whether solar or wind or hydro).

    But, that is easy to implement since there is only one electricity operator (Electricité de France). Regardless, since electricity crosses state boundaries, a Federal government regulation could set prices for renewable energy sources sold to the grid.

    We really screwed things up when we let the energy generator companies OWN the grid. Now, they set their own prices. This was a major mistake and will continue to hamper the move to renewable sources. It will, of course, require government regulation of grid pricing by the owners for renewable sources of electricity.

    The grid should be divorced from the large diversity of energy sources that are likely to evolve over the coming decades. Producing electricity and delivering it are two different businesses.

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  59. Lafayette says:

    It is perhaps timely to add another “micro-power” idea that comes from the past but is becoming a highly prevalent solution in much of Europe.

    It is both aero- and geothermal renewable sources of residential heating. (Aka “heat pumps”.) Aerothermal heating takes heat from ambient air surrounding the house. Geothermal sources take heat from a fairly constant source at about a meter below the earth’s surface (depending upon where in latitude a house may be, but surely everywhere within the continental US).

    Both sources are free, gratis and for nothing, even if the heat-pump itself is not. I installed a geothermal system for my suburban home (near a large French city) last year, and through radiant floor-heating (tiled floors) have had Very Inexpensive residential heating. As well, the cost of the unit was subsidized by the French government by means of a tax credit for half its cost.

    My point: Unless the Federal government becomes actively involved in such solutions (for urban, suburban and rural residential communities) then the higher installation cost (but lower long-term calorific cost) will stymie usage. It must subsidize them and, therefore, consider them as an integral part of Residential Infrastructure Investment — perhaps more important than yet another road or bridge (to nowhere).

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  60. E E Timm says:

    Any long term fan of science fiction knows that the future belongs to species that develop safe, very high energy density power sources.

    Lovins would take the path that ties homosapiens to this rock forever in a semi vegetative state.

    I am confident that an earth like planet could support maybe one billion individuals using concentrated solar and wind energy at reasonably technological level.

    Unfortunatly, we happen to have 6 billion people (and growing) many of whom like 300 horseposer automobiles, huge houses and extensive travel.

    What Lovins energy scenario really requires is a complete spiritual shift from a materialistic, growth oriented culture to a spiritual culture dedicated to sustainability.

    Bubba ain’t gonna like this!

    I’m betting this isn’t the path that Western civilization takes.

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  61. Willa Parker says:

    Nuclear power small and beautiful? Right, all there needs to be is one small accident for some really big problems. Nuclear power is too risky. Would you want one in your basement? I wouldn’t.


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  62. Carl Christopher says:

    Small nuclear is not as dangerous as you might think. Certainly care needs to be taken. But there are some new designs that require no refueling for many years, and thus are quite safe and require little maintenance.

    We have had great success so far with our nuclear navy. You don’t need a big nuclear plant to take advantage of nuclear’s benefits.

    We will never (I think) see nuclear reactors in people’s basements instead of furnaces. But a reactor that powers 10,000 homes may become a realistic option in a decade or two.

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  63. Rod Adams says:

    @Willa – I have direct and personal experience with a small, beautiful reactor. It was not in my basement, but, along with 150 other people, I shared a sealed space with that reactor for months at a time. It was a good and loyal friend that provided all of the heat, electricity, clean water, and clean air that we needed to live in relative comfort for months at a time while operating in one of the harshest environments on the planet – deep underwater.

    That reactor also provided us the power that we needed to move freely about the ocean for about 15 years while producing a quantity of waste that would fit under my office desk.

    It appears to me that your expressed fear is based on what you have read rather than what you have experienced. I hope that you get over your phobia, but I know those are difficult to overcome even if there is a desire to do so.
    However, nothing anyone says can remove the knowledge from my brain that humans have a ready, available, dependable power source that is far better than coal, oil, gas, wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels put together. I keep writing about what I know so that some people can realize that people like Lovins, Caldicott, Marriotte, Gunter, Riccio, Nader and other professional anti-nuclear activists do not know what they are talking about.

    As we used to say on my sub – rather crudely – “Don’t piss on my head and tell me it is raining.”

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
    Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

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  64. Col says:

    Rod Adams:

    Are you seriously suggesting that the guy who wrote a book called “Winning the Oil Endgame” espousing ways for our country to fully get off oil while increasing jobs, wealth and security, is in the pockets of the oil industry?

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  65. Mike Johnston says:

    Interesting article with very educational responses. I personally agree with the distributed energy model as the natural evolution of the electrical system in the US.

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Mr. Lovins says in his article but do agree with the concept in general. Here is a nice graphic which illustrates a distributed energy paradigm that I do think is going to be the future of energy production and distribution, it is from the site of Dr. Woodrow Clark II who shared the 2007 Nobel Prize and was co-editor of the U.N.’s :

    I think that the free market needs to determine our energy future and, with the right framework in place now, that this is the inevitable outcome.

    This means that the energy market has to be opened to producers both small and large. To do this will require at least two very simple laws,1: a national grid-tie law which allows small producers to tie into the grid and sell the electricity that they produce and 2: a national consumer choice law which will allow consumers to choose their electric service provider at any time based on price and service just like you choose your phone company.

    If we have these two laws consumers can decide the type of energy they want to purchase and what price they are willing to pay for it. The result will be the development of new technologies and services to better capture market share in a competitive marketplace.

    I like to make an illustration using the breakup of Ma Bell. Since that time phone prices have dropped and all sorts of new service providers have entered the market including companies who specialize in buying cheap minutes and selling them as phone cards. The same could and probably will happen in the electric industry. Companies will buy off peak minutes in one area and sell them to consumers in other areas.

    Or consider the technological boom that has happened in the phone industry. Opening that market led to the development of cell phones and now web based phones which don’t require the old telephone “grid” of wires at all. The same may very well again happen in the electric industry if we open the market as I have suggested.

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  66. SecularAnimist says:

    I don’t know why nuclear power advocates always point to France as a leader in nuclear electricity generation. The USA has many more nuclear power plants than France and generates more electricity from nuclear power than any other nation on Earth. Sure, France generates a high proportion of its electricity from nuclear — about 80 percent. But to match that, the USA would have to build and operate several hundred more large nuclear power plants, an expansion that far exceeds even the wildest dreams of the nuclear power industry for a taxpayer-funded “renaissance”.

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  67. Pierre Bull says:

    Understandably, Amory, as a scientist and physicist, makes his initial arguments describing the physical enhancements that microgrid planning and technologies would bring to bear: namely a more reliable and efficient electricity grid.

    But what makes his argument particularly powerful is his understanding of the ‘other’ non-physical, non-engineering pieces of the future grid development puzzle – namely the social institutional (laws and system planning) and economic realities (business-finance decisions) of the day that ultimately drive decisions to invest in, and enhance, the services delivered by our electric grid. Amory quite accurately captures this institutional-economic reality where he states, “Collapsed capital markets now make giant projects even more unfinanceable, favoring lower-financial-risk granular projects even more.”

    In addition, in the context of nuclear power ‘gigantism’ as defined by Amory, I would encourage my fellow energy enthusiasts to read about the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant (good description on Wikipedia) disaster. Financial disaster, that is. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that just an hour’s drive from Wall Street sits an unused nuclear power facility (it is decommissioned) that will continue to burden Long Island energy bill payers for decades to come.

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  68. Susan Timberlake, Cummington Wind, LLC says:

    Finally- common sense. Small Wind or solar, I also believe that making splitting water with electricity into Hydrogen Fuel in situ will be one of the tipping points and and revolutionize our world. In the 1880’s Tesla and Edison fought over DC vs. AC. Edison built the first grid near Wall Street in NYC and it was DC. AC won about for several reasons, but one was the ability to efficiently transmit over 1 mile. The rest of the world is going small and local. We will too, in the US. It is just that the designs aren’t there yet. Hopefully new, more efficient and reliable designs will be coming soon to every household.

    Sue Timberlake
    Cummington Wind

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  69. Randy says:

    After reading the article and the responses by William Tucker, Rod Adams, and Kerry Bradshaw, I tend to think Amory Lovins makes an excellent case study in why scientists typically make crappy engineers.

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  70. Carl Christopher says:

    Good points about nuclear power. It has not had an unblemished history, with big financial and safety problems around the globe.

    But nuclear power has also proven that it can work. The reason for pointing to France’s example is that nuclear power works very well there. It shows that nuclear power can scale up to provide power at a cheap price with almost no carbon emissions.

    Contrast that with solar and wind. Where are the examples that show that can work? Denmark is often cited for wind, and Germany for both wind and solar. Look closely at those two countries, though. You will see that wind and solar power is hugely expensive, yet has not displaced fossil fuel or nuclear power in either country. Wind and solar may work, but so far they are unproven.

    My first investment as a brand-new high-school graduate in 1975 was $500 in a wind power company. I lost that money. Unfazed by that, I have invested much more over the years. None of my investments have been successful. While some solar and wind power companies have made money for their investors, it has always been on the back of big subsidies. Never as a viable business.

    So we should continue to look at all energy sources. But until wind and solar power prove themselves, betting on them is a risky bet. I’ll put my money on nuclear power.

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  71. Pete Wann says:

    I’m fascinated by all the different directions people have taken the discussion on this post.

    Here’s what I get out of it:

    A modestly-sized solar array on my house, coupled with a small windmill in my back yard, will generate enough power for me and several of my neighbors here in Texas. This is a fact.

    If I better insulate and maintain my home, making it more thermally efficient, I will require less power to heat and cool it, etc. If my neighbors do the same thing, they get the same result.

    There are two problems with this scenario, as I see it:

    1. Despite opinions to the contrary, the hot winds don’t blow constantly in Texas anywhere but in the Sate Capitol building.

    2. For a too-large percentage of the day, the solar panels will be ineffective due to the lack of an electron source.

    Solving the problem of efficient, safe, clean energy storage and re-transmission ON THE SMALL SCALE will be what pushes this solution into the forefront.

    Well, that, and a legal framework that allows me to charge my neighbors a fair market price for the excess energy I produce and they consume.

    Forget nuclear and all the rest. That’s old-school thinking about energy production. The future is in generating what you need cleanly and storing the excess.

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  72. Rod Adams says:

    @Col – who wrote “Are you seriously suggesting that the guy who wrote a book called “Winning the Oil Endgame” espousing ways for our country to fully get off oil while increasing jobs, wealth and security, is in the pockets of the oil industry?”

    Yes. I am seriously suggesting that Lovins prescriptions provide huge benefits to the oil, coal, and gas industry. His suggested energy sources have been known for thousands of years, yet they have tiny market shares and do little to reduce fossil fuel consumption. If you have read my other comments, you will find quotes directly from the mouth or pen of Amory Lovins that demonstrate that he freely admits that he has worked for oil companies for more than 35 years and that he was comfortable in 1976 with a projection that coal consumption would double in the US.

    The ONLY non fossil alternative power source that have ever taken market share away from fossil fuel combustion are large hydroelectric dams and nuclear fission power plants. Those also happen to be energy sources that play no role in Lovins’ prescriptions for the future. I think there is a relationship.

    @Pierre Bull – don’t you think that someone who calls himself an experimental physicist and the chief scientist of his organization should have at least one degree? Lovins is a self admitted two time college dropout.

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  73. Karl Siegemund says:

    I guess some people doubting Lovins’ arguments “smaller is better” are ignoring his main argument.
    He does not argue that a big power plant would be inefficient. He argues that the big powerplant produces much energy at a place no one actually needs it (except for immediate neighbours of the plant). So it has to get to the consumer via the power grid, and this, he claims, is the Achilles’ heel of the big power plant: The maintenance cost, reliability and efficiency of the power grid is lacking. 98% of all power outages are caused by the power grid, not by the power plants. And that’s the point at which micropower really shines: A local damage to the power grid does not effect whole counties or states anymore, it remains local, thus reducing the costs of those outages.
    Micropower solves the problem of power distribution by better distributing the generation of power.

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  74. Jonathan Maddox says:

    Hi all,

    There are a lot of objections above to Lovins’ endorsement of small-scale gas-fired power generation, on the grounds that it entrenches dependence on fossil fuels, that it is less efficient than large-scale power generation, and that it’s expensive. Someone also mentioned that it’s dirty.

    None of these objections is realistic even now, and technologies in the offing such as Stirling engines, fuel cells and V2G promise to make such thinking look antiquated.

    Current demand for grid power is highly variable and daily peak loads are often provided by mid-sized gas-fired generators that do not harness their waste heat and are no more thermally efficient than a car engine. Huge quantities of gas are wasted this way, especially considering that much of this peak electric demand goes to run hugely inefficient heating and cooling equipment.

    Building-scale cogeneration, on the other hand, where waste heat is harnessed directly for industrial processes, water or space heating, or as input to absorption coolers for refrigeration or air-conditioning, is thermally *very* efficient. Wherever fuel — oil or coal or gas or wood — is already burned for heat, including at the domestic scale, electricity can be cogenerated with a simple Sterling engine at an effective thermal efficiency of 100%. Improved insulation can cut the demand for heat at the same time, reducing fuel consumption even as part of the energy is shipped out as electricity.

    None of these technologies is any less clean than existing automobile engines and domestic heating, which we are mostly content to run in our cities and to have exhaust into our air. In time, cleaner-still fuel cell technology will reach costs comparable to those of car engines, furnaces and domestic electricity supplies.

    As for gas-dependence implying fossil-fuel dependence, this too is an anachronism. Methane is readily generated from biomass on a very large scale indeed, and it is becoming commonplace eg. in Western Europe to feed biogas from agricultural and forestry waste and sewage treatment into the natural gas supply system. It has been estimated that EU countries could supply as much gas each year from existing waste streams, without requiring extra production, as they currently import from Russia.

    Russia in turn has such vast forest resources that it could sustainably supply the same amount of energy to the world from forest products as it does from fossil fuels.

    For comparison, the recent fires in Victoria, Australia, consumed as much biomass fuel in a week as Australia’s entire coal-fired electricity production does in five years. Now those trees did take more than five years to produce so much fuel (the average age of a full-sized eucalypt is probably about 30 years), but responsible forestry on marginal land not currently used for either agriculture or conservation would be quite capable of producing Australia’s entire annual energy requirements from biomass alone (providing arson can be effectively policed). That is without exploiting the vast potential for geothermal and solar energy in Australia’s arid interior.

    Much the same applies to countries in warmer and wetter climes — tropical forestry and agriculture has the technical potential to expand, without additional deforestation, to produce as much energy each year as the world obtains today from gas and petroleum combined.

    A brilliant blog on this subject, sadly no longer updated but remaining as a remarkable archive of bioenergy developments over the years from 2003 to 2008, is at .

    As for “small and beautiful” nuclear power plants — there is no doubt that there is some room for such things in the world. But they’re far more subject to NIMBYism as wind turbines are, and you should all remember that for every tonne of uranium mined, no matter how clean your reactors and how secure your waste storage, about thirteen radioactive tonnes of related decay series isotopes are left behind in the pulverised rock tailings at the mill site, to blow across the surroundings like talc and contaminate the landscape.

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  75. paul t. horan says:

    Let’s kindly consider: “the generation and distribution of energy-intelligence” primarily as public service rather than as a profit-center. Granted, this is not how the brightest and best folks working in energy-markets have commonly/traditionally viewed energy-intel.

    Nonetheless, reaching outside our traditional and common boxes via public discourse (like this here blog) can be an extraordinarily valuable exercise in generating and/or distributing new, useful, coherent and relevant intelligence with respect to the design and implementation of human activity systems in general, and energy-information systems in particular.

    By choosing to view our current, local and global climate/energy/economic crises as opportunities for evolutionary excellence to emerge (particularly, with respect for public service, community organizing, restoring and enriching our public trust, etc.) we’re more likely to gain access to dimensions of human intelligence that are not constrained by common notions of “energy” as defined by traditional market-forces = especially when such market forces are currently punch-drunk from excessive “take the money and run” sprees.

    If we’re in the business of delivering energy-services to customers, let’s kindly consider the distinction between serving customers and exploiting customers. If we’re biased toward serving customers, than my guess is we’ve got the basis for a viable business model and if we’re not then we don’t.

    The more individual customers actually get served and served well, the smarter our energy-designs become. To the extent energy-intelligence (both individual energy use and public energy policy) enriches our public good then let’s generate and distribute more of it.

    Delivering good insights into our public domain doesn’t happen by accident and enabling our public will to act on such insights requires even more work. Traditional market forces may never glimpse the competitive advantage gained by putting profits second rather than first … and yet, the best and brightest folks working in today’s emerging energy markets (assuming these good folks have any testicular-fortitude) are gladly willing to stretch their mind-sets in preparation for adapting to extraordinarily complex management challenges if they plan to remain in business = especially since “business as usual” is “going out of business” whether we like it or not.

    Crises are game-changers and the game’s already afoot. So, who wants to evolve?

    Ciao for now,


    P. S. – Thanks, Amory! I appreciate your hard work, smart work and heart work. Perhaps soon, more of us will begin catching-up to the life-affirming cutting-edge you’ve been sharpening for the past coupla generations.

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  76. Mikko Tikkanen says:

    I have followed the energy discussion here in Europe and there other side of the sea and in fact had possibility for short chat with Hunter Lovins from RMI several moths ago. I think that the most dangerous thing is optimism. People are living in delusion that energy problem is only a technical problem, and indeed probably RMI is feeding this delusion. I think that we can not build 15000 new nuclear plats or get equal amount of energy from renewables by 2050 – or can we? The real problem is that the economical growth is fully coupled to the ever increasing consumption of matter. Today “greening” is just selling of good conscience in order to support increasing consumption. The energy problem deep inside the structures of our culture: more you consume more you are! Who wants to be less?

    Our life style is based on status game with material status symbols. The status game can continue only if we create a status game in immaterial market, and/or develop clean and endless source of energy. People, politicians and business trust that scientists will fix the energy problem, and we will have nice and clean transition from oil driven welfare to post fossil era. However, I think that most of the real scientists in the field are very skeptic!

    The energy challenge is so big and complicated that, to be honest, it is very hard to see any nonviolent solutions for the transition to post oil era. Most probably there will a big crash and the survivors will make a new culture. I don’t see reasons for optimism because the present economy and welfare are so deeply dependent on fossil fuels, and democracy market economy have no efficient mechanisms to increase energy price before the bottom of the oil (coal, gas) wells are clearly visible.

    Fossil energy has been harvested by photosynthesis during 3 billion years. Now what scientists are asked to do is to find methods to jump from the use of the fossil stock, accumulated during 3 billion year, to online production of energy. From 1:3000000000 to 1:1 ratio. The situation probably is not as bad as one can imagine from the numbers above, but surely not a trivial task!

    Indeed, the global need of energy is so huge that I don’t see any possibilities to go small. The real resources of renewable energy are there where sun is shining (and wind is blowing) – not there where most of the people live their everyday lives. If we want to exploit the most abundant renewable resources, we have to there where the resources are available; in oceans and deserts nearby the equator. We really need super/supra grids for long distance transportation of energy and smart grids to distribute the energy efficiently to the customers. We need new technology, but also far-seeing politics with the today’s poorest countries that have the greatest resources of solar energy.

    Mikko Tikkanen

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  77. Marketrealist says:

    What the sweet spot is for the size of a power generation system must be flushed out. I personally do not think households necessarily should have 2 KW solar system in their homes. At that micro-micro scale, the $/KW cost is the highest.

    However, when you get to the 100 KW to 500 KW systems, you have sufficient size to justify systems like solar and wind that can cost effectively be installed at a commercial building to offset electricity consumption and even have a little spill over to feed the grid.

    Based on my experience running the energy programs for a local government, we can justify these mini (not micro) systems based on cost alone.

    The breakthrough has been achieved already on renewables even at the larger system sizes. Many people are basing the argument against distributed generation based on outdated data from even 5 years ago. Southern California Edison just awarded a solar thermal project to a company in California for 1300 MW at prices below the Market Price Referant for natural gas from combined cycles turbine power plants. Now tha this is achieved, who will be buying a new huge coal plant again?

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  78. niel p says:

    large ultra-supercritical coal-fired plants and large nuclear plants will supply the worlds energy needs for the next 50 years

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  79. Jody says:

    What Mr Lovins forgets is that if a region was powered by distributed solar during the day, all is well when the sun is out. What happens when clouds cover the region for a few days? We are back to conventional power, at least until storage technology is perfected.
    Also the capacity of a wind/solar system is very different from the capacity of a coal or nuclear plant. The former utilize their capacity for 5-6 hours per day at most (in the case of a well sited solar installation) thermal plants run 24/7.

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  80. Philipe Paul says:

    Yes sir!
    We inherited the different ways of producing and distributing electricity, from early generations. The challenge for our generation is to harvest electricity from nature.

    Lightning needs to be captured and converted into usable energy that is channeled into the grid. This will reduce the quantity of fuel burnt to produce man-made electricity.

    In other words, do not dismantle the national grid, because it could later be used to harvest electricity from the skies (over land). Since we also lay cables and build platforms in the ocean, the sky is the limit.
    (“generatorblue” channel on Youtube)

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  81. David Lubertozzi says:

    I agree with Mr. Tucker that we need nuclear power, after reading “The Jane Fonda Effect” (Freakonomics Sept. 15 2007) and doing some research, I found out that in fact that by 1986 fission technology had been developed in the US that is inherently safe, meltdown-proof, non-waste generating, and of course carbon-free. Sounds like a fantasy to most people, but see my letter on the Freakonomics blog (comment #53 on the JFE article) for solid references if you don’t believe me.

    However, Mr. Tucker misses the main point: when you’re burning something to generate electricity, a simple common-sense thermodynamic analysis shows you can do much better than big centralized plants: they throw away a huge portion of the fossil fuel energy as “waste heat”, then incur more losses as resistive heating of the distribution wiring. Transmission losses apply to any centralized generation of course, so while nuclear plants can feasibly be big or small, most people would probably rather situate them out in the middle of nowhere no matter how safe they really are, so let’s make those big – makes security easier too.

    We can do a lot with distributed cogeneration at very little cost tomorrow, since we already have the infrastructure in place to distribute natural gas cheaply; renewable and lower carbon sources (biofuels, coal to gas) can easily be added into this system as they come on line.

    There is plenty of good analysis of this issue already done, we just need to implement it.
    Lovins/RMI Small is Profitable was named Book of the Year by The Economist, hardly a lefty outfit.

    more info for those interested:

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  82. ezra says:

    Is this support for Davidson and Ress-Moog’s book ” the Sovereign Individual”…as economies of scale shrink what are the implications for the state, politics in general, and wealth and equity.

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  83. movieboy says:

    Rod Adams said, back on Feb 10, about 5AM, that

    “For my money, those smaller nuclear plants have a HUGE advantage over the types of systems that Lovins advocates – they produce reliable power without producing ANY polluting emissions at all.”

    And yet I wonder how all the fission products are contained (particularly the noble gases) and whether, at the end of its life, what happens to its radioactive parts.

    The issue of emissions must, in all fairness, be looked at across the life cycle of the plant. A life cycle analysis of your small nuclear plant muight reveal considerable greenhouse gas emission, for example, if each component is considered, from cradle to grave, from ore or or ther raw material to eventual safe disposal.

    The focus of the nuclear advocates on this blog is their verison of “pollution free” megawatts. Amor Lovins also mentions pollution free negawatts, or energy capacity made available by increased efficiency of use of available resources, as well as more efficient technologies.

    Nuclear electricity however hard you sell it, is limited in its application. Nuclear equates to radioactive waste; electricity equates to inefficient usage,compared to passive solar, particularly at small scales.

    Why build nuclear electricity capacity when it is so much easier and safer to design, build remodel and demolish energy-efficient houses?

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  84. Fox Badibanga says:

    What most of opinions forget is to consider seeing the earth what it really is; a living being. It is possible that the earth is not different from the human body as to the expression of life, feelings, memory, joy and pain etc…I make this more understandable in my book: Global Warming and Al Gore Faustus Adventures inside the Earth, now available on
    The story in this book centers on the escapades of a fictional character named Al Gore Faustus and explores the idea that the earth is a living anthropomorphized being with feelings, memory, and a spirit and that it should be treated as such.
    There are many efforts being deployed to save energy, to build free of pollution technologies, to protect the planet, etc…But, unless we understand the reasons why we should save energy and protect the planet earth, these efforts will remain thin and meaningless to many.
    Explaining what the earth is and why we should protect it by adopting clean industry is what this book is all about.
    Let’s make an effort to talk to the Earth itself.

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  87. Dawn Robinson says:

    How about another alternative? Distributed energy such as windmills or solar energy would be difficult and expensive to pipe in to the populated centers where it is needed. Nuclear energy, while not ideal, is the best current solution to our energy needs. But how about an option that combines the two? If we were to invest in development of ideas such as Hyperion’s small reactors designed to power a small town, we could distribute power more efficiently without the large power plant problems we are currently facing. Granted, the small reactors have their own problems, but its an idea worth persuing. Dawn R.

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