The secret weapon in the Climate Counterstrike
I was delighted to see Amory Lovins pop up as a guest on Cleaning Up. Lovins is one of the original academics focussed on cleantech and energy efficiency and is also one of the founders of the excellent Rocky Mountain Institute (his own pieces published there can be found under his bio here). It is a known gap in my own climate education that I haven’t spent more time familiarising myself with his work to date; something to rectify in 2022.
Lovins popped up recently when I noted his letter (below, in full) to the Economist rebutting their pro-nuclear article (paywall):
Just operating most existing reactors costs more than energy efficiency or new renewables, which in 2020 became the cheapest bulk power source in 90% of the world. Existing American subsidies already rivalled nuclear construction costs. More billions or tens of billions of dollars in current new subsidies to distressed (or even to all) reactors only compounds the misallocation. It diverts even greater resources from more-climate-effective competitors that can’t contest market space or access grid capacity hogged by taxpayer-funded zombie reactors.
This view is certainly counter to what I had understood from different sources, including the study from Stanford (where Lovins also works) suggesting that an extension of the Diablo Canyon reactor’s lifetime to 2045 could save California $21bn in power system costs and 90,000 acres of land use replacing it with renewables. In another study from Princeton, Net Zero America, the authors found that an energy mix with an increased amount of nuclear energy (scenario 4 - renewables constrained) was cheaper than an all renewables scenario (scenario 5). And, from the latest Lazard LCOE study, it looks that the marginal cost of operating existing nuclear is still right at the low end of new solar. If any readers have an idea of how to reconcile these data points with Lovins’ view, I’d appreciate a steer.
This conversation, as the title suggests, was mostly focussed around the much neglected area of energy efficiency. Occupying the extreme opposite end of the technology / complexity spectrum from fusion, the obstacles to much accelerated energy efficiency gains are primarily practitioner education. Key takeaway: Pipes - fat, straight, short - the climate solution hiding in plain sight. “We need to bend minds, not pipes.”
Lovins has built his home in the Rockies at 2200m without a heating system, entirely passive, where is able to grow bananas as well as other tropical crops (!!!) - some of which can be seen in the background to the video:
It is cheaper to build with passive HVAC - the additional expense in design and high-grade materials, offset by the upfront savings of not having to install mechanical heating systems and then, naturally, pay to run them on-going. Lovins spoke of an architect that managed something similar for a home in Thailand, which has the opposite climate. “Everyone lives somewhere on the spectrum between here and there, so it is possible all over the globe.” [Cue a new-found ambition to build a passive home one day!]
Lessons from BMW i3 - received wisdom was that carbon fibre is too expensive to use for mass manufacturing, but the lighter frame allows for savings on other materials and smaller batteries. [This is the inverse of the ‘mass begets mass’ principle of design, which Elon Musk talks about in the context of - of all things - WW2 military airplanes on this fun Hardcore History podcast.]
Half the world’s electricity runs motors, and half the motors run pumps and fans, which feeds into pipes and ducts. The friction in a pipe goes down as a 5th power of its diameter (i.e. a roughly 97% drop in friction for doubling diameter), but the cost only goes up by the second power. Therefore for using fatter pipes, you can shrink the size of the motors driving the pumps by a factor of 5-10. If everyone in the world used fat, short, straight pipes, the world could save about 20% of electricity or 50% of coal-generated electricity.
Because shorter / fatter / straighter pipes is a design and not a technology, it isn’t generally on the radar as a vector for climate action.
Many perverse incentives from many actors in the system that work against the spreading of energy efficiency - utilities want to sell more power, etc. Energy efficiency lagging well behind where it needs to be. Running at slightly under 2% for the last decade; it needs to double from here.
Jevons paradox - an argument that energy efficiency gets wiped out because people tend to consume more when things are cheaper. Lovins say this isn’t a real argument, the effect is real, but small, to the tune of single digit percentages.
On nuclear - Lovins [as previously flagged] doesn’t believe that nuclear should play a part in the future energy mix, simply because it can’t compete on price with wind and solar. Suggest something like a x20 cost differential between SMRs and renewables can’t be bridged by mass production. Even with existing reactors, he suggests that the marginal costs of running them are x2-3 the cost of equivalent energy efficiency.
Germany decommissioning nuclear - Lovins suggests that Germany has been vindicated by having reduced emissions whilst simultaneously retiring nuclear early. [I am much more convinced by Liebreich’s position that a focus on retiring coal first would have been much more effective, as evidenced by UK's drop of coal use. This is actually now a view that some policy makers in Germany hold now too, but they are baked in. Something that I learned from this article discussing the nuclear withdrawal was that it was part of the catalyst for the Energiewende as Germany didn’t want their emissions to go up dramatically as they shuttered their nuclear, so there is a material climate silver lining.]
Renewables, in Lovins' view, are not correctly categorised as ‘intermittent’, but rather they are ‘variable’, the difference being that ‘intermittent’ infers unpredictability. Renewables performance can generally be modelled accurately in advance, whereas fossil fuel generation can go down unpredictably and sometimes for longer periods. [Ireland is a case in point, where we’ve been having a nightmare with our gas plants recently.]
There are also dispatchable (able to be turned on and off) renewable options such as hydro - large and small - pumped hydro storage, and increasingly vehicle-to-grid with the spread of EVs, and then there is much that can be done on the demand side. [Pumped hydro, btw, doesn’t get enough airtime given that it accounts for 95% of global energy storage, with the world’s largest just commissioned in China. This plant has a storage capacity of 6,600 GWh, which compares to Q3’s record installations in the US which amount to 14 GWh at an annualised rate. One can’t help but be awed.]
On seasonality in renewables - data from German utility suggests that the shortfall across wind or solar would likely only last for a couple of days, not weeks on end as many suggest.
Good summary of Lovins’ points on renewables with further links in this article.
Lovins suggests that electricity usage may go up or down - if electrification is paired with integrative design and big leaps and efficiency, it may still result in less electricity use.
Energy system transition - “The faster we do it, the cheaper it gets.”