Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Lovins and Caldicott: Hypercars and Hyperbole

with 5 comments

Rod Adams over at Atomic Insights recently considered an interesting question – Who is more dangerous, Amory Lovins or Helen Caldicott? An interesting question.

Adams says that “Caldicott energizes and adds emotional fervor for people who have little understanding of the way the world work; Lovins gets entry into board rooms and government conference rooms where real money gets moved around.”

I think this statement is absolutely true. Whilst Helen Caldicott’s claims about nuclear power absolutely infuriate and annoys me, as well as many other people who look favourably upon nuclear energy because they’ve looked at it in a rational, sensible way, informed about the science and the technology, I think that Dr. Caldicott isn’t as dangerous, fortunately, as you may think.

I have spoken with people who are vehemently anti nuclear energy, and they’ve told me that they they cannot take Caldicott seriously, and that the anti-nuclear movement, at least that part of it which is somewhat rational, would be a lot better off without Caldicott as one of the high-profile public faces of this movement.

First and foremost, many regard Lovins as something of a shill for American corporations – Although there’s a lot of negative things we can say about Caldicott, nobody ever accused her of being a “shill”.

“Our thesis rests on a different perception. Our attempt to rethink focuses not on marginal reforms but on basic assumptions. In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing……For fundamental reasons which we shall describe, nuclear power is not commercially viable, and questions of how to regulate an inexorably expanding world nuclear regime are moot.”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

“De facto moratoria on reactor ordering exist today in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, and probably the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Canada.

Nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred or abandoned in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iran, China, Australia and New Zealand…”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

The fact is, in 1980, Lovins got it wrong.

Scientists, sometimes, get it wrong. Carl Sagan, when he claimed that oil fires during the Gulf War would induce a worldwide ecological catastrophe, akin to a “nuclear winter”, got it wrong. When Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki claimed that CCS and geosequestration of Australia’s CO2 emissions from energy generation would require the sequestration of one cubic kilometer of carbon dioxide a day, and is absolutely unfeasable, he got it wrong. If somebody asked Lovins about his 1980 publication, he will most likely admit that he got it wrong.

However, I’m fairly confident that Amory Lovins knows that tritiated water is not H3O, and he knows the difference between the neutron-absorbing control rods and the moderator of a nuclear reactor.

In 1976 Amory Lovins coined the term “soft path” to describe an alternative future where efficiency and appropriate renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.

The “hard energy path”, as described by Lovins, with which the “soft path” contrasts is based on the assumption that the more energy we use the better off we are. It involves inefficient liquid-fuel automotive transport, as well as giant, centralized electricity-generating facilities, burning fossil fuels or harnessing nuclear fission. The hard path is not simply a matter of energy sources, though, because it is greatly augmented and complicated by wastage and loss of electricity and other common, directly usable forms of energy.

The “soft energy path” assumes that energy is but a means to social ends, and is not an end in itself. Soft energy paths involve efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on co-generation and “soft technologies” such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.

Now, quoth the good Dr. Caldicott:

“Nuclear power is often referred to behind closed doors in the U.S. Department of Energy as “hard” energy whereas wind power, solar power, hydropower, and geothermal energy are referred to as “soft” energy pathways.

Clearly the same psychosexual language used by the Pentagon generals to describe various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear war has been translocated into the nuclear power vocabulary of some very powerful and influential men in the electricity generating field.”

I’ve heard that Lovins used to talk about the risks of nuclear proliferation as a key argument against the use of nuclear energy, however, I haven’t read these particular arguments – unfortunately, I haven’t yet read any of Lovins’s books.

“If you go to the December 2005 issue of Nuclear Engineering International, you’ll find a paper called `Mighty Mice’ that summarizes an economic analysis. What that analysis shows from the best empirical data available last year, is if you spent 10 cents (U.S.) to make and deliver a new nuclear kilowatt-hour — notice I said deliver, so that’s at your meter — you can displace 1 kilowatt-hour of coal power. That’s what Patrick is talking about. And it might seem like a good idea until you look at the competitors.”

“Given the relative cost and financial risk of Canadian or U.S. nuclear, you have to have a very restrictive set of options or strange idea of economics to conclude a nuclear plant makes any sense. So I don’t know how they could have reached that conclusion, unless it’s ideological or designed just to support the nuclear industry.”

Today, from my reading, for the most part, Lovins never seems to say that nuclear energy is bad. Lovins does not rant on about waste, meltdowns, proliferation, terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, or anything of the sort that Caldicott does.

Lovins just says that conservation, distributed generation, solar, wind and so forth can do a better, cheaper, job of meeting our energy needs in a clean way.

I support the clean, “soft” technologies promoted by Lovins, and I think that there’s certainly a place for them in the energy mix of the future. But I do not believe that it would be easier or cheaper for these energy systems to meet all our energy needs than it would be for nuclear energy to be a key contributor in an energy mix that will meet all our energy needs.

Even Lovins’s HyperHouse uses a little bit of electricity off the grid, and a little bit of fossil fuel. We can have a world completely free of the need to burn fossil fuels, and this should be the number one aim.

Whilst Lovins does have real influence in the boardrooms of industry and commerce and the halls of government, and this is a potential dangerous mixture, if Lovins is pushing flawed science, or no science at all. However, from my knowledge of Lovins, he, at the very least, knows how to use the Scientific Method. I’ll give him the benefit of my finite reading and experience and reading of Lovins’s works, and say this: Dr. Lovins is a scientist. A shill, perhaps, but a scientist none the less. Caldicott is no shill, but no scientist, no way, and never was.

Now, I’d buy a hydrogen Hypercar. I’d love a hydrogen Hypercar. I first got excited about hydrogen hypercars when I read an article about the design, engineering and electronics that went into General Motors’s HyWire, actually. (OK, it’s not the genuine Lovins HyperCar, but let’s expand the definition to include all modern designs for advanced Hydrogen-powered wheels.) Whilst I’d be quite happy to see the hydrogen produced from solar energy, or wind energy, or from clever hydrogen-producing algae, I’d be equally as happy, more happy in fact, to see the hydrogen produced from the cleanest large-scale energy system we have proven at the moment – and that is nuclear energy.

The following is taken from the visitor’s guide to Lovins’s Snowmass HyperHouse:

“Above the decking is a three-eighths-of-an-inch (1-cm) base layer of Freon-filled polyurethane foam; a polyethylene vapor barrier sealed at its edges to the wall insulation; and, depending on location, another four to eight inches (10–20 cm) of polyurethane.”

Freon!? My goodness! Won’t somebody please think of the atmosphere!

I wonder how much Potassium-40 is being consumed each year from Lovins’s HyperBanana crops, anyway?

Anyway, in conclusion: Amory Lovins is the “more dangerous”, probably, of the two. Shilling for industry is nothing to be proud of, if Lovins is somewhat guilty of that, but it’s still Lovins who I have more respect for, of the two.

I’ll leave you with a quote from NNadir, who certainly has a few interesting things to say about Lovins – and a few interesting things to say about just about everything else.

“I measure time in billions of tons of carbon dioxide. People started investing in Amory Lovins’ ideas 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide ago.”

5 Responses

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  1. I fully agree with you that Caldicott deserves no respect. If you listen to what she says carefully, you realize that she is actually using scientific fact much of the time. The problem is that she provides no context; therefore she is guilty of misrepresenting the truth (i.e., lying) to get her point across.

    For example, we all know that ionizing radiation causes damage to cells. Nevertheless, whether this damage is significant, whether it is naturally repaired, whether it is more or less important than the free radicals or the various carcinogenic agents agents that are flowing through our systems every second that we live is completely ignored by Helen Caldicott. Her “scientific” rhetoric is fine-tuned to be a little bit accurate, but very scary and very misleading at the same time.

    I don’t think that I agree with you that Lovins knows how to use the scientific method. Given his academic record, I find no evidence that he has ever learned how to use the scientific method at all. (Then again, perhaps I take a very narrow approach. I think that many of the current issues being discussed in the popular media — climate change included — are suffering from a lack of proper application of the scientific method.)

    In my personal opinion, I consider Lovins to be the “Bill Gates” of the environmental movement. The parallels are quite amusing. Both attended prestigious schools. Both failed to graduate. Both have careers based more on marketing than actual technical skills. (If you think that Gates was ever a talented programmer, then you don’t know much about Bill Gates.)

    For Gates, his success has depended on deals that he struck with big business — e.g., convincing IBM to let his fledgling company write the operating system for their new “personal computer” — and taking advantage of the stupidity on the part of the MBA’s that run these large corporations. (The results of this deal are obvious to even the most oblivious of us.) When you look at Amory Lovins’s career … well, guess what … his success has depended on exactly the same thing — that is, fooling big companies, not IBM this time, but companies like Walmart.

    I agree fully with your main point and Rod’s point as well: Lovins is the more dangerous of the two. Lovins is more dangerous because he is slicker at marketing. In fact, that is all that Lovins does; it’s his bread and butter. After 30 years at it, he would have gone out of business long ago if he was not good at marketing.


    November 13, 2007 at 5:01 pm

  2. “Today, from my reading, for the most part, Lovins never seems to say that nuclear energy is bad. Lovins does not rant on about waste, meltdowns, proliferation, terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, or anything of the sort that Caldicott does.”

    Have you seen this?
    Maybe it isn’t ranting in the Caldicott sense, but he’s definitely condemning it here.

    I also have a few posts about Lovins on my blog.


    November 16, 2007 at 10:15 pm

  3. Funny. I had just written a blog post on how Caldicott exploits and hurts the kids of wartorn countries with her lies and hypocrisy


    November 19, 2007 at 7:48 am

  4. I have to agree with bryfry – Lovins is no scientist. He dropped out of both Harvard and Oxford without making much progress at all in either school. The only “degree” that he holds is “an MA by virtue of being a don” from Oxford. Based on my correspondence with the information office at that prestigious institution, that essentially means that he was on the academic staff and was awarded the title by special resolution. If you are interested in specifics about his academic “career”, you can find the details on my post titled Amory Lovins’s Academic Career

    On the other hand, Caldicott really can claim the title of Dr. since she was initially trained as a physician. I cannot understand her ranting, but at least she finished school a long time ago.

    I have done a LOT of reading of Lovins’s work – I find it to be a chore sort of like taking bad tasting medicine. If you read closely, you will find out why he is such a successful businessman – he accepts the use of coal and natural gas as “bridge” fuels and finds that they are superior to allowing expanded use of nuclear power.

    By simply slowing down nuclear power and discouraging investment in that area, he puts BILLIONS of dollars into the hands of fossil fuel interests. Here is a fun fact – despite all of the success that has been achieved by people like Lovins who have worked to hamstring nuclear power for decades, the worldwide energy production from nuclear power plants is the energy equivalent of 1.3 times what Saudi Arabia produces each year.

    Just imagine what the world’s energy supply-demand balance would be like without that contribution! Now imagine what it would be like if marketers like Lovins were in favor instead of being opposed! Actually, that is a silly statement – if Lovins was in favor, he would be ignored, not made wealthy by his fossil fuel focused consulting clients.

    Rod Adams

    November 24, 2007 at 5:17 pm

  5. Thanks for this post, I’ll have to keep it bookmarked so I can link it when some loony throws up on my blog.


    January 9, 2009 at 2:23 pm

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