May 8, 2012
By Matt Palmer
Above is a twenty-seven minute TED talk given by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute: A 50 Year Plan for Energy. In the video Mr Lovins lays out an ambitious and detailed plan to get America completely away from using oil, coal, and nuclear. Zero use of oil, coal and nuclear by 2050. This is not about whether he is right or wrong.
A quick browse of the comments both on the TED website and on You Tube will give you an idea of how contentious the ideas presented are, and how polarizing Mr Lovins is. His talk raises many questions, and while I elucidate some of my concerns, my objective in posting this talk is to spur debate over what are the ideas that have value, and which ideas need more expansion and development, all within the context of systems thinking.
My biggest disagreement with Mr Lovins is his continued espousal that switching to alternative energy sources and fuels is free.
We humans are inventing a new fire, not dug from below, but driven from above. Not scarce but bountiful. Not local but everywhere. Not transient but permanent. Not costly but free.
If you understand systems thinking, the falsity and danger of this statement is obvious. I am not arguing against the need to transition away from the dominance of fossil fuels as a prime energy and fuel source, nor am I arguing against the intention of his position or proposals. But, Mr Lovins fails to address the massive amounts of natural resources (i.e. steel, rare earth minerals, land, etc.) needed to build new energy infrastructure, or the impacts that will come from exploiting alternative energy. He does mention that much of the energy infrastructure will need to be rebuilt by 2050, so understanding the full scale and impact of the choices is important.
Harnessing any energy for human consumption creates consequences. After more than a century of using fossil fuels we understand the ramifications that come from burning fossil fuels. Do we have a full understanding of the effects of industrial scale wind, solar, tidal power, etc both from a natural resource reach, or from the direct impacts on the environment from alternative energy? Have there been enough studies on the effects of not just slowing the wind, but also mixing cold and warm air? Or stopping sunlight from being absorbed by the earth’s surface and reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere in the form of heat? Will there be localized temperature and hydrological impacts? What about the potential human and environmental consequences of nanotechnology used in solar panels, and the creation of e-waste? Asking these questions early in the development and implementation cycle could help mitigate some impacts.
Did anyone consider when the first big oil discoveries were made 150 years ago what the impacts to the environment would be of using oil as a fuel source?
Replacing the energy and power density of fossil fuels with intermittent and less energy and power dense sources like wind and solar means building a lot more infrastructure, and all infrastructure has a lifespan. When terms like renewable and sustainable are used they must take into account the infrastructure. The wind will always blow and the sun will always shine, but wind turbines and solar panels do not last forever. We need to talk about this, and deal with it.
The other point I want to bring up about Mr Lovins presentation is his lack of acknowledgment of the importance of fossil fuels as a feedstock for petrochemicals, and other needed materials like steel. Near the beginning of the presentation he suggests building cars from carbon fibre would help in reducing the weight of cars thereby enhancing fuel efficiency, and he argues, if combined with a change to electric power vehicles, we would free ourselves from our addiction to oil. Why does he not acknowledge that carbon fibre is made using petrochemicals? Or why he does not address the amount of steel used to make a wind turbine?
Mr Lovins ideas and plan are well worth discussing, but that discussion needs to be real, and honest, and take into account all potential benefits and trade offs that come from using fossil fuels, and from switching to alternative energy. Attacking or disregarding the plan because of disagreements over facts and numbers will miss the bigger potential of pulling out valuable ideas that can make a difference.