Amory Lovins describes how his views have evolved on nuclear energy and other topics over the course of energy advising to more than 65 countries

By Jocelyn Timperley, an interview with Amory Lovins on Carbon Brief, 4 July 2017

CB: Talk about your current views and past views on nuclear. Do you think nuclear plants have their place? What’s your response to claims in the US that you need nuclear to keep the lights on?

I’m about a 58-year student of nuclear issues and early on I thought it sounded like a good idea, until I learnt more about it and ended up writing a few books on non-proliferation and other nuclear issues. But what has come to the fore in recent decades is that the technology is hopelessly uneconomic and has no business case anywhere that I can think of – I work in about 65 countries. So one needn’t argue about whether it’s proliferative or unsafe or whether we know what to do with the waste if there’s no point building it because it’s a money loser. That’s where we are.

A new nuclear plant will send out electricity at anywhere from, if you’re quite optimistic, perhaps 12 US cents a kilowatt hour (KWh) to perhaps twice that. And at the same time unsubsidised renewables in good sites are selling long-term contract renewable electricity for three cents a KWh. That’s a factor roughly three to six lower. And if you broaden beyond good sites to more ordinary ones, that’s less than a factor-two difference.

This means that if you built a new nuclear plant you would actually be making global warming worse than it should have been, because you are buying a lot less solution per dollar – it was dearer, and you just turn the maths round. If climate’s the problem, we need to be buying the most solution per dollar and per year, but nuclear is both costlier and slower than modern renewables, or, for that matter, energy efficiency which is typically cheapest of all.

In the United States, as in several European countries, we’re actually closing operating nuclear plants because they’re too dear to operate – just their operating cost is greater than will clear in a competitive market in auction.

And two [states] of the United States, New York and Illinois, have recently succumbed to the incorrect argument that they should subsidise the operation of their nuclear plants in order to keep saving carbon. But this turns out also to be incorrect. The reason the plants are distressed and cannot compete on operating cost is the operating cost is so high. High enough that for every KWh you don’t generate in such a reactor, you could buy approximately three KWhs of efficiency at the average price the utilities actually pay for it.

Which means you could use one KWh of [inaudible] electricity to substitute for what the reactor was doing and a couple more to displace fossil fuels. So you would actually end up saving money and carbon by closing this costly-to-run nuclear plant.

A lot of people miss that point by arguing about only the carbon savings, because the nuclear plant does not directly release carbon in its operation. But you have to track the money as well, because it’s quite costly to run, especially to keep repairing as it gets older. And, therefore, if you close those distressed nuclear plants, buy efficiency instead – which the regulator can tell you to do -– with the saved operating costs, you will save money and carbon.

We’ve just had the first case in which a major US utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, chose to do exactly that: close a well running nuclear plant in order to save money, save carbon, and make the grid work better by taking this big block of inflexible capacity off the grid so that variable renewables have more room to operate.

The new US secretary of energy [Rick Perry] believes that nuclear and, for that matter, coal plants are vital to keeping the lights on because they are what he calls “baseload”, and he apparently believes that they run all the time.

Actually, a coal plant is out of operation about 10% or 12% of the time, nuclear plants actually similar, although only about 2% of that is unexpected forced outages, and there’s another 6% or 8% that is closed for refuelling.

But, actually, even though we traditionally ran the grid with such big thermal power stations providing relatively steady output – when they ran they ran well – and then filling in layers of increasingly costly mainly gas fired power, now renewables are so cheap that they beat often just the operating costs of the nuclear or coal or gas plants. So they are what we should run whenever they are available in order to save money: that’s the way grids are supposed to work, you run the most the plants that cost the least to operate. It’s called economic dispatch.

If you do that, then you find that the inflexibility of nuclear plants, in particular, is quite an obstacle to running the grid reliably and economically. You might think that because there’s not a continuous supply of fuel required the nuclear plant is in some sense more resilient; you can have a year or two of fuel easily stored on site.

But renewables, of course, don’t require fuel at all. And they don’t have this disagreeable property that if there’s a heat wave, so you can’t dump enough waste heat out of the reactor, you have to close it. Or if there’s a major disruption to the grid, a regional blackout, and the reactor suddenly has to shut down for safety reasons, it’s very hard to restart. It can easily take a fortnight to restart because of the way the nuclear physics works: certain elements accumulate that soak up the neutrons and you have to wait for those to decay before there are enough spare neutrons to get the chain reaction going again.

So from a technical perspective nuclear is actually not as reliable as you might suppose, and we’ve had instances of major failures of a lot of plants at once. And, of course, the simplest way that can happen is when there’s a big accident like Fukushima in Japan. That shut down, ultimately, every reactor in the country. And only a few have restarted because there are concerns about their safety – and there should be concerns about their economics.

But the notion that we need nuclear or other large thermal plants to run the grid reliably is quite obsolete: it’s a bit like debating the merits of horse and buggy when we’re building a modern highway system.

No doubt the US energy secretary will do his best to try to revive the dying nuclear and coal plants dying of an incurable attack of market forces. But it’s a bit like defibrillating a corpse, you know: it will jump, but it won’t revive, because the economics are so dreadful.

And there’s no solace in new types of reactors that some enthusiasts claim might save the business. Their idea is that there are all these exciting new types of reactors, [which] actually were abandoned in the 1950s for good reasons, that if we just built a lot of them would be cheap enough that they could be economical.

Well, not really. Reactors as a matter of physics don’t scale down well, so initially the new types would cost on the order of twice as much per kilowatt as the ones we’ve got. And those are grossly uneconomic, in fact they cost at least three times as much as renewable energy now – solar and wind power –to do the same things. And that factor three disadvantage will be another factor two by the time you could build any kind of reactor: it takes quite a while to design them and licence them and build them and test them so see if they’re really worthwhile.

So that’s a factor 12 out of the money. That doesn’t work, it’s simply another lost opportunity where we could have put the money and attention into doing what already makes sense, makes money, saves carbon, and gives us a more reliable and resilient power system through efficient use and diverse distributed renewable resilient supply.

CB: What’s your opinion on the approval of Hinkley Point C, [the new nuclear reactor set to be built in the UK]?

Hinkley Point C is an extraordinary policy failure that reminds me of when Britain and France were trying to build a concorde supersonic aircraft which would clearly have many problems including terrible economics. And they went on for years releasing both that it was a bad idea, but nobody wanted to be the first to cancel it.

This English-French embrace of mutual folly is now playing out again in Hinkley Point C. Coming in at currently twice and probably three times the cost of alternatives that don’t have any of the other disagreeable aspects of nuclear power.

I think it speaks to the utter dominance of nuclear theology over British energy policy. This has been going on for over half a century: some scholars believe it’s because of the links between the civil and military nuclear capabilities of the United Kingdom; some think it’s nothing to do with that, but simply the way that a hermetic group of influencers and civil servants and politicians all talk to each other and reinforce their biases and find it difficult to accept that this is a “future” technology whose time has past, the world has moved on. There’s no business case for it. Let’s cut our losses and let markets actually work.

So I’m afraid that and any other reactors built in the UK – although I don’t think they’re very likely – will simply be one of those other great money-wasting projects we wished we never heard of, but nobody had the guts to stop.

CB: How about UK energy policy more at large: do you have any comments on the past few years?

I lived in the UK from 67 to 81 and became almost bilingual [in US/UK energy policy] and at that time British energy policy was a contradiction in terms, and I’m afraid it’s got worse since then. So there really isn’t a coherent policy to discuss.

It’s simply analogous to the progress that a sleigh might make in the winter if you hitched a half dozen horses to random points on the periphery and let it move about according to which horse is hauling harder at the time.

CB: On the Energiewende in Germany: do you think it’s gone wrong? What’s your opinion on the failure to reduce emissions as much as hoped for?

Germany’s Energiewende is a remarkable effort that’s been taking shape over decades, since the 1970s; I’ve had some part in that process. And it is not simply about phasing-out nuclear power – that was agreed by all the parties in 2000/2001, then Chancellor Merkel was minded to delay it a bit and make it more flexible just before the Fukushima accident, after which though she realised she’d got the risk assessment wrong, so she put it back, only a year faster than original.

Energiewende is not only about renewables; it has a very important set of elements of energy efficiency. And it is a carefully crafted and coordinated body of public and private policies in Germany not to defend the old energy system, but to enable the new energy system using market processes in harness with sensible public policies.

It is not perfect, but it is on the whole an enormous success, which you would not guess from reading much of the reportage, especially in English, and especially by reporters who don’t read German and don’t really know what’s going on. Because there’s been a concerted disinformation campaign for about four or five years now to represent the Energiewende as a failure and represent it as doing pretty much the opposite of what it actually has done.

It has not subsidised renewables, for example, but simply provided an orderly way for buying them and allowing them to connect to the grid and be dispatched whenever they’re cheaper to operate, which is virtually always, because they have no fuel.

It has been very inconvenient for the utilities. And not only in Germany: the 10 biggest electric companies on the continent lost about half their market cap in five years because they bet against the Energiewende, and they lost their bet. It isn’t that they weren’t told, many of us actually tried to tell them for a decade ahead what was going to happen, but they didn’t believe it.

What happened was, of course, as renewables came in they were the cheapest to run, they drove down the wholesale price of electricity by more than half, and the existing fossil fuelled power plants were able to run fewer and fewer hours, because renewables took away much of their market, especially more lucrative parts.

So the two biggest utilities in Germany, the second biggest in France, the main one in Italy, have had to split in two or otherwise greatly alter their strategy to deliver efficiency, renewables, and other customer-centric offerings. And the two big German ones simply ended up in effect giving their legacy fossil fuel plants to the shareholders to say we can’t figure out how to make money on this, you can have a go if you like.

So the transformation has been sufficiently awkward for the incumbents that they’ve actually got the governments in the past few years to slow down the renewables, which were just running away with the market.

Now about a third of German electricity is renewable, of that roughly two-thirds is solar and wind, and the other roughly one third is dispatchable, things like small hydro, waste combustion, that you can have whenever you want. The grid has become more reliable, the huge drop in the wholesale price has given German manufacturers a big competitive advantage against, say, France, Germany has become the only consistent net exporter of electricity to France because they undercut the French, largely nuclear, electricity price.

And a political fuss was made about the temporary rise, now reversing, in household tariffs which as a matter of policy are high in Germany because it’s over half taxes. But only a modest fraction of that was to purchase renewables. Not subsidise them, but transparently purchase them; there’s no tax revenue involved. And that’s gradually turning round as the lower wholesale price rolls into the several year long supply contracts that the retail distributors pay.

The burden on households, however, has been I believe more than doubled by a several billion euro a year cross subsidy of German industry, which was done for political reasons. So their renewables and even grid fees are often charged to households, which is bad economics and a conservative government [inaudible] good politics.

But, on the whole, the Energiewende has been terrific for German industry and energy security and economics, and for the world, because it so got China’s attention that China started scaling massively in the building of solar and wind power and other renewables and, thus, brought the price down for everybody in the world and, therefore, triggered the global energy revolution that’s now well underway.

So we all owe a great debt to Germany for starting the feed-in-tariff and other mechanisms and fairer grid access that created this remarkable policy initiative.

CB: How is the US energy mix and emissions profile likely to look like, or likely to change, under Trump in your view? What changes will happen despite his stance?

Well, President Trump has quite different ideas than his predecessor of both parties about energy markets. I’m not sure he realises that they’re going in the opposite direction of what he wants to have happen. So he will try to revive coal-fired power generation and coal mining.

But, of course, all the utilities that were planning before his election to close those coal plants as uneconomic are still planning to close them. And a lot more have joined them. The economics haven’t changed.

Just days after the election we happened to have convened a group of a couple of hundred large companies that buy several billion lots of renewables per year in the United States. And we asked them: “Well, will this election result cause you to change your renewable purchases in the United States?” Only a few per cent said they would buy less renewable energy – about a quarter as I recall said they would buy more – and the rest said, “Well, business case hasn’t changed, we’re going to do what we first thought of.”

And I think that’s very much where the energy industries, especially the renewable industries and their financiers, have come out: they’ve said that the business case has indeed steadily improved, it will continue to improve and there’s really nothing significant the president can do about it.

As Cutler Cleveland said, analysing the political economy of the United States energy system, the president is not the federal government, the federal government is not all government and, indeed, we do most of our energy policy in the US at a state or even a local level and government is not the only or even the most important actor in energy and climate policy.

So keep calm and carry on, not much will change, there will be a great deal of rhetoric and litigation and policy conflict, but the underlying market forces are so powerful they’re not about to get diverted by short term politics.

CB: What changes do you expect to see in the next 10, 20 years in the make-up of the energy mix in the US and in its emissions?

The US energy mix will continue to go steadily and strongly away from coal; nuclear will continue to decline; it’s currently about a fifth of our electricity. Coals market share is now at the lowest point since, I believe, 1964. Natural gas will fluctuate according to its price and renewables and above all efficiency will continue to dominate growth in their shares of the mix.

Energy-saving since 1975 – about two-thirds through smarter technologies for using energy – have already cumulatively provided about 30 times more energy than the expansion of renewables. But the renewables will continue to accelerate, because they’re the best buy on the supply side.

And, of course, any commercial or political space vacated temporarily by the United States in clean energy will be gratefully filled by competitors in China, Europe, India and so on.

CB: You’ve touched quite a lot on energy efficiency, but could you set out your idea of the negawatt revolution and what you meant by that. Have your opinions have changed since you first set that out? And have things changed with regards to it: do you think the advantages of energy efficiency are really being seen and used now?

The word negawatt was a typographic error: somebody meant to type megawatt and typed negawatt, which I thought was a rather nice idea for saved electricity. So I spread it all round, it’s now the standard term.

They’re about a $12bn a year industry in the US alone, helping make buildings and factories much more efficient, at a clip of several per cent a year.

There is an enormous amount more to be done: we could improve the efficiency of US buildings by 2050 at historically reasonable rates by a factor of three or four, with about a 33% internal rate of return. So that means the savings are worth four times what they cost and you could save $1.4tn at present value this way by buying efficiency instead of continuing to waste the energy. In industry, we can about double energy productivity, with a 21% internal rate of return.

If you want to know how to do that go to Rocky Mountain Institute’s website and look up Reinventing Fire, our 2011 business book, which lays out readably, but vigorously how to make that happen. In fact, it is what is happening. It’s on track for the first six years of this 40-year journey, simply because the private sector smells the $5tn on the table that’s to be saved by trebling efficiency and quintupling renewables. So that’s well under way now.

China has adopted a similar strategy, but even more dramatic: seven fold more productive use of energy, 13 fold more productive use of fossil carbon by 2050, about $3.5tn cheaper.

Oh, and by the way, if you take the on-track US Reinventing Fire approach, and the adopted in-strategy Chinese one, and extrapolate them to the other half of the world, cross-checking against similar European findings, you could get to about a 2C climate trajectory. And save about $18tn on the cost of energy services.

This all assumes that carbon is not priced and no externality is worth anything, but you still get the same services $18tn cheaper that way. And if you then reinvested some of that saving in natural systems carbon removal, you’d get to about a 1.5C climate trajectory, the more aspirational Paris goal, and still have trillions of dollars left over. It should simplify the politics, of course, to realise that climate protection can be not costly, but profitable.

CB: On those sort of technologies and CCS [carbon capture and storage] or carbon removal technologies, what’s your opinion on them?

Well, I haven’t yet seen an economically attractive CCS option; I was hoping that Shell might have come up with one that involved physics not chemistry, it was a centrifuge approach. But, alas, it turned out not to work as hoped.

I think the way forward on carbon removal from the atmosphere is going to be through more biologically informed farming, forestry, grazing practices and so on; to stop treating soil like dirt, start treating it as a biotic community and take carbon out of the air and put it back in tilth where it belongs.

In general, I think it will be cheaper, easier and better in a lot of other ways including for human health and ecosystem diversity to use natural systems that reproduce themselves, repair themselves, sponsor their own fertility, than to use an engineered bit of mechanical kit or chemistry to try to do the same thing artificially.

CB: On the renewables revolution of recent years, what do you foresee for the sector? At what point do you think the detractors or critics of renewables will move on board. What do you think it is that they actually need to see to have it recognised as the best thing?

Well, the main barriers to large scale reliable renewable deployment are really between the ears of people who think that the way we used to run the grid is the only way to run the grid.

There have been posited limits on what fraction of electricity can reliably come from variable renewables – that is photovoltaics and wind power, which vary according to the weather and the Earth’s rotation and so on – and those limits used to be said to be a few per cent, five per cent, ten per cent, 15, 20, 25, 30 etc. The limits have always evaporated on closer approach and attention.

Now, or even in 2014, there were five European countries with about half renewable supply. And these are countries not hydro-rich like Norway or geothermal-rich like Iceland, but, say, Spain was 46% renewable as a fraction of its inland demand, Scotland 50%, Denmark 59%, Portugal 64%, way out on the end of the Iberian peninsular, loosely connected to Spain which is loosely connected to France – this isn’t like Denmark right in the core of the dense northern European grid.

And the operators have simply learnt to run their grids the way a conductor leads a symphony orchestra. No instrument plays all the time, but the ensemble together continuously creates beautiful music.

We’ve even got to the point in 2015 where the ultra-reliable former East German utility – might be the most reliable in the world, their last big power failure was like 35 years ago, long before [inaudible] renewables – they were 49% renewably-powered in 2015 and three quarters of that was from the variable renewables, photovoltaics and wind power. So they’ve got this down, they’ve figured out how to run the grid very reliably on high renewable fractions. And, indeed, their CEO said, “Oh, we could readily go to 70% without adding bulk storage.”

And now that we find there are about eight cheaper ways to do what bulk storage does we needn’t wait for a storage miracle. Batteries will indeed get cheaper, but they are probably the dearest way to buy grid flexibility; there are about eight cheaper ways to do the same thing.

Many people who have succumbed to the baseload myth – that you need the big coal, nuclear gas plants to keep the lights on – simply are not grasping the level of innovation that’s already come to grid operations on both the supply and demand side.

So I think that’s the more interesting question than will renewable keep getting cheaper. Yes, indeed, they will: the US wind power resource just became two-thirds bigger in seven years not because the wind blew harder, but because we built taller towers, higher solidity rotors that would run better in lower wind speeds, we got better software, we’re smarter at where we built the things, how we ran them.

And those improvements continue. So every doubling of cumulative production makes solar cells about 26-28% cheaper, wind machines 18-20% cheaper. And that sort of progress will continue as far as the eye can see. So I think the renewables revolution is now irreversible. These are both $100bn plus industries and they’re providing the majority of the world’s new generating capacity, even though they are in general less subsidised and less durably subsidised than the non renewables.

CB: What did you mean by the concept of the “hypercar”? Do you feel that that’s something that’s becoming a reality now?  What’s your view on electric vehicles?

I’m actually driving my first hypercar, in that that’s what the number plate says. It’s a carbon fibre electric car made by BMW called an i3. Best car I’ve ever had.

The hypercar was a notion I came up with in ’91 or so, that if you made cars out of advanced materials that were very light but strong, like carbon fibre composites, you could take out about half to two-thirds of their weight. You could also make them more slippery going through the air, give them better tires and electrify their propulsion, run them much more on software the way say a modern Tesla does. It’s really a computer with wheels more than it’s a car with chips.

If you put all those bits together you end up with a two- or three-fold more efficient car with very good economics and all driver attributes are the same or better. This also turns out to have a lot of strategic advantages in manufacturing. It can save about 80% of the capital for the automaker, it can make the grid able to swap power with the car in a way that advantages both and, of course, you can run it renewably.

So whether you’re running it through a hydrogen fuel cell or batteries, it’s a much more advanced and attractive concept for both the automaker and the driver.

About seven automakers are now at various stages of implementing that approach, partly because after a couple of years of initial validation mainly with General Motors, finding them not yet culturally ready to collaborate fully, we simply put all the work in the public domain so no-one could patent it and then got everyone fighting over it.

Our $3m of initial charitable R&D investment was leveraged in the next seven years to the year 2000 to upwards of $10bn of industry commitments.  So a lot of the modern revolutions in hyperdrive and lightweighting and hybrids and electric traction really trace back to those kinds of interventions.

We’re very pleased with how that’s going. It means that you can deploy electric cars much faster, because if you take out about half or two-thirds of the weight and drag, you need two or three times fewer of the costly batteries or fuel cells.

CB: Do you support the current trend of replacing old coal plants with gas plants in the US. Do you think it’s a good thing for the climate?

The more we look in detail at the methane escaping from the gas supply chain and around it where they tend not to count around the edges, the more we get worried that actually gas is worse than coal from a climate perspective.

This can be fixed. We know that because the gas industry has essentially no gas escaping if it’s sour gas, contaminated with the rotten egg stuff, hydrogen sulfide, which is extremely toxic, more than cyanogen, so they go to great pains to contain it for safety reasons.

And yet with non-sour gas the attention is elsewhere, it goes to the liquids that are more lucrative, so the same level of engineering and administrative attention doesn’t get applied, and a lot of the stuff escapes.

But it’s a very, very potent greenhouse gas and I think that’s an existential threat to the gas industry as we’re starting to realise. There are ways to fix a lot of it at a profit, so we have efforts underway to make that become the practise in the industry.

But both coal and gas plants – and, indeed, nuclear plants – just in operating costs can often no longer compete with modern renewables. So the market is solving all of these problems for us, where renewables are allowed to compete fairly and that’s in the roughly half of the United States that uses competitive markets at a wholesale level and in many of the states that use conventional regulation to do the same.

This interview was conducted by Jocelyn Timperley on 8 June 2017 at Chatham House in London.