Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. The 2005 book wasn’t advocating the agenda of the Flat Earth Society, and Friedman likely hasn’t used the proceeds to help fund such a ludicrous group. But the charitable foundation he runs with his wife has done something almost as silly by giving money to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), one of the nation’s most radical anti-energy, left-wing nonprofits.
The Friedmans are not alone. General Motors, Fed Ex, United Airlines, Amazon, Bank of America, and dozens of billionaires, major corporations, and big foundations have become huge donors to RMI. In 2002, the Rocky Mountain Institute was a kooky, enigmatic group with just over $5.1 million in total revenue.
A lot changed after that.
A December 2022 study published by the RMI asked a scary question: “What do secondhand smoke and gas stoves have in common?”
Just weeks later, in January of this year, a commissioner with the Consumer Products Safety Commission citied the RMI study and suggested the government agency might implement a federal ban. By the first week of May, New York notched the dubious distinction of becoming the first state to prohibit the installation of natural gas stoves and furnaces in new building and home construction.
Improbably, the once ignorable RMI has launched a legitimate policy war against natural gas, a low-carbon, abundant source of American-produced fuel.
For most of the prior 40 years, RMI’s impact was difficult to notice. The CNN website search engine appears to hold stories at least as far back as 2011, and a June 2023 search for “Flat Earth Society” yielded only 11 references. A search for “Rocky Mountain Institute” revealed only 14 stories in the database.
But 11 of RMI’s CNN references were from 2019 or later. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s influence and budget have exploded in recent years. In 2007, the group reported almost $9.7 million total revenue. Similarly, in 2012, the year before RMI first appears in the CNN search database, it reported total revenue of $10 million.
Then, the money started flooding in, making huge leaps each year. RMI received almost $16.5 million in 2013 revenue, was up to $29.5 million for 2016, went past $53.5 million in 2019, and topped $115 million in 2021.
Since 2012, the nonprofit has grown from 50 employees to more than 600. In addition to multiple locations in Colorado, RMI now has offices in Oakland, California; New York City; Washington, DC; and Beijing, China.
Patient Zero: Amory Lovins
In 1982 the Rocky Mountain Institute was founded in Snowmass, Colorado, by physicist Amory B. Lovins and his former wife, Hunter Lovins. Amory remains chairman-emeritus of RMI, and his ideology still animates its policies. The RMI website hosts a page titled “Inside Amory’s Brain” that describes him as the “Einstein of energy efficiency” whose “earth-shaking ideas on energy security, efficiency, and renewables have changed the field for more than 40 years.”
Except for the dubiously flattering comparison, the rest of this is not inaccurate. Since at least the mid-1970s, Lovins has made it a habit to crank out crackpot ideas that hoodwink supposedly wise people.
The first of “Amory’s Classics” celebrated by RMI is “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” a 1976 essay he wrote for Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote it as a representative of Friends of the Earth.
His central goal was to convince the industrial world to ditch its use of “hard” energy technologies—coal, natural gas, oil, and (especially) nuclear power—and choose instead “soft” technologies, the so-called “renewables.” Ever since, Lovins and RMI have promoted that big picture point.
“Recent research suggests that a largely or wholly solar economy can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic,” he wrote, in one of many points that was unintentionally prophetic.
Nearly a half century later, “recent research” from similarly gullible sources continues to project economic viability for weather-dependent energy. Solar and its intermittent power wonder-twin, wind energy, regularly get re-subsidized to the tune of hundreds of billions more dollars in this nation alone.
These money gushers are shrouded in increasingly lofty lies, such as the “Inflation Reduction Act,” and the supposedly “soft” solar technology is being built at hard-labor camps in China.
A critical feature of the wind and solar fable today (and probably back in 1976 as well) is a flawed measuring stick called the “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE). In simplified terms, LCOE divides the cost of obtaining power over the lifetime of the power source (construction, maintenance, fuel inputs, and so forth) by the amount of power produced.
LCOE is an imperfect but useful comparison for power systems that run on stored fuel that can be dispatched when needed. But LCOE is grossly misleading when used to compare these mostly reliable systems to those that run on weather-dependent energy.
The real value of a powerplant is not that it can generate low-cost electricity: a lightning bolt can do that exceedingly well. Instead, what makes an energy system truly useful is that it can generate that power when it is needed. Lightning bolts, the wind, and then sunshine follow the demand of Mother Nature and celestial mechanics, not consumer demand.
Even though the value of a watt is inextricably related to when it is created, RMI repeatedly misuses LCOE to sell the supposed superiority of non-reliable power.
“Higher amounts of variable renewable energy on the system also creates a mismatch between energy demand and supply, increasing the risk of renewable curtailment—the forced reduction in power output—when other inflexible generators like coal and nuclear are unable to ramp down during periods of high renewable availability,” wrote RMI researchers in a February 2018 report.
Translation: “The problem with reliable energy is that it’s TOO reliable and wants to keep working even when our weather-dependent princesses decide to wake up and help out.”
Imagine the Rocky Mountain Institute as a diner: “Due to their willingness to work for slightly less, we’ve hired some cooks who show up whenever they want to. But our labor market has been ruined by the more expensive, yet punctual and reliable cooks, who inflexibly refuse to punch out when the cheaper staff decides to come in.”
Nonetheless, they keep the faith.
A January 2018 RMI report asked: “Will 2018 be the year when solar power reaches so-called grid parity, providing a cost of energy over its operating life that is equal to or less than the cost of energy from existing conventional energy sources?”
Their dubious answer: “This levelized cost of energy (LCOE) comparison informs new grid investments and, as a result, the evolving resource mix of the grid. . . . Looking across the energy landscape, there is reason to believe solar’s time truly has arrived.”
Yes, just as in 1976, solar is STILL the energy of the future! And . . . always will be.
In the next installment, RMI is fundamentally opposed to energy use.