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RMI’s War on Energy

Of the main hydrocarbon energy sources that we use—coal, natural gas, and oil—natural gas is by far the lowest emitter of carbon dioxide. If cutting carbon emissions were RMI’s highest priority, then the group’s assault on gas-powered stoves and furnaces would appear senseless.

What makes far more sense is to assume RMI is simply opposed to energy use itself. For this, there is ample evidence.

Centralized energy production, wrote Lovins in his Foreign Affairs essay, “comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you.”

He suggested that “an affluent industrial economy could advantageously operate with no central power stations at all!”

Sure, and we could also grow all our own food in the back yard and build our cars and cell phones in the garage. His argument was against specialization and economies of scale, a critical input that makes an “affluent industrial economy” possible.

His hostility to centralized power extended even—and especially—to nuclear power.

“But fission technology also has unique sociopolitical side-effects arising from the impact of human fallibility and malice on the persistently toxic and explosive materials in the fuel cycle,” he wrote, in one of several misleading comments on the subject.

Nuclear energy was then and remains today the safest method of mass producing reliable on-demand power. But Lovins repeatedly wrote as if he thought Homer Simpson would end up running the Springfield nuclear plant and use it to build hydrogen bombs for Iran.

And beyond those overwrought worries, he wrote that even “if nuclear power were clean, safe, economic, assured of ample fuel, and socially benign per se, it would still be unattractive because of the political implications of the kind of energy economy it would lock us into.”

By that, he meant one in which centralized, low-cost, reliable power would fuel strong economic growth.

Any doubts to the contrary were cleared up in 1977, when an interviewer asked him about the potential for limitless energy from fusion reactors.

“If you ask me, it’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it,” he replied (emphasis in original). “We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.”

We mostly didn’t heed these anti-human ravings and instead kept locating new sources of “abundant energy,” such as the rich domestic natural gas fields that the Rocky Mountain Institute now doesn’t want us to use.

What he predicted as “mischief” was instead experienced as prosperity and a lifestyle over and above what was available to us in 1977. This has included almost unimaginable medical advances, longer lifespans, the effective end of global famines, cell phones, the internet, on-demand video and music, low-cost air travel, and the list goes on and on.

These are the “excesses of concentrated energy” we were warned to avoid. Rather than “little short of disastrous,” it has been just shy of miraculous.

But it’s not too late to turn back!

RMI’s Nuclear Freeze Movement

“Large, lumpy units, like coal and nuclear, make failures more consequential and require more elaborate and costly support—reserve margin, spinning reserve, and cycling costs—than a diversified, distributed portfolio of small, modular units, like modern renewables,” wrote Lovins in 2017, still beating his primitive drums against centralized electricity generation.

Nuclear energy is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the United States, and second largest zero-carbon energy provider on earth behind hydropower. A U.S. Department of Energy website reports that a 1,000 MW nuclear plant chews up one square mile of the environment, while a wind farm with the same potential output needs 360 square miles to do the job, and a solar farm needs 75 square miles.

That tiny land-use footprint is a conservation benefit provided by nuclear energy. Lovins sees this feature as a bug, apparently believing it preferable to scatter power generation systems all over a far larger chunk of real estate.

A nuclear reactor is unmatched and unmatchable as a safe, reliable, clean, and environment-saving source of power. Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute continue to fight against them and advocate for unreliable, environment-clogging weather-dependent systems such as wind and solar.

“Accelerating the build-out of the new clean energy system is the only viable long-term solution to the double crisis facing Europe in terms of both energy security and the climate emergency,” wrote an RMI researcher in February 2022. “Instead of looking backward to domestic fossil or large-scale nuclear, European officials should prioritize the multiple clean energy technologies that are available to them today to cut both emissions and energy dependencies.”

The report even criticized France for planning new nuclear projects, arguing that the “price differential with renewables” would make nuclear more costly for the French.

The French generate almost 63 percent of their electricity from nuclear power and are by far the most nuclear-dependent major industrial power.

Germany, more than any other nation, followed the Lovins/RMI energy plan, literally shutting down their once robust nuclear energy plants and attempting a switch over to weather-dependent non-reliables.

Germans call it “Energiewende,” and Lovins loves it. In a wildly premature 2014 essay, he praised the recent denuclearization of Germany, writing that “French energy-intensive industries complain that they can’t beat their German competitors’ one-fourth-lower power prices.”

In 2022, according to Our World in Data, each unit of German-produced electricity emitted 352 percent more carbon than French-produced power. This was after hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent on Energiewende, a lot of it coughed up by the people least able to pay.

According to a February 2013 Wall Street Journal report, Germany’s big “energy-intensive industries” were exempted from the inevitable surcharges needed to subsidize Energiewende. This meant the cost was offloaded onto small businesses and households, a situation so dire by September 2013 that the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel ran this story: “How Electricity Became a Luxury Good: German Government Advisors Are Calling for a Completely New Start.”

A November 2020 report written by energy analyst Vaclav Smil for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers examined the 20th anniversary of Energiewende.

Explaining that Germany had experienced all the predictable challenges with shutting down reliable energy in favor of intermittent sources, Smil wrote that Germany had accomplished functionally identical carbon reductions as the United States. This was despite the Americans not implementing the same draconian shutdowns of reliable power.

“It costs Germany a great deal to maintain such an excess of installed power,” wrote Smil. “The average cost of electricity for German households has doubled since 2000. By 2019, households had to pay 34 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour in France and 13 cents in the United States.”

This was more than a year before the Russian invasion of Ukraine squeezed Germany’s energy access even tighter.

“Amid an energy crisis, Germany turns to the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel,” read an NPR headline from September 2022, announcing that Germany would be keeping 20 coal-fired power stations operating, despite prior plans to shut them down. The NPR account blamed Russia for cutting off the natural gas but made no mention of Germany’s decision to shut off its own nuclear energy.

In 2022, according to Our World in Data, each unit of German-produced electricity emitted more carbon than electricity produced in Russia.

Is it any mystery why France is adding nuclear capacity, rather than buying into the Rocky Mountain Institute’s anti-energy snake oil?

In the next installment, left-leaning foundations and nonprofits showered RMI with grants to pursue its anti-energy policies.

Ken Braun

Ken Braun is CRC’s senior investigative researcher and authors profiles for and the Capital Research magazine. He previously worked for several free market policy organizations, spent six…
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