A Political, Not a Technical Problem: Mann, Lovins, and the Future of Fossil Fuels

What is the future of fossil fuels?

S&S contributors Eric Lukas and James Hacker discuss the debate raging over the future of fossil fuels, through the lens of Charles Mann and Amory Lovins. Is alternative energy the future or will fossil fuels be the mainstay? Should scientists be responsible for their findings and nothing else or should we expect them to enter the world of politics?

ERIC: James, in April, Charles Mann wrote an interesting and thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic on the prospects of transitioning from a world dominated by fossil fuels to one powered by renewable energy. In it, he argues that thanks to technological innovation and continued widespread availability (along with some big challenges surrounding the viability of renewables), fossil fuels may remain the dominant and most reliable energy source for decades to come. Shale gas is the latest instance of this trend, and Mann thinks that methane hydrates could be the future.

Last month I was struck by sustainable energy pioneer Amory Lovins’s response to Mann’s piece. Lovins refutes Mann’s points and assumptions that renewables are not competitive with fossil fuels, and he presents a case (largely using research from his own institute) for moving beyond fossil fuels to a future powered by alternative energy. At the heart of his argument is the observation that oil has become increasingly costly to extract as the price of renewable energy technologies has fallen, which should make the latter more competitive. However, when making that comparison he includes the external costs of oil to “health, safety, environment, climate, global stability and development, or our nation’s independence and reputation.”

We are currently not accounting for any of those costs when we consume oil and it’s not evident that we will anytime soon (try getting Congress to pass a carbon tax right now). I think Lovins glosses over the significant political obstacles to putting policies in place that will fully account for the external costs of fossil fuels, which makes his argument for switching from costly oil to less costly renewables less self-evident in practice.

I do like Lovins’s idea of establishing distributed regional power transmission networks with a significant renewables component, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough about utilities infrastructure to properly critique it. Maybe I’ll have to read Reinventing Fire to learn more.

JAMES: Thanks for sending this along. It’s a good read. Lovins raises some good points, but you’re right, he does gloss over a couple of key issues.

First of all, he’s right, the future of the utility is distributed (shameless self promotion). However, moving from the current model to the carefully choreographed regional model he describes here, while technically feasible (we know how to do everything required to do it), is super-expensive and requires a lot of reorganization. The utility system right now is set up to work and be managed at the super-regional level (the smallest independent grid in the US covers an area roughly the size of New York State — the others are larger), so finding a way to devolve that grid management function to the local level is a challenge. Additionally, building all those new generation, transmission, coordination, and storage assets is going to cost a lot of money, and there isn’t a lot of capital running around right now looking to invest in the utility space. With this in mind, this piece reads like a repeat of the “we can do better” argument, without giving us any new information on HOW to get there. Maybe Reinventing Fire talks about this — I hope so, because we need to talk about it.

On the HOW point (and this is my big gripe with all of these pieces), Lovins comes at this as a scientist. He talks about the technical feasibility of all this, without really discussing the economic or political feasibility. He keeps talking about how “climate risk will make fossil fuels uncompetitive,” but never talks about how to make that happen. It’s almost like he says “we know how to do this, so all you political types need to go get on my page and then come back so I can tell you how to save the world.” It doesn’t work that way, and I think a big reason the climate argument isn’t more prominent is because too many scientists in this field take that stance — they just do the science and let someone else handle the politics. If we really want to engage on this issue, the scientists need to step up and make a serious effort to get everyone on board. They have to recognize that the primary problem to be solved in this space is no longer purely technical, but political in nature. They’re the experts — it’s on them to explain why we should do something about this.

Overall a good piece, but I’ve read too many of these lately without seeing much change in the political or business conversation.

Okay, rant over.

ERIC: All good points. The sustainable energy debate is plagued by a framing issue — how we frame the solution as well as the problem. While Lovins presents a transition to a renewable-powered energy grid as a feasible task, he does not offer a political roadmap to put the policies in place that would help us get there. In a response to Lovins, Mann sums up the former’s piece as “touting the future economic benefits of new technologies but neglecting the initial costs.” Adapting the utility system for greater electricity production from renewable sources and for more localized grid management (thanks for the insight into that, by the way) will take a staggering amount of public and private investment — and it’s far from likely that businesses or taxpayers are willing to pursue such projects on a national scale.

The issue at hand in Mann’s piece is that fossil fuels remain in abundant supply. As oil becomes too expensive to extract, we can adapt shale gas to our energy needs; as shale gas becomes expensive, then we can turn to methane hydrates. But another, potentially larger problem is what a break with fossil fuels would entail. From our electricity grid to the cars we drive, our current energy infrastructure is based on fossil fuel consumption.Enabling a shift to renewables would require more than just accounting for the various external costs of fossil fuel consumption — it would involve a fundamental rethink of our energy infrastructure. So no matter how cheap solar panels and wind turbines become, the structural costs of deploying them as our primary sources of energy will remain enormous.

It will take an extraordinary level of commitment for this type of transition to happen. I’m not so sure that that commitment exists among business and government leaders today, but you’re right that the scientific experts will need to do a better job of framing the sustainable energy conversation for these audiences.

JAMES: Well put, Eric. Good discussion all around, and I’m sure we’ll be following this debate closely in the months and years to come. What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.