Fracturing the Soft-Tech Fix


Brittle Power, by Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Andover, Mass: Brick House Publishing, 1982, 486 pp., $17.95.

In recent years, it has become popular to debate energy in terms of a collective national decision rather than decentralized market choice. Brittle Power epitomizes the literature of energy advocacy in arguing that a particular energy strategy is uniquely best for the nation.

The thesis of Brittle Power is simple: "The United States has for decades been undermining its own strength. It has gradually built up an energy system prone to sudden, massive failures with catastrophic consequences. The energy that runs America is brittle—easily shattered by accident or malice."

Anyone familiar with the authors will know their proposed solution. Amory Lovins is perhaps the foremost advocate of the "soft energy path" of conservation and small-scale solar technology, an idea that he popularized in an earlier book, Soft Energy Paths. Here he is joined by his wife to extend the argument for soft energy by including national security considerations.

The first half of Brittle Power examines the manifold ways in which the US energy system is vulnerable to disruption. The Lovinses are especially alert to opportunities for terrorist sabotage of pipelines, gas tankers, transmission lines, power stations, rail and ship transportation, etc. Overall, the Lovinses make a strong—and disturbing—case that energy disasters are waiting to happen.

What is less clear, however, is whether such disasters pose more than a local security threat. A remarkable feature of the present energy system is that even the largest facilities (outside, perhaps, the Persian Gulf) are replaceable, barring an act of war. The electrical grid in particular is specifically designed to avoid disruptions, so that even the Three Mile Island accident did not cut off power to Harrisburg. A skeptic might therefore question whether "brittle power" is an apt metaphor for what is in many ways a quite flexible network.

The Lovinses attempt to refute this view, arguing that the grid has become increasingly unstable in recent years and devoting a chapter to the 1977 New York City blackout. They also point out that the entire national grid could be shut down by a single hydrogen bomb explosion in the upper atmosphere, which would disable the control electronics with electromagnetic pulse (EMP) radiation. Nuclear war, however, is an extreme scenario.

The Lovinses themselves admit that the country has suffered relatively few serious energy failures but note that we may have been lucky so far to avoid more sophisticated terrorist attacks. They do not go into the many other points at which modern society is vulnerable to terrorism: water supplies, skyscrapers, tunnels, explosive or toxic materials, and so forth. An unanswered question that persists through the book is whether brittleness of this sort can truly be eliminated and, if so, at what cost to whom.

The second half of Brittle Power is devoted to showing that a secure, "resilient" energy system could be based on soft technology. The Lovinses update many of the arguments in Soft Energy Paths to argue that small-scale solar and conservation technologies are more efficient and economical than large-scale conventional power plants. They make an especially strong case for improved energy end-use efficiency; investment in home weatherization and fuel-efficient automobiles, they argue, would be a quicker and more cost-effective way of reducing energy dependence than investment in synthetic fuels or breeder reactors.

The Lovinses are less convincing in claiming that small-scale renewable sources such as windmills, photovoltaic cells, and biomass conversion would be more reliable and efficient than conventional large-scale facilities. They invoke various theoretical reasons why this might be so, some of them plausible and some of them dubious—for example, that soft energy is more "understandable," "flexible," and "socially compatible." In a technical appendix, they display cost projections favorable to solar energy, but hypothetical numbers of this kind are no more to be trusted than similar projections for nuclear power 10 years ago. The fact is that many renewable technologies are still on the margin of commercial viability, and their long-range economics are by no means certain.

Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss the authors' analysis out of hand. Though Amory Lovins has been attacked as a nonspecialist in the energy field, he has shown a prodigiously broad grasp of the technical issues. In 1975, when most experts were forecasting exponentially increasing energy demand, he stood nearly alone claiming decreased consumption was possible. Thanks largely to the conservation incentives of higher prices, Lovins turned out to be right.

Though the use of renewable energy has increased over the past decade, it is doubtful whether soft technology will ever completely replace existing centralized power systems. So long as there remain urban areas like Manhattan, where energy usage is seven times more concentrated than incoming solar radiation, bastions of "brittleness" seem likely to persist. Where Brittle Power is weakest is in arguing that soft energy is universally more desirable.

As technological advocates, the Lovinses recommend that soft energy be promoted through local community action. They are willing to support solar tax credits and energy conservation building codes but otherwise profess sympathy with free-market principles. While they unfortunately neglect to discuss the role of private small-scale energy entrepreneurship, they undoubtedly support it strongly. Moreover, they are highly skeptical about the federal government: "In a country as large as the U.S., any issue aggregated to a national level tends thereby to become all but unmanageable." Thus the Lovinses show a healthy awareness of the dangers of writing books like Brittle Power.

Dale Gieringer is a public- and social-policy consultant with the Decisions and Ethics Center of Stanford University's Department of Engineering-Economic Systems.