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Amory Lovins, Conservation Genius

Allen Best
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
ALL |

Amory Lovins is a man of num-bers. Whether lecturing in Aspen, writing in Scientific American or being interviewed by television’s Charlie Rose, he spits out numbers like a sports statistician. Baseball, however, is not his game. Energy is.

“Transportation consumes 70 percent of U.S. oil and generates a third of the nation’s carbon emissions,” he says.

It is a typically simple, declarative sentence – but pregnant with implications. Only 13 percent of the fuel energy used to power a modern car ever reaches the wheels, and just 6 percent of the energy actually accelerates the car, he says.

And then the sledgehammer statistic: only 3 percent of the energy in our gasoline ends up moving the driver.

The problem? Our cars weigh too much, he says.

Yes, but it’s also an opportunity – and by the way, Lovins knows the solution.

Lovins is among the most influential environmentalists of our times, if surely an unconventional one. He is the deep-thinking analyst who tackles all the big issues of our times: the external costs of our cheap fossil fuels, human-caused global warming, and the dangers of the escaped nuclear genie.

Yet, unlike much of the environmental movement, he vigorously embraces both free-market capitalism and continued expansion of technology. In both he finds the salvation of the planet.

After all, businesses are motivated to make profits, he says. One way to maximize profits is to minimize expense. Ergo, a responsibly operated business should be trying to minimize its energy costs.

Operating since 1982 from a headquarters near Aspen, at the confluence of Capitol and Snowmass Creeks, Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute has partnered with 16 Fortune 500 companies, including more recently and very notably, Wal-Mart.

If he can help Wal-Mart improve the efficiency of its fleet of delivery trucks, competitors will be required to follow suite – or go out of business

Amory Lovins is a proponent of market capitalism – as long as the markets operate freely.

His association with the Pentagon goes back decades. In fact, the Pentagon sponsored his most recent book, “Winning the Oil Endgame.”

The book makes the argument that full adoption of efficient vehicles, buildings and industries could shrink projected U.S. oil use by more than half within 20 years, lowering consumption to pre-1970 levels. What makes that goal difficult is the continued use of less efficient cars and trucks now on the roads. Turnover in our motoring fleet is fairly slow.

But by 2050, he says, U.S. oil consumption could be phased out altogether. We can make our vehicles more efficient. And we can rely to a greater extent on alter-native energy sources.

And what does the U.S. military care about this? It has, he says, very tangible reasons for wanting to avoid unnecessary wars in the Middle East. Although U.S. motives in both the Iraq war and the Persian Gulf War of 1991 cannot be traced purely to maintaining oil sup-plies, he says, oil figured into U.S. calculations in both cases.

Who is this utopian, this person who envisions pros-perity without oil? He surely is out of step with the reality of the mainstream; even mainstream thinking that in the last three years has veered sharply into accepting the reality of anthropogenic (man-caused) climate change, the end of cheap oil, and a reawakened desire for “energy independence.”

But a future without oil? He surely is on the fringe.

Yes, Lovins is on the fringe, but the fringe where he set up his tent several decades ago has become the cen-ter. He’s consistently ahead of his time, restaking on the edge ahead of the crowd, then waiting patiently waiting for others to catch up.

Lovins has been on the front fringe since he was a youngster. Although one of his grandparents was a pharmacist in Denver, he grew up in the east, in subur-ban Washington D. C. and in Massachusetts. He enrolled at Harvard at age 16, studying a broad range of subjects, then at Oxford. At Oxford, he wanted to pursue a doctorate in energy, but was told no such program was possible.

That was before the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.

Even then, Lovins – a self-described experimental physicist – had done a great deal of reading about energy, which he saw at a crucial crossroads. The pre-vailing assumption was that economic growth was linked directly to increased use of fossil fuels. Looking in the rear-view mirror since the start of the Industrial Revolution, that had always been the case. Why would it not be true in the future?

Lovins challenged this assumption. Why was it always a case of ramping up energy supplies to meet demands? Why did it always have to be a matter of finding another oil field, another coal mine, another nuclear power plant?

Why not, he asked, try to attain the same objectives by using less energy? He called it the “soft path” of energy and it became his life’s work.

The big break for Lovins in his revolutionary – a word not used lightly here – thinking came in 1976.

Businesses are motivated to make profits. One way to maximize profits is to minimize expense. Ergo, a responsibly operated business should be trying to minimize its energy costs.

The influential journal called “Foreign Affairs” accepted his 10,000-word essay called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken.” In it, he touched on all the grand themes of our time: wars over energy supplies, the dangers of glob-al warming, and nuclear proliferation.

In that essay published 30 years ago, Lovins laid down the fundamental thinking that remains the foundation for his work. We can, he argues, do more with less. We have not even begun to milk the efficiency out of our existing energy supplies. By using them efficiently, we avoid the external costs – air and water pollution, increased military costs – of increased energy use.

In such energy discussions, the most common metaphor is that of low-hanging fruit. Vail and other resort valleys are thick with the low-hanging fruit of energy conserva-tion. Easily deployed technology, both in our automotive fleets and in our houses and businesses, can allow us the same lifestyle, but at lower cost. Once that low-hanging fruit has been plucked, there’s plenty more higher up.

Efficiency numbers swim in Lovins’s head. One former employee at Rocky Mountain Institute tells the story of Lovins appearing at a staff meeting with the advice that coffee should be heated in kettles on stoves, not in the microwave. The former, he explained, was a more efficient use of energy.

Lovins is also a fan of compact-fluorescent bulbs. They last longer and consume far less energy than the incan-descent bulbs, even if they’re initially more expensive.

All this mattered in the 1970s when Lovins wrote his first essay, and it matters today.

In the 1970s, the nation went on a binge of building coal- fired power plants, including at least six in Colorado alone. They were expensive and polluting. Electrical utilities at first resis-ted his demand- side management, but gradually fully embraced his arguments.

History has proven Lovins correct. The U. S. now uses 47 percent less energy per dollar of economic output than it did 30 years ago. Energy efficiency has not slowed the economy. In fact, some people argue that the great ener-gy efficiencies of the 1970s and 1980s were the founda-tion for the unprecedented prosperity of the 1990s.

In his 1976 essay, Lovins points to the potential for alternative energy sources.

He then set about proving his theories. In 1982, he and his then- partner, Hunter Lovins, scraped up $ 10,000 to buy a parcel of land near Old Snowmass and erected a 4,000- square- foot home and headquarters. In it, he used most of the cutting- edge technology of the day.

In this building, he emphasized passive solar and also solar collectives, enough so that he could feed electricity back into the system. He used thick walls. What he did not install was a conventional heater.

When the house and office was completed, he began growing banana trees. He has, he told television inter-viewer Charlie Rose in December, now harvested 28 crops of bananas – this, at 7,100 feet in a house without a heater, using technology that is now 26 years old.

By the numbers, it’s an impressive place.

As for our cars that are so terribly inefficient, Lovins has an answer to that. The weight, he says, can be reduced by half by using lightweight, carbon- composite materials that are 16 times stronger than steel. Why do you need steel to make a car safe, he asks? In looking to buy a bike helmet, you don’t look for the heaviest one on the market, only the strongest one. Why should cars be any different?

Sounds a bit whacky, this talk of cars just as safe, just as comfortable, weighing half as much. Trouble is, for the last 30 years, Amory Lovins has been right most of the time. That’s why it’s worth listening to him and his num-bers.


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