"It's cheaper to save energy than buy it"

Energy leader Amory Lovins invited the nearly 700 people who attended his presentation Feb. 23 to imagine a world where business leaders and the heads of governments have abandoned oil, coal and nuclear energy in favor of alternatives that cost less and work better.

Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute’s chairman and co-founder – a scientist Time magazine called “one of the world’s 100 most influential people” – spoke to a packed auditorium on the Catawba College campus about “Profitable Solutions to Climate, Oil and Proliferation.” The presentation was sponsored by the Center for the Environment at Catawba College.

That world of efficient use and renewable energy is “available, practical and profitable now,” Lovins said. “At RMI, we’re doing it. We do solutions, not problems; transformation, not incrementalism; and we’re practitioners, not theorists.”

He explained how using newer technologies and integrative design can save more energy at a negative cost. “How fast must energy efficiency work?” he asked. “If the energy used to make a unit of economic activity kept drifting down by just 1 percent a year, as it has historically, then carbon emissions would triple by 2100, and we’d all be toast. Of course, we want to make toast, not be toast.”

Lovins noted that many companies are making billions of dollars’ profit substituting efficiency for fuel. “The better ones are cutting their energy intensity – their energy per unit of production – by 6-16 percent a year,” he said.

Transportation uses about 70 percent of the oil the United States consumers. “We can triple the efficiency of cars, trucks and planes with no compromise and better safety by making them light-weight and giving them advanced propulsion,” he said.

RMI partnered with two European engineering firms a decade ago to design a safe, high-performance mid-sized suburban vehicle that weighs half as much as a traditional vehicle.  “It uses about 3.6 times less fuel than its steel equivalent and gets 67 miles per gallon,” Lovins said. Making it ultra light does not cost extra because the cost of the carbon fiber it is made of is paid for by simpler auto making and a smaller propulsion system.

“Our whole society is fueled with primeval swamp goo and dinosaur poop,” Lovins said. “It turns out that each day your car is using 100 times its weight in ancient plants, and 87 percent of that energy never gets to the wheels.”

Lovins said that 2/3 of the energy needed to move the car is caused by its weight. Consequently, a radically lighter car means energy saved. The carbon fiber is also tougher than titanium, absorbing 12 times as much crash energy per pound as steel so it’s also safer. And it costs the same to make.

About 70 percent of the electricity in the U.S. is used in buildings, and 30 percent is used by industry, according to Lovins. His RMI team examined 1,000 technologies 20 years ago and found that about ¾ of all the electricity then used could be saved if officials retrofitted those technologies where they made sense.

Integrative design is an important efficiency innovation. “It turns diminishing returns into expanding returns through efficiency investment,” Lovins said. Integrative design offers multiple benefits from a single expenditure. Using his house in Colorado as an example, he noted that hardly any element of the building has fewer than three functions. It is 99 percent passive-solar heated with no furnace, even though temperatures can drop as low as minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit.

The same approach works for big buildings, too, Lovins said. RMI helped design a retrofit of the Empire State Building that will save 38 percent of the energy with a three-year payback. Officials are in the process of re-manufacturing 6,500 windows which will let in light without heat.  “When you combine that with better lights and lighting controls and office equipment, you cut the peak cooling load by 1/3,” he said.

All the big thermal plants that use coal, gas or uranium have been pushed into minority market share and are shrinking because they have too high a cost and too high a financial risk to be attractive to investors, Lovins said. The U.S. added more wind power in 2007 than it had added coal power in the previous five years altogether. In 2008 for the first time in a century, the world invested more in renewable energy than in fossil-fueled power plants.

“This whole micro-power revolution, largely led by China, has already happened,” Lovins said. “It’s not too late to get in on it.”

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