Q&A with Amory Lovins: Reinventing Fire
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story by Chris Verner appeared in the Sunday, February 07, 2010, issue of the Salisbury Post.
When it comes to implementing new energy technologies that are more efficient and sustainable than the conventional oil and coal, on which the United States and much of the global economy now rely, Amory Lovins doesn't think we need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to reinvent fire.
"Reinventing fire" is Lovins' phrase for the energy transformation he has been envisioning, advocating and helping to create for much of his life. While the Energizer Bunny may be the one banging the drum, Lovins has been beating the bushes for decades in search of solutions to the world's energy problems — problems such as geopolitical instability, economic inefficiencies and imbalances, nuclear proliferation and environmental damage.
Lovins, who will appear at Catawba College on Feb. 23, co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982. It's a nonprofit "think and do" tank in Colorado that partners with companies in the private sector to help increase energy efficiency, reduce waste and improve profits. In keeping with Lovins' background in the hard sciences (he studied experimental physics at Harvard and Oxford), RMI is a test bed for entrepreneurialism, not an ivory tower of conceptualization. RMI's projects have ranged from helping Texas Instruments lower the costs of producing microchips to improving the fuel efficiency of Walmart's freight trucks.
In addition to consulting with dozens of businesses, the Pentagon and governments around the world, Lovins has written 29 books, including co-authoring "Winning the Oil Endgame" (2004), which offers a detailed blueprint for transitioning away from a fossil-fuel based economy. He has written hundreds of articles, some of which lay out his arguments against expanding nuclear power, which he says can't be justified economically and inevitably increases the profileration of nuclear weapons.
His blend of futuristic thinking and real-world pragmatism has brought countless accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant" and a "Breakthrough Leadership Award" from Popular Mechanics magazine, which described him as a "pliers-in-hand visionary."
The new fire is already out there, Lovins says, in the form of solar energy, wind power, wave power, geothermal devices, biomass plants, fuel cells, energy efficient construction techniques, home appliances and a veritable explosion of other technologies that can enhance our production and use of energy. The challenge is scaling up their availability and showing hard-nosed business moguls that waste is the enemy of profitability, and inefficiency impedes growth and expansion.
Smart companies are already adopting these technologies — companies like the carpetmaker Interface, Texas Instruments and, yes, even Walmart.
"This is where the market is going," Lovins says.
It's the bottom-line imperative that will drive the next energy revolution, he believes, not government mandates or fears of environmental catastrophe.
"Saving energy is cheaper than buying it, so smart firms are rapidly investing in energy efficiency, whether they worry about climate issues or not."
Lovins, who keeps a busy schedule of speaking engagements, recently talked with the Post during an airport layover. Here are excerpts from that interview, edited for brevity.
Q. The title of your presentation here is "Profitable Solutions to
Climate, Oil, and Proliferation." Can you give us a quick preview?
A. There are both old and new technologies and design methods that can make problems like climate change, oil dependence and nuclear proliferation go away, not at a cost but at a profit. Profits rise because it's cheaper to save fuel than to buy fuel. Efficiency is cheaper than inefficiency and waste. There are also supply-wide revolutions. For example, the conventional power plants that have served us so well have become obsolete. We can produce energy much more efficiently using sources like micropower, cogeneration technologies and renewables. When you add all of this up, you've just reinvented fire. You have a recipe for a business-led transition from oil and coal to energy-efficient renewables.
Q. What are some examples of micropower?
A. That's a term from the Economist magazine. There are two kinds of micropower. One involves cogeneration technologies that produce power along with heat that can be used to heat buildings, for example. The other kind of micropower involves renewable sources, such as wind, solar, photovoltaic or biomass conversion. There are also some other emerging technologies, such as using waves and tidal currents to produce power.
Q. Do those technologies involve decentralization of power sources and moving away from the conventional power grid?
A. The grid will still be there, and you'd still be connected to it, but there would be a higher reliance on these other sources. For instance, my own house (in Snowmass, Colo.) runs with or without the grid. (Lovins explains that he generates his own solar power and has recently installed some newer technologies, such as LED lighting and highly efficient ceiling fans; an indoor greenhouse helps produce heat and allows him to raise his own bananas). I've done the "pull the plug" test, and the lights don't flicker. It's quite remarkable how well these things can work.
Q. What are some examples where business is helping to lead the way
in these areas?
A. Look at what smart companies are doing to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of whether they're doing it to help the climate or whether they're doing it to be more profitable. (Lovins cites several business examples, including Atlanta-based carpet maker Interface, which has made a longterm commitment to sustainable business practices; between 1995 and 2007, the company halved the amount of waste it sends to landfills, at a cumulative savings of $372 million; it reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent and cut water intake by 75 percent — all while continuing to increase profits; another example is United Technologies, a diversified corporation whose products range from Otis elevators to advanced fuel cells; according to its most recent annual report, United Technologies has cut its own energy use 22 percent and reduced water consumption by 50 percent since 1997, while doubling revenues; it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions more than 10 percent in the past two years and was recently recognized by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change for its development of energy efficient products and services.)
This sort of thing is catching on widely. Then, in the fossil fuel and utility industries, you see companies figuring out new business models from enhanced efficiencies and micropower. This is where the market is going.
Q. People tend to think of energy efficiency and energy conservation
as being similar concepts, but you draw a sharp distinction between
A. That's absolutely right. Let's make it clear that what I'm talking about is doing more and doing it better with less. I'm not talking about privation, discomfort and curtailment. We've had several presidents who told us we needed to be hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. In the business world, it might be clearer to use the term raising energy productivity. There are some spectacular examples that I'll be talking about (in Salisbury).
One of the basic lessons I'll describe is how to make large savings actually cost less than small savings.