Amory Lovins’s long, soft, and creatively optimistic path
by Allen Best
Lovins recently traveled from his home near Aspen to talk about growing bananas at 7,100 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The house was built in the early 1980s, he told an audience at an energy conference held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and since then he’s had 66 harvests.
But his point wasn’t really about the bananas. It was about the energy used to grow the bananas.
Temperatures in the Aspen area then could reach 46 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, he said. “But my house has no combustion (furnace),” he went on to say. “That is so 20th century.”
Lovins, considered by many to be among the most important thinkers about energy of the last half-century, has told about his bananas many times and in many places. It’s his look-see visual proof for the enduring theme of his career. For decades he has been saying that we need to embrace energy efficiency through both more thoughtful design and readily available technology.
His thoughts cohered In 1976 a seminal essay published in Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” He was a young scholar at Oxford then. An Arab oil embargo in 1973 had left people in block-long lines waiting for their chances to refuel cars at gas pumps. The United States was binging on construction of new coal-fired power plants and also enraptured with nuclear energy even as the arms race of the Cold War continued.
In his essay, Lovins defined the soft energy path as a future where energy efficiency and renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.
Lovins, a friend of David Brower, the famous long-time leader of the Sierra Club, argued not environmental ethics but rather the business case. You should do it because you will save money, he said.
He made that same case in Fort Collins, at a conference sponsored by the Center for the New Energy Economy. His house near Old Snowmass, he explained, is designed with 99 percent passive solar and 1 percent active solar. Naturally, it’s super insulated, but even the stale air is processed to recover heat. The payback on this 1982 technology was about 10 months. The house, he added, has now inspired 40,000 such passive-solar houses.
On the dais at the energy conference, Lovins barely paused, the numbers and facts and thoughts rolling out precisely, pleasantly, and always with supreme authority, as if he was the smartest guy in the room. That confidence annoys lots of people, but they concede: He probably is the smartest guy in most rooms where he speaks.
Elizabeth Kolbert, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was among those who have been to Lovins’s house to see his bananas and hear his gospel. “He is routinely described, even by people who don’t particularly like or admire him, as a ‘genius,’” Kolbert wrote in a 2007 report for the New Yorker. The story was headlined “Mr. Green: Environmentalism’s optimistic guru Amory Lovins.”
Responding to that profile, David Roberts, then with Grist, conceded Lovins’s genius. “Reading Lovins for the first time can be a life-changing experience, one of those moments when your entire perception of the world shifts and you see everything in a new light,” Roberts wrote. “But there’s the nagging thought. Lovins can always talk and explain and persuade better than we can—he’s a friggin’ genius—but the intuitive question keeps returning.”
That intuitive question in 2007 was why wasn’t this happening, this new world of energy that Lovins had then been describing for three decades. The Economist, which has tracked Lovins’s work frequently through the years, in 2008 said this:
“Though he is now 60, Mr Lovins shows no signs of slowing down. The Sage of Snowmass is still busy coming up with big new ideas, though if history is any guide, they will take a while to catch on. Watch this space—for ten to 20 years.”
Almost a decade later, it does appear finally that Lovins’s predictions are coming true. Whether it is happening quickly enough given the ever-more troubling news about global greenhouse gas emissions is the big question.
But Lovins, as the New Yorker headline in 2007 suggested, has always been one to look into the future with a sly, knowing smile, not a frown. At the recent conference, Colorado’s former governor, Bill Ritter, asked about optimism vs. pessimism.
In his answer, Lovins cited the counsel of his late friend, the Sierra Club’s Brower, who had described optimism and pessimism as being on “opposite sides of the same coin, the same irresponsible surrender to fatalism, in which you treat the future as fate and not choice, and not taking responsibility for creating the future you want.”
“We call it applied hope,” Lovins went on to say, referring to his think-tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute. “It’s not theoretical hope. It’s not anywhere near blind optimism. It’s making choices each day to create a world worth being hopeful about,” he said.
“You can’t depress people into action,” he added.
Earlier in the program, Lovins had described the industrial titans of the early 20th century: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John Rockefeller. The three men changed the world in ways that are now very much familiar.
Until very recently, with the arrival of LED lighting, most of our light came from incandescent bulbs, little changed from Edison’s invention. We’re mostly still driving internal-combustion cars fueled by the oil that made Rockefeller a name synonymous with wealth.
But we’re on the cusp of great change “because we have 21st century technology and speed colliding head-on with 20th century and even 19th century institutions, rules, and cultures.”
“The first two of these great industries are coming together to eat the third one.”
Lovins sees a dramatic reduction in demand for oil and tough times ahead for utilities that try to stick to existing business models. We’re on the cusp of massive adoption of electric cars. (See MTN story about adoption rates in Colorado). The batteries of those EVs will then be connected to the electrical grid, storing renewable energy. More renewable energy can be generated locally, instead of the giant central station power plants favored by utilities for the last 60 years.
Wind now undercuts all other new energy sources; power-purchase agreements with utilities last year averaged 2.5 cents a kilowatt-hour and some recently have come in at 1.2 cents a kilowatt-hour. That’s lower than coal, lower than gas, lower than just about anything. The resource has been enlarged by two-thirds, he added “not because the wind blew harder, but because we got better at capturing it.”
Electric cars, cheap renewables, and what do you get? “This is a perfect storm brewing for the oil and car industries,” he said.
Lovins frequently invoked his 2012 book, “Reinventing Fire,” and its “rigorous” research that shows how to triple U.S. efficiency and quintuple renewables by 2050, eliminating the need for coal, oil, and nuclear energy and a third less natural gas. This would “save $5 trillion in net-present value, grow the economy 2.6 fold, strengthen natural security and cut carbon emission 282 to 286 percent.”
This can all be accomplished by adoption of smart policies at the state and local levels and driven by businesses seeking to maximize profits. For inflexible utilities and oil and gas companies, though, these changes pose an existential risk, he said.
“You’re really a markets guy,” said Ritter, the former governor, before asking whether Lovins thought markets could achieve what its needed in a timely manner.
“Where allowed to work, yes, but policy and other factors can get in the way,” Lovins answered. But markets are good at short-term allocation of scarce resources. They were never meant to substitute for politics, ethics or faith.
Referring to “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution,” a book Lovins wrote with his ex-wife, Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken, he said that “markets make a great servant, a bad master, and a worse religion.”
Don’t renewables get subsidies? Yes, but they are being phased out, Lovins answered—and besides, other forms of energy also have received subsidies and continue to get them.
The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler, who once worked at Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute, believes that the big story is that “the trends have caught up to his predictions. Solar, wind, and batteries have finally started to decline in cost in ways that can enable a takeover of traditional technologies; and nukes, coal, and combustion engines are going extinct for all the reasons Amory has long argued,” he said in an e-mail.
“The challenge has always been how quickly this will all play out, and whether markets, such as they are, will be enough to get us to the finish line before the planet is cooked. For all the good news, the unfortunate fact is we’re not making it, as global emission data released today show.”
That was on Nov. 13, the start of the world climate conference in Bonn. In the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists reported a 2 percent increase in burning of fossil fuels in 2017 after nearly no growth in 2014, 2015, or 2016, mostly because of increased burning of coal by China. “It was a bit staggering,” said one of the scientists, Ralph Keeling, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We race headlong into the unknown.”
Carbon dioxide emissions measured by Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in April 1958 were 317 parts per million. By the time Lovins’s Foreign Affairs essay was published in 1976 they were at 334 ppm. Now, they’re at 409.
The message from Colorado State, though, was don’t get depressed, but do get active—and make a buck along the way.
This was in the Nov. 15 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine sent to subscribers. For subscription details, see red boxes at upper-right.
For access to the videotape of this and other sessions at the conference, see: http://energytransition.colostate.edu/symposium-2017/videotaped-sessions-2017/
The conference was sponsored by Energy Institute and the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, both at Colorado State University, and the Center for the New Energy Economy.