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New Energy Future


Amory Lovins Presents Arguments for Reinventing Fire

Tucked into a hillside at 7200 ft. above sea level and facing winter temperatures as low as 40 below, the stone building where Lovins lives and works is a showcase of efficiency. The structure has no boiler or furnace, relying instead on two small wood stoves, a passive solar design, ample insulation and a supertight envelope. Inside is a greenhouse that stays warm enough in winter to grow tropical fruits, including guavas, pineapples and, over the years, 28 banana crops. The monthly power bill for the residential half of the building is $5.

The August day I arrive, I park beside Lovins’s dusty blue Honda Insight hybrid with an IGO-ECO vanity plate and a bumper sticker that reads: “I’d rather be driving a Hypercar,” a reference to the ultralight, ultraefficient concept car Lovins and RMI developed in the 1990s. Inside, it’s warm and muggy—cooler when someone remembers to open the greenhouse windows—and filled with a pale natural light. Water burbles in the recently redesigned greenhouse stream. Lovins emerges from a small loft office above a few workstations. (Only a handful of staff members work here; the other 70 or so are evenly divided between a nearby building and a Boulder office.) Relaxed and soft-spoken, he wears soft-soled shoes and a blue dress shirt; his pocket bulges with pens and index cards. We sit in his dining room, overlooking avocado and fig trees. “My ambition,” he says dryly, “is to grow vines and swing to work.”

Lovins dropped out of Harvard rather than be forced to limit his wide-ranging studies to a single major or two; then he enrolled in Oxford, but left when he wasn’t allowed to pursue a doctorate in energy. “They said: `Energy? We don’t have a chair in it. Pick a real subject,’” he says, chuckling. That was three years before the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. Then, in 1976, Lovins made energy-wonk history with an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs (“Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?”) that stumped for the radical efficiency and smart engineering that Lovins has been advancing ever since.

“People don’t want raw kilowatt-hours or lumps of coal or barrels of sticky black goo,” Lovins says. “They want hot showers, cold beer, comfort, mobility, illumination. It’s like when you go to the hardware store looking for a drill. What you really want is not a drill but a hole. And why do you want the hole?” Asking such questions, Lovins says, is the first step in good design.

His end-use/least-cost analysis of just about everything has always won listeners—he has briefed 19 heads of state and consulted for more than 80 Fortune 500 companies—but in recent years it’s increasingly led to changes in the real world. Over the past year, RMI has doubled the size of its research and consulting team to keep up with the demand for its services.

TI broke ground—Texas ground—on its new state-of-the-art, million-square-foot semiconductor facility in November 2004. By implementing a dozen of those Big Honkin’ Ideas, the company set off a series of cascading benefits that saved nearly $150 million in construction costs. The plant hasn’t yet opened for business—it’s been slowed by the vagaries of the computer-chip market—but once in operation, it should use 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water, and emit 50 percent less nitrous oxide into the air than previous fabs. The project crystalizes the RMI approach: Cooperation with industry leads to greater efficiency, less money spent up front, lowered operating expenses and—let’s not forget—a reduction in fossil fuels dug up, transported and burned.

Read more: Amory Lovins: Solving the Energy Crisis (and Bringing Wal-Mart) - Popular Mechanics