Thursday, April 17, 2008

Amory Lovins--Will the Future Ever Come?

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, lives on another planet, and has spent his life encouraging us to join him. It's a much more sensible planet, where most of the intimidating problems we earthlings are struggling with--climate change, energy independence--have long since been solved. His embassy on planet earth is located 7000 feet up in the frequently frigid Rocky Mountains, where he lives comfortably and grows bananas year after year in a house so sensibly and cleverly designed it doesn't need a furnace. Inbetween banana harvests, he comes down from the mountain to point out sensible ways for humanity to avoid destroying the planet.

I witnessed his recent visit to Princeton, where his imaginative approach to increasing energy efficiency contrasted nicely with the setting--an old lecture hall lit by chandeliers fitted with wasteful incandescent light bulbs. His information-packed powerpoint presentation quickly outstripped my ability to take notes, but here is a gist:

When it comes to steering civilization and the planet clear of the looming danger of climate change, Mr. Lovins believes we have been offered a false choice. Do we want to die from climate change, oil wars, or nuclear holocaust? To avoid these unsavory options, he points to a future that is dependent neither on oil nor nuclear energy.

This better future is driven largely by negawatts, and the magical sources of this magical energy is efficiency. If you find a way to avoid burning a barrel of oil, it's the same as having produced a barrel of energy in your own backyard. Does everyone wish for energy independence? Well, there's a Saudi Arabia-sized deposit of negabarrels easily within our reach, on our home turf, right under Detroit in a rich, efficiency-laden deposit he calls the "Detroit Formation".

To access all this energy, we must first drill through thick layers of false assumptions, beginning with the assumption that climate protection is costly. On the contrary, Mr. Lovins points out that smart companies are racing for the profits to be had by becoming more efficient. DuPont, for instance, now uses 80% less energy than it did in 1990. BP increased its profits by $2 billion through efficiency improvements. IBM, ST Microelectronics, Dow, GE, Texas Instruments--all these and many others have jumped on the efficiency train in a big way, and have made money in the process.

The motherlode of negabarrels awaiting exploitation in Detroit has to do with the gross inefficiencies of the automobile. Only 0.3% of the energy used by a car actually moves the driver, whose weight is a mere pittance compared to the massive metal hulk of metal and rubber we must drag around with us on errands. "Lightweighting" is the future, which has much to do with replacing automobiles' heavy metal frames with carbon materials that are both lightweight and strong. To demonstrate the safety of lightweight car frames, he showed a spectacular crash by a race car made of carbon, from which the driver walked away unscathed. The higher cost of the frame will be offset by the savings in the much smaller engine needed to propel it.

Mr. Lovins believes the technology for radical reductions in energy use is at hand, and pointed out that, with government intervention, it took only six months for car factories to switch over to making tanks and bombers back in World War II. Conversion this time, to much more efficient cars, will be much easier, since carbon frames for cars can be made with far less equipment and robotics than metal chassis.

Though he mentioned government intervention in World War II, Mr. Lovins' philosophy is based primarily on getting government to step out of the way. He pointed to perverse incentives in 48 states that reward power companies for selling more electricity. "Let all ways to save or produce energy compete fairly," he says. "Our current energy policy is the biggest threat to our achieving rational energy security."

Another notherlode of negawatts can be found in the gross inefficiency of our electrical power distribution. According to my notes from the talk, for every 100 units of energy consumed by power plants, only 10 units actually get utilized by consumers. That would suggest that the desktop computer I'm using to write this post, which uses 150 watts of electricity, is actually producing 1500 watts worth of CO2 at the power plant. If I were using a more efficient computer, say, my old desktop, which used only 35 watts, I would in fact be reducing my carbon footprint by 1150 watts.

And therein lies the tremendous frustration I felt after Mr. Lovins' wonderfully hopeful presentation. Though his facts and figures were compelling, his words and ideas didn't magically replace the wasteful incandescent bulbs that still light that charming lecture hall at McCosh 50. We all stepped out into the night to return to homes and offices equiped with energy guzzling furnaces and air conditioners. The local auto showroom offers no deals on cars made of lightweight carbon.

In fact, the world, our world, seems to be drifting ever farther from the desired orbit. My newer computer, which I naturally assumed would be more efficient than the old behemoth it replaced, turns out to use four times more energy. The auto dealership parking lot is lined with 17 mpg minivans and SUVs, and the electronics outlet is packed with big-screen TVs. Solar panels remain too costly to install without big subsidies.

For decades, we've heard these teaser stories on the news about one scientist or another doing promising research on new technologies, alternative energy sources that show great potential but aren't quite ready for the market. And yet here we are, still driving dinosaurs and paying ever more to heat and cool our leaky caves. The artist's rendition of streamlined trucks that Amory Lovins showed us looked eerily like the futuristic vehicles I saw in magazines in the 1960s.

The future stubbornly remains an appealing drawing on a piece of paper, a mirage that keeps us trudging through the desert, a brilliant 21st century lecture deluminated and belied by 19th century light bulbs.

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