By David Roberts, Grist Magazine. Posted August 14, 2007.
Amory Lovins, one of America’s most renown environmentalists talks about our greatest energy challenges and covers everything from biofuels to Iraq.
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This article is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist’s free email service.
If politicians think in sound bites and intellectuals think in sentences, Amory Lovins thinks in white papers. His speech is studded with pregnant pauses — you can almost hear the whirs and clicks as an enormous mass of statistics, analyses, and aphorisms is trimmed and edited into a manageable length. I’ve talked to experts who struggle to substantiate their answers. Lovins struggles to leave things out.
No one has done more to change the world of energy, both its intellectual underpinnings and its real-world practice, than Lovins. Beginning with a seminal Foreign Affairs article in 1976 — “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” which introduced the “soft path” to energy — Lovins shifted the focus from bigger to smarter, from more to more-with-less. He’s consulted with businesses, governments, and militaries on how to achieve organizational goals using less energy and less money. His books and articles are legion; the latest is Winning the Oil Endgame, a “roadmap to getting the U.S. completely, attractively, and profitably off oil.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the “think and do tank” Lovins founded. The occasion will be celebrated in early August at an event attended by, among others, Bill Clinton and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
I gave Lovins a call to check in on some of today’s greatest energy challenges, from biofuels to Iraq to a backwards-looking Congress.
DR: After all you’ve done to shift the energy debate, why do supply-side questions still dominate the discussion in Congress?
AL: Congress is a creature of constituencies, and the money and power of the constituencies are almost all on the supply side. There is not a powerful and organized constituency for efficient use, and there’s a very strong political (but not economic) constituency against distributed power, particularly renewables. So I would not pay too much attention to what Congress is doing. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, but ultimately economic fundamentals govern what will happen — things that don’t make sense, that don’t make money, cannot attract investment capital.
We see this now in the electricity business. A sixth of the world’s electricity and a third of the world’s new electricity comes from micropower* — that is, combined heat and power (also called cogeneration) and distributed renewables. Micropower provides anywhere from a sixth to over half of all electricity in most of the industrial countries. This is not a minor activity anymore; it’s well over $100 billion a year in assets. And it’s essentially all private risk capital.
So in 2005, micropower added 11 times as much capacity and four times as much output as nuclear worldwide, and not a single new nuclear project on the planet is funded by private risk capital. What does this tell you? I think it tells you that nuclear, and indeed other central power stations, have associated costs and financial risks that make them unattractive to private investors. Even when our government approved new subsidies on top of the old ones in August 2005 — roughly equal to the entire capital costs of the next-gen nuclear plants — Standard & Poor’s reaction in two reports was that it wouldn’t materially improve the builders’ credit ratings, because the risks private capital markets are concerned about are still there.
So I think even such a massive intervention will give you about the same effect as defibrillating a corpse — it will jump but it will not revive.
DR: Does the same critique apply to liquid coal?
AL: Yes. I was delighted when both the Chinese State Council and the U.S. Senate about a week apart canceled [liquid coal] programs.
But I’m sure you’re aware that the political push behind liquid coal is still very much pushing.
Of course, including some people who should know better. It has fundamental problems in economics, carbon, and water, and bearing in mind that we can get the country completely off oil at an average cost of $15 a barrel, something in the $50s to $70s range doesn’t look viable. Those who invest in it, publicly or privately, will lose their shirts, and deservedly so.
I think a good way to smoke out corporate socialists in
free-marketeers’ clothing is to ask whether they agree that all ways to
save or produce energy should be allowed to compete fairly at honest
prices, regardless of which kind they are, what technology they use,
where they are, how big they are, or who owns them. I can tell you who
won’t be in favor of it: the incumbent monopolists, monopsonists, and
oligarchs who don’t like competition and new market entrants. But
whether they like it or not, competition happens. It’s particularly
keen on the demand side.
DR: Will Big Coal fall on its face?
It’s already clearly happening in the global marketplace — although
the U.S. lags a bit, having rather outmoded energy institutions and
rules. Worldwide, less than half of new electrical services are coming
from new central power plants. Over half are coming from micropower and
negawatts, and that gap is rapidly widening. The revolution already happened — sorry if you missed it.
How might your notion of “brittle power” apply, not to developed
countries but to countries that are developing in conditions in which
resilience is at a premium? Iraq is the obvious example.
Some of us have made three attempts at [bringing decentralized power to
Iraq] and there’s a fourth now under discussion. The first three
attempts, the third of which was backed by the Iraqi power minister,
were vetoed by the U.S. political authorities on the grounds that
they’d already given big contracts to Bechtel, Halliburton, et. al to
rebuild the old centralized system, which of course the bad guys are
knocking down faster than it can be put back up.
DR: How could Iraq have played out differently?
If you build an efficient, diverse, dispersed, renewable electricity
system, major failures — whether by accident or malice — become
impossible by design rather than inevitable by design, an attractive
nuisance for terrorists and insurgents. There’s a pretty good
correlation between neighborhoods with better electrical supply and
those that are inhospitable to insurgents. This is well known in
military circles. There’s still probably just time to do this in
Meanwhile, about a third of our army’s wartime fuel
use is for generator sets, and nearly all of that electricity is used
to air-condition tents in the desert, known as “space cooling by
cooling outer space.” We recently had a two-star Marine general
commanding in western Iraq begging for efficiency and renewables to untether him from fuel convoys, so he could carry out his more important missions.
is a very teachable moment for the military. The costs, risks, and
distractions of fuel convoys and power supplies in theater have focused
a great deal of senior military attention on the need for not dragging
around this fat fuel-logistics tail — therefore for making military
equipment and operations several-fold more energy efficient.
been suggesting that approach for many years. Besides its direct
benefits for the military mission, it will drive technological
refinements that then help transform the civilian car, truck, and plane
industries. That has huge leverage, because the civilian economy uses
60-odd times more oil than the Pentagon does, even though the Pentagon
is the world’s biggest single buyer of oil (and of renewable energy).
Military energy efficiency is technologically a key to leading the
country off oil, so nobody needs to fight over oil and we can have
“negamissions” in the Gulf. Mission unnecessary. The military
leadership really likes that idea.
DR: Do you think that individual changes in behavior can or will have substantial effect on the energy situation?
Yes, of course. People will vote with their wallets as well as their
ballots, in a way that will affect the political system and even more
the private sector, which is quite good at selling what you want and
not selling what you don’t buy. The interplay between business and
civil society is even more important than between business and
government, and that is where I want to continue to focus most of my
I admire those who try to reform public policy, but I
don’t spend much time doing that myself. In a tripolar world of
business, civil society, and government, why would you want to focus on
the least effective of that triad?
DR: Reports out recently
cast doubt on the environmental advantages of biofuels. Have you ever
reconsidered your support for them?
AL: You’re treating
biofuels as generic and I don’t think that’s appropriate. There are
much smarter and much dumber approaches to biofuels, and biofuels do
not need to have the problems you refer to.
DR: But even cellulosic ethanol has come under criticism lately.
Not from anyone knowledgeable that I’m aware of. Unless of course you
need such large quantities of it, because you have such inefficient
vehicles, that you start getting in land-use trouble.
that U.S. mobility fuels could be provided without displacing any food
crops. You could do it just with switchgrass and the like on
conservation reserve land. Being a perennial, which can even be grown
in polyculture, switchgrass and its relatives would hold the soil
better because they’re much deeper rooted than the shallow-rooted
annuals with which that erosion-prone land is often planted. And of
course the perennials don’t need any cultivation or other inputs.
a few weeks ago my colleagues and I led the redesign of a cellulosic
ethanol plant — we were able to cut out very large fractions of its
energy and capital need by designing it differently. There are other
process innovations we’re aware of that would achieve similar results.
I would not write off biofuels at all.
Now, your broader point:
Should it not be part of an integrated spectrum of efforts? Yes, of
course. We can triple the efficiency of our cars and light trucks
without compromised performance and with better safety, and we could
also, if we want to get really conservative, stop subsidizing and
mandating sprawl so we’d have less of it.
revolution alone has a number of steps you could do in whatever order
you’d like. In round numbers, if you take a really good hybrid and
drive it properly, — not the way Consumer Reports says to — you roughly double its efficiency. If you make it ultra-light and ultra-low-drag, you roughly redouble its efficiency.
you’re using a quarter the oil per mile you were before. If you then
run it on, say, properly grown cellulosic E85, you quadruple its oil
efficiency per mile again — you’re using a 16th the oil per mile that
you started with. If you make it a good plug-in hybrid and have a good
economic model to pay for the batteries — some of those are starting
to emerge — then you at least double efficiency again. Now you’re down
to about 3 percent the oil per mile you started with. And of course
there are also renewable-electricity battery-electric cars.
are some sensible and profitable ways to do hydrogen, to displace the
last bit of oil or biofuel, and there are other options like algal oils
that are becoming very interesting. It’s a rather rich menu, and you
don’t need all of it to get largely or completely off oil and make
money on the deal.
DR: Do you think private transportation
will remain dominant for the foreseeable future or will there
eventually be a shift to public transportation — high-speed rail, etc.?
We can do a lot better in that regard, with policy and technical
innovation, and there are many countries that already do. But with the
settlement patterns we have in the United States, it’s difficult to
make a large shift in a short time in that regard. It’s much easier to
make the cars, trucks, and planes three times more efficient, and that
has respective paybacks of two years, one year, and four or five years
with present technology.
DR: In your work, to what extent do
you think about quality of life, or happiness, as opposed to providing
the material goods we now consume more efficiently?
AL: A lot. It isn’t our main analytic focus, but of course every thoughtful citizen has to ask about the purposes of the economic process. As Donella Meadows
reminded us, it is silly and futile to try to meet nonmaterial needs by
material means. If we’re not careful in what we do, and how we decide,
and in who decides, we can end up with outer wealth and inner poverty.
DR: Thanks again, and congratulations on 25 years.
30 July 2007: This article originally stated that a fifth of the
world’s electricity and a quarter of the world’s new electricity comes
from micropower. In fact, it is a sixth and a third, respectively.]