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The Race to Clean Energy: An Interview with Amory Lovins

Originally posted on GreenSource.

Amory Lovins is an American environmental scientist who serves as chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute. He is widely considered among the world’s leading authorities on energy efficiency. Harvard and Oxford University-educated, Lovins has worked in the field of energy policy for four decades, briefed 19 heads of state, and published 29 books, including the recent Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era.

GreenSource: What were the seeds of your interest in sustainability?

Amory Lovins: When I was young, a friend and I guided in the White Mountains and I developed an interest in mountain photography. That complemented my book learning about the serious problems in the world for which energy seemed to be a master key—if we could figure out energy, it could either solve or teach us how to relate to many of the other problems. That’s been my life’s work.

GS: The title of your book Reinventing Fire is very provocative.

AL: As it says in the preface, fire made us human, fossil fuels made us modern, and now we need a new fire that does all the same things for us that the old fire does, but the aim of the new fire is to do our work without working our undoing. It’s a slightly Shakespearean allusion.

GS: You talk about combining industries to capture efficiencies of scale, but I can’t imagine how to get different industries to cooperate.

AL: We took advice attributed to General Eisenhower: if a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it. If you can’t solve a design problem it’s typically not because it’s not small enough to be bite-size, but rather because the system boundary is too small to encompass all the options, degrees of freedom, and synergies you need to solve it.

With that in mind, we integrated the four sectors that use energy—namely transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity. It’s much easier to solve the automobile and electricity problems together than separately. Collaboration across sectoral boundaries creates important new forms of value that can be profitably met. That’s a substantial part of the $5 trillion of value we find sitting on the table for the next 40 years of the U.S. energy system, using no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy, a third less natural gas with no new inventions, no Act of Congress, and the transition led by business for profit. That last phrase is the fundamental driver. This is not forced by policy, but results from individual firms seeking their own durable advantage.

GS: How do we go from a lack of unification, and siloed industries, to something that’s more seamless and integrated?

AL: This change is going on all around us; the sectors sell to each other already. As a Chinese proverb says, the fish doesn’t know it’s in the water. I’m not so concerned about whether countries have coherent and collaborative policies, because we’re not relying on central governments to make this happen. You might ask, Why did China make energy efficiency its top strategic priority for development in the 11th Five-Year Plan? It wasn’t because a treaty made them do it. It was enlightened self-interest. That’s why China is now introducing the biggest carbon-trading zone in the world in the 12th Five-Year Plan. Absent any global agreement, they’re doing what makes sense and makes money for China.

GS: The existing power grid in most places in the United States is not equipped for renewable energy. It would take a lot of work to get those things into a proper interface.

AL: There are certainly changes needed in how we run the grid and how we authorize and technically enable our distributive generators to connect. That’s normally signaled through price—if you knew that running a load of wash cost six times more now than it would later, you might change your mind about doing it now. We’re not compromising convenience; in fact convenience, health, and productivity would be markedly improved in the kinds of buildings we’re describing. That’s already observable among the people who have such buildings. I happen to live in one. The resulting gains in health and productivity are typically one and sometimes two orders of magnitude, that is, factors of 10 more valuable than the direct energy savings.

GS: Your perspective is very optimistic. Many say we’re not moving quickly enough. What about the naysayers?

AL: I suggest they read the book and listen to what’s happening in the market. Do they know, for example, that for the past three years half of the new generating capacity installed worldwide is renewable? Do they know that in 2010, other than big hydro, renewables became bigger in installed capacity than nuclear power worldwide, and got $151 billion of private investment, and added 60 billion watts of energy? Do they know that by the end of 2011, the world will be able to make 60 billion watts of photovoltaics every year—and that number’s been growing 65 percent a year for five years? In the spirit of applied hope, I’m asking people to look at the evidence and realize that the new energy system I’m describing is emerging all around us as a result of pragmatic decisions in pursuit of profit. Anyone who tries to finance and lease a non-green building in today’s market will understand that things have changed.

Photo © Judy Hill Lovins


Lovins lives in Old Snowmass, Colorado, at 7,100 feet, keeps a passive solar banana farm, and is on his 36th banana crop.

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