Lovins Sees Bright, Efficient Future

by Bill Chameides | November 9th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

Amory Lovins lecturing at Duke University on Nov. 4th argued that increasing energy efficiency and applying integrated design solutions could tackle a lot of today’s problems.

Lecturing at Duke University last week, physicist Amory Lovins predicted the end of our energy and climate woes.

Lovins is the nation’s if the not the world’s unofficial “energy laureate.“

Chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, he is also a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, author of some 29 books, and energy consultant to multinational corporations and the Department of Defense.

He’s also a one-of-a-kind. As passionate about bonobos as he is about energy, he travels with a backpack stuffed to the gills with his laptop, papers and reports, and a hat made of a composite that’s as light as a feather but harder than steel. Why the latter? To illustrate a point I’ll get to in a moment.

Lovins Speaks at Duke as Part of New Series

On November 4th, Lovins came to Duke’s campus to inaugurate the Environment and Society Lectureship — a series of lectures focused on solutions to society’s major problems.

The concept of the lectures is based on the realization that the environment and humanity and social institutions are irretrievably intertwined. With few if any places on the planet that one can visit and not find signs of human activity, humanity is now a major force driving environmental change on global scales. On the other side of the coin, we now recognize that the environment and the services it provides are fundamental to maintaining our social systems and cannot be ignored when analyzing and improving the institutions that govern society. The purpose of the lecture series is to bring the world’s thought-leaders to Duke to explore how an understanding of the interactions between the environment and society can lead us to better, more effective solutions to our generation’s major problems.

Sustainable energy systems certainly qualify as one of our major problems, and so it was fitting that Lovins was chosen as the first lecturer in our series.

Energy Efficiency Is the Path

Lovins’s lecture, “Profitable Solutions for Climate, Oil, and Proliferation,” began with what he characterized as a “stupid” multiple-choice question:

“Do you prefer to die of:
     1. climate change?
     2. oil wars?
     3. nuclear holocaust?”

Lovins’s answer: “4. none of the above.” He went on to argue, ”Let’s just use energy in a way that saves money, because that will solve the climate, oil, and proliferation problems — not at a cost but at a profit.”

His message is without question bold and controversial — and highly optimistic. Lovins fervently believes we have the technology and know-how to decarbonize our energy system, end our dependence on oil, and forgo the need for nuclear energy using existing technologies. The trick: be intelligent and thoughtful in the design and application of those technologies so as to maximize energy efficiency.

With a flurry of facts, statistics, and anecdotes, Lovins’s lecture illustrated how huge savings in fossil-fuel usage could be realized through efficient design in automobiles and in electricity generation and delivery.

Integrated Design the Key

While “intelligent design” is a hot-button term that can foment passionate debate, for Lovins, the thing to concentrate on is “integrated design” — a design approach that doesn’t focus separately on each component in a system but rather looks at all components to maximize efficiency.

A compelling example relates to home insulation. If, Lovins explained, one applied current methods based on using the heating and cooling savings that additional insulation would bring, to decide how much to insulate a home, one would likely choose a modest amount of insulation. Eventually one reaches a point of diminishing returns, and adding more insulation no longer makes sense.

But an approach based on integrated design would reveal that if much larger amounts of insulation were used, the need for a large HVAC system or even an HVAC system at all would be mitigated, saving much more energy and cutting energy costs significantly. Thus, looking at all heating and cooling aspects as a whole can lead to much larger savings than treating each piece separately.

Lovins also showed how an integrated approach can lead to major savings with automobiles. He noted that currently much of the focus on increasing automobile efficiency is through incremental improvements on the engine. But he pointed out that far less than one percent of the energy generated by the engine actually goes into propelling riders from point A to B.

In addition to losses in the motor, drive train and tires, there’s also a large inefficiency caused by the fact that most of the energy left is used to propel the car itself rather than the people in it. Change that proportion a little bit, and the improved efficiency is multiplied many times as the savings are amplified up the energy chain from the drive train to the motor. More importantly, lower the weight of the car and you need a smaller motor and/or fewer batteries — more energy savings. “The key to making a more efficient electric car is not to make a better battery,” Lovins explained. “It’s to make a car that needs fewer batteries.”

Is such a lightweight design possible? Yes, said Lovins, noting his Hypercar® design made of carbon composites that are lightweight but stronger than steel. Any skeptics were quickly silenced when Lovins took out his super-light hat and tossed it out to the audience to pass around.

Rosy but …

Listening to Amory Lovins talk is inspiring — the new energy age is just around the corner, it’s inevitable, and it will cure many of our problems. For Lovins, neither climate legislation nor a price on carbon is needed to affect this change, nor are government subsides or global agreements. It will all happen as actors in a free market seek lower costs and greater profits.

I am always left a little uncomfortable by this argument. It presumes that there are billions of dollars available to corporations in energy efficiency, and for some reason they have elected so far to leave that money on the table. Doesn’t that mean that there are barriers to adopting these energy savings, and that some sort of government policy — like a price on carbon — is needed to remove those barriers?

When I asked Lovins this question, he disagreed with the premise. “It’s happening already,” he assured me. The good news is that he could be right.

filed under: automobile, climate change, energy, energy efficiency, faculty, global warming
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  1. Jim
    Nov 16, 2009

    There have been some greener technologies out there for a while, such as hybrid cars and efficient heat pumps, etc. Only a small percentage of the population have been purchasing the greener items, mainly due to cost. There simply have not been enough people buying the products to product the economies of scale to bring down the price. Also, the technologies might just plainly be more expensive even with the same economies of scale. Most people will not spend 20%+ more for the same product, even if it saves them some on fuel, electricity, etc. Then you have to consider that many people are simply apathetic to downright hostile towards global warming. These people believe they have a “right” to purchase the most polluting vehicles and appliances (I know some of these people), or they simply don’t care. I just don’t think it’s going to happen on the needed scale without a sharp nudge in that direction.

  2. Jon Kuniholm
    Nov 12, 2009

    I share a bit of skepticism about all of this. While Dr. Lovins left us some DVDs, the info on the RMI and 10xE websites is a little skimpy, and when you actually talk to even environmentally conscious contractors about repeating these successes, they seem to be unwilling to consider trying to take steps like eliminating HVAC, which are central to Dr. Lovins message. I’m renovating a house right now, and need to make some of these decisions in the next couple of months. Is there anyone local to Durham interested in trying to put together a case study? If we can make it all make sense, I’ll do it, but it has to work… Jon Kuniholm

  3. Mahmoud Kabalan
    Nov 10, 2009

    Clean and renewable energy will definitely be used in the future since fossil fuels are limited. The only question that remains is when. The argument that free market would alone make us reach that point faster is unreasonable. Government regulations and incentives are needed to push energy efficiency and renewable energy until these technologies are cost-competitive with old fossil fuel energies.

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