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’Despair and complacency are equally unwarranted:’ Q&A with Amory Lovins, energy visionary

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Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins, a physicist who co-founded RMI (formerly called Rocky Mountain Institute), is a half-time adjunct professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford and a visiting scholar at the Precourt Institute for Energy. For five decades, he has been a prominent practitioner, analyst, and advocate of renewable energy and energy efficiency, rethinking design to cut energy use in buildings, businesses and factories. He spoke with & the West about what has and hasn’t changed in a decades-long quest to rethink energy use.


Felicity Barringer: Your prescriptions for how to make energy use cheaper, more efficient, and less carbon-intensive — or not carbon-based at all — have been offered for the better part of 50 years, since you wrote “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” for Foreign Affairs in 1976. Now that some of the energy revolution you advocated is beginning to happen, how have the utility, automotive, industrial and architectural industries changed? 

Amory Lovins: In 2022, the United States used 61 percent less primary energy per dollar of real GDP than it used in 1975; similarly worldwide. 

Yet even those savings, now bigger than oil, barely scratch the surface of how much efficiency is available and worth buying: profitable efficiency opportunities have expanded more than they’ve been used up. At the same time, renewables have swept the market. They’re adding about 90 percent of net new global electric generating capacity and most of the new electricity generated—largely because they cost less (even without subsidies) than fossil or nuclear energy, and can be built far faster and more surely. Renewable electricity is now cheaper than new fossil or nuclear power in 85 percent of the global economy, is usually cheaper than running existing fossil or nuclear plants, keeps getting cheaper, is domestic and secure, emits no carbon, and is on track for net-zero by mid-century. 

“Renewable electricity is now cheaper than new fossil or nuclear power in 85 percent of the global economy, is usually cheaper than running existing fossil or nuclear plants … and is on track for net-zero by mid-century. ”

Amory Lovins

The pace of change varies widely across the globe, led by China in scale and speed, but the logic is similar everywhere, converging lower cost with energy security, climate protection, fair development, and durable prosperity. Energy efficiency and renewables are the cheapest and fastest route to all of these goals, without tradeoff or compromise. Public policy increasingly requires or rewards these outcomes. So do ordinary customers who want better services at lower cost. 

Each sector of the economy has its own strengths and inhibitions. Industry saves energy steadily, though most firms underinvest. Automakers are especially challenged because electric vehicles have taken more than all the sales growth, so incumbents’ wrenching shift to electric propulsion must be financed from dwindling sales of the fueled vehicles that their EVs will crush. Firms like Tesla without legacy assets lack this contradiction and continue to set the pace.

Building owners are gradually speeding “deep retrofits” to capture severalfold efficiency gains in old buildings. Hundreds of thousands of new buildings are manyfold more efficient than the norm, yet at comparable or lower construction cost. “Green” is increasingly a free byproduct of better design and technology that make the building work better, cost less, and be more pleasant, healthful, and productive to occupy. Supplying energy to all these sectors, utilities face simultaneous revolutions in demand, supply, scale, competition, regulation, and customer expectations—a towering challenge some may not survive.

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FB: You published the book Reinventing Fire a decade ago, and predicted oil would become economically uncompetitive even at low prices before it becomes unavailable even at high prices. When will that happen? What is likely to be the catalyst that makes the difference? Is the Russian war in Ukraine going to put a monkey wrench into the system and slow the changes? 

“Despite some local recharger deserts and pervasive disinformation, electric vehicles keep blowing away global forecasts—and China sells five times more EVs than America does. ”

AL: It already happened. Saving a barrel of oil by switching U.S. transportation from oil to electricity (and more-efficient design) cost about $17 when 61 RMI colleagues and I wrote Reinventing Fire in 2011. A decade later it cost about $7. Today it’s rapidly heading to or below zero as we foresaw. Electric cars and, often, trucks already win on lifecycle cost—the criterion used by fleet owners—and some, soon all, on sticker price. Despite some local recharger deserts and pervasive disinformation, electric vehicles keep blowing away global forecasts—and China sells five times more EVs than America does. These technologies are growing and spreading far faster than was forecast just a few years ago, thanks to processes described here. In consequence, world fossil-fuel use pretty much peaked in 2019, is bumping along a plateau, and will fall sharply this decade. 

Surprisingly, no energy use seems exempt from transformation: even the hardest-to-abate sector, aviation, is about to be transformed, as the efficiency-and-electrification revolution is outpacing its road-vehicle counterpart. Thus before my local airport (Aspen) could rebuild to let in bigger fossil-fueled planes as officials wish, superefficient and electrified planes are likely to enter service with comparable or greater capacity and range but lower capital cost, far lower operating cost, no emissions, and almost no noise. 

So coal is a dead man walking; oil is whistling past the graveyard; and natural-gas demand, threatened by competition in every main use, will probably dwindle nearly in step with oil, not decades later. To be sure, oil and gas just got a temporary boost in prices and profits from the disruptions of Putin’s War. But Europe’s determined response was mainly to double down on efficiency and renewables, new U.S. laws reinforced that shift, and the rest of the world is increasingly following suit. Putin’s War blew up the fossil-fuel era underpinning his power, speeding the energy transition by perhaps a decade. If the EU and U.S. sustain their strategic focus and resolve, Ukraine’s agony will not have been in vain.

FB: You’ve always characterized yourself as an optimist. But doesn’t the current situation give reason for pessimism, given the global power of the oil and gas industries? Isn’t there also reason for pessimism given both this summer’s heat and the way the predictions of climate change causing “global weirding” are coming true? Not to mention the impact of climate-change deniers? 

“Yes, the incumbent fossil and nuclear industries are powerful and are largely pulling society in the wrong direction. Some cynically know what they’re doing; others deny it; others still might not understand it.”

AL: I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Optimism and pessimism are different faces of fatalism—of treating the future as fate, not choice, and not taking responsibility for creating the future we want.  I therefore live and strive in the spirit I call applied hope” ). That’s consistent with the best evidence. Climate-science models conservatively understate the risk and runaway potential of climate change. But largely unnoticed, climate-choice-and-consequences models are at least equally conservative in understating what we can do to slow, stop, and reverse climate change. Combining these two offsetting biases, the race of and for our lives is very much on. Despair and complacency are equally unwarranted.

Yes, the incumbent fossil and nuclear industries are powerful and are largely pulling society in the wrong direction. Some cynically know what they’re doing; others deny it; others still might not understand it. (As ex-oilman Maurice Strong said, “Not all the fossils are in the fuel.”) Either way, they’re desperately trying to wring more profits from sunset businesses. But even Mideast oil is no longer cheap enough to compete with efficiency and renewables (or, if it proves abundant, geological hydrogen), so despite lavish subsidies, hydrocarbon firms are hemorrhaging capital, talent, and clout.  

The once-derided climate changes featured in my professional papers since 1968 now dominate the evening news. The global climate emergency, still only half-unfolded, is already endangering millions and soon billions of human beings and the fabric of life on Earth. But however late and haltingly, humanity is now shifting in the right direction with gathering speed—the usual race between education and catastrophe. Happily, capital markets are reacting faster and often more wisely than politicians. They keenly sniff out disruption, and the pace of change is set not by incumbents but by insurgents. That shift is well underway: oil-drillers now pay severalfold more for capital than solar and wind developers. Hence the futile political push to try to forbid investors from prudently assessing and rejecting hydrocarbons’ financial risks in favor of lower-risk and greener opportunities.

FB: Can you explain your concept of “integrative design,” how you came to recognize it, and how it has evolved? In what sectors of the economy is it being best used? Was your Colorado home, the site of your 81 wintertime banana harvests, the forerunner of all your subsequent “integrative design” proposals?

AL:  Integrative design is a way to design buildings, vehicles, factories—almost anything—as whole systems for multiple benefits, not isolated parts for single benefits, by better choosing, combining, timing, and sequencing technologies. For example, my home, office, and passive-solar banana farm, designed in 1982, needs no heating system to grow tropical fruits high in the Rocky Mountains where temperatures used to dip as low as  –47˚F. Yet it cost less to build that way, because omitting the heating system saved more construction cost than we paid extra for the efficiencies that eliminated the heating system. This approach works in about every climate on Earth. 

Clockwise from top left, the greenhouse in the middle of the Lovinses’ home and office in Colorado; Amory Lovins in the greenhouse; the Lovins residence in the Rocky Mountains. Judy Hill Lovins

“For example, my home, office, and passive-solar banana farm, designed in 1982, needs no heating system to grow tropical fruits high in the Rocky Mountains where temperatures used to dip as low as  –47˚.”

With less investment, we can save 80 or 90-plus percent of the world’s pump and fan energy (half the world’s motor power) by making pipes and ducts fat, short, and straight rather than skinny, long, and crooked. If everyone did that, it’d save a fifth of the world’s electricity or half the coal-fired electricity, repaying its cost in less than a year in retrofits or instantly in new construction. Yet this whole-system approach isn’t in any standard engineering textbook, government study, industry forecast, or climate model. Why? It’s not a technology—it’s a design method. Few people think of design as a way to make big changes quickly. 

I’ve evolved integrative design for over 40 years, collaborating with and inspired by many colleagues like Singaporean master LEE Eng Lock and his California protégé Peter Rumsey. Now Joel Swisher and I teach this method half-time at Stanford. We hope to test and spread the 20-plus ways to make integrative design the new normal. Such advanced energy efficiency is the most important thing I could be working on.

FB: Is there time for someone to invent a technological fix for ridding our atmosphere of heat-trapping gasses like methane and CO2?

A biogas installation in the Netherlands processing cow manure to capture methane. US EPA

“Abating methane is the fastest way to turn down the global thermostat, and the most urgent: if you have both atherosclerosis and arterial bleeding, stop the bleeding first so you’ll survive long enough to start clearing your plaque.”

AL: It’s actually profitable to abate most of the world’s methane emissions (coming largely from oil and gas extraction) just by attentive operations and good engineering. Abating methane is the fastest way to turn down the global thermostat, and the most urgent: if you have both atherosclerosis and arterial bleeding, stop the bleeding first so you’ll survive long enough to start clearing your plaque. As to carbon dioxide, I’m not sanguine about engineered removal from the atmosphere because it needs too much money and energy—it’s as hard as unpeeing the swimming pool. However, if we use energy in a way that saves money, and deploy renewables the market is demanding and funding, then natural-systems carbon removal will suffice. That means letting farm- and grazing-lands, forests, freshwaters, and oceans operate the way they’re designed to, and not treating soil like dirt.

FB: Who is the most important audience for your ideas? Legislators? Utility regulators? Industrial executives or those who design industrial buildings? Preaching to the environmentalist choir? Or to ordinary people?  How does one talk to the active resisters?

AL: Those are all important audiences. I talk to all of them and many others in over 70 countries. Each person thinks differently, uses words differently, and engages through intent, context, storytelling, and sincere listening. The main flaw in much climate discourse is trying to inflict our truth on others—debating climate science and reasons to protect the climate, rather than learning what you care about and speaking to your concerns in your language. Climate protection appeals to different people for many different and legitimate reasons: grandchildren, morals, Creation care, equity, profits, jobs, competitive advantage, national security, resilience, and many more. Focusing on outcomes, not motives, can often win agreement on what to do.

FB: Which state’s agencies have put many of the elements of your program into effect most effectively? California? Why? Are other western states, like Colorado, gaining new efficiencies and using regulations to give utilities incentives for supporting customers’ frugal use of electricity?  Is Texas a contradiction in terms, with a major build-out of renewables like wind energy and an apparent governmental hostility to renewable energy?

A wind farm in West Texas, plus an old windpowered irrigation pump. Matthew Rader via Wikimedia Commons

“Perhaps no state yet does comprehensively the most fundamental thing to advance the energy transition: fairly compete or compare all ways to save or supply energy, regardless of their type, technology, scale, location, or ownership.” 

AL: Different states have different strengths, gaps, cultures, and strategies. California has impressive historical and continuing achievements, some blunders, and many sophisticated actors and institutions. So does Texas, the nation’s wind power and solar leader, where (as you say) renewables’ smashing profit-driven economic and energy-security success was just nearly scuttled by dominant natural-gas-friendly legislators. Colorado gets many things right. For a more coherent, cohesive, and durable policy suite, you might look to smaller states like Vermont and smaller nations like Denmark. Perhaps no state yet does comprehensively the most fundamental thing to advance the energy transition: fairly compete or compare all ways to save or supply energy, regardless of their type, technology, scale, location, or ownership. 

FB: You advocate people saving electricity in tandem with utilities producing more electricity from renewable sources. Both wind and solar power have increased at a steady rate, but the hope of reducing electricity consumption is clearly unfulfilled. In the three decades from 1993 to 2022, U.S. industrial electricity consumption remained stable at 1.0 trillion kWh/year, but the residential sector’s consumption rose 50 percent  to 1.5 trillion kWh/yr and the commercial sector’s use rose from 0.9 trillion to 1.4 trillion kWh/yr. The rise in computer use may help account for the commercial sector’s greater appetite, but what can encourage homes and offices to go on an electricity diet, particularly as demand for air conditioning increases with rising temperatures?

Google’s data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Chad Davis via Wikimedia Commons

“Computing is a surprisingly small energy user, because improved efficiency nearly offsets service growth: in 2010–18, global data centers did 550 percent more computing while using only 6.5 percent more electricity.”

AL: Global wind and solar generation is rising not steadily but exponentially—a huge difference. We don’t know yet whether future growth will slow to S-curves or continue exponentially, but that’s just the difference between fast and faster. In the U.S., nearly flat 1993–2022 industrial electricity use came with 58 percent higher industrial production, while commercial floorspace rose by more than half and residential floorspace by over one-third, and residential oil use fell by about 22 percent. Accelerating efficiency and renewables will soon not just offset but outpace growth in service demand and thus reduce fossil-fuel use, as is already happening with oil for mobility. That plus decarbonization explain why carbon emissions from all U.S. sectors—residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation—have trended down for the past 15+ years.

Computing is a surprisingly small energy user, because improved efficiency nearly offsets service growth: in 2010–18, global data centers did 550 percent more computing while using only 6.5 percent more electricity. All information and telecommunications technology still uses just a few percent of the world’s electricity. Claims of vast information-technology energy use are coal-industry propaganda.

Most of the electricity now used in buildings is wasted and can be saved by better design, though implementation requires relentless patience and meticulous attention to detail. Deep retrofits can save roughly 90–100 percent of space-cooling energy with the same or better comfort and excellent economics—especially if coordinated with renovations needed for other reasons. Superefficient new buildings too can virtually eliminate space-cooling loads yet cost less to construct. As these systematic redesigns slowly spread, even newer cooling techniques are emerging that can use zero electricity and may prove retrofittable for billions of people in the tropics. 

FB: You haven’t deviated from your views that nuclear energy is neither affordable nor effective nor safe. But President Biden’s climate ambassador, John Kerry, argues that  “Nuclear energy can play a critical role in decarbonizing hard-to-abate sectors beyond electricity — for example, by producing cost-competitive, low-carbon hydrogen, industrial process heat, and water desalination to meet decarbonization goals, air quality standards, and clean water needs.” If every weapon available should be used to fight climate change, why ignore this one?

Plant Vogtle Unit Three, the first new U.S. nuclear reactor in more than 40 years started generating power in Georgia this spring. Its cost ran beyond expectations to over $30 billion.  Georgia Power Company

“Coal plants were built by counting cost but not carbon. Nuclear plants are promoted by counting carbon but not cost. Effective climate solutions must count carbon and cost and speed.”

AL: I don’t know whether my friend John Kerry believes that or simply echoing the President’s ardent view, but either way, I respectfully differ. As I wrote in a recent review paper,

The climate emergency is often assumed to require every possible source of low-carbon electricity to displace the three-fifths still made from coal and gas. But this assumption is false because it ignores priorities. We relieve famine by buying rice, not steak. To save carbon, we must buy the cheapest, fastest, most climate-effective displacements for fossil-fueled generation. Every dollar we spend on a costly or slow solution saves less carbon, later, than if we spent the same money on a cheap and quick solution. Such pragmatic comparisons make the arithmetic obvious. Arithmetic is not an opinion. Buying a nuclear kWh that’s 3–13× costlier than a renewable kWh gives us 1 nuclear kWh instead of 3–13 renewable kWh—that is, 2–12 kWh fewer—and at least a decade later. Choosing renewables instead would thus save 3–13× more carbon, and a decade sooner due to order-of-magnitude shorter preparatory and construction times.

Efficiency, being even cheaper, saves even more carbon per dollar—usually cheaper than just operating an existing reactor, let alone building a new one. This in turn means that closing the uneconomic reactor by simply letting it exit the market as other obsolete assets do, and buying efficiency (or competitive renewables) instead, would open up demand and grid capacity for cheaper carbon-free competitors to contest, saving more carbon—starting maybe one or two years later—than continuing to run the less-climate-effective reactor.

Thus the basic assumption that nuclear power, of any kind and size, is an effective substitute for fossil-fueled generation is simply wrong. Only if today’s three nominally carbon-free power choices—nuclear, renewables, and efficiency—were all equivalent in cost and speed could they be equally climate-effective, hence selectable based on other attributes like reliability, resilience, stability, and safety. Since they’re actually manyfold different in cost and speed, hence in climate-effectiveness, that difference would seem decisive in a climate emergency.

“Our goal must be not to choose one dish from each category, but to select the menu items that will save the most carbon with the limited time and money we have, satisfying our hunger and fitting our wallet. It’s really that simple.”

Let us not repeat past mistakes. Coal plants were built by counting cost but not carbon. Nuclear plants are promoted by counting carbon but not cost. Effective climate solutions must count carbon and cost and speed. Climate will be stabilized by judicious choices, not mushy mantras or nostalgic nostrums. As the U.S. nuclear critic Dave Kraft puts it, ‘We’re in a climate crisis, not a Chinese buffet.’

Our goal must be not to choose one dish from each category, but to select the menu items that will save the most carbon with the limited time and money we have, satisfying our hunger and fitting our wallet. It’s really that simple. ‘All of the above’ remains a popular bipartisan substitute for thoughtful analysis in U.S. energy policy. But Peter Bradford cogently completed the political mantra “We’re not picking and backing winners” by agreeing, then adding: “They don’t need it. We’re picking and backing losers.”     

 

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