By Brent Stephens on September 3, 2012
Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is one of the world’s most famous thinkers on energy and environmental policies and technologies. He and his colleagues at RMI recently published a new book called Reinventing Fire, where they outline an energy future that maximizes efficiency, minimizes (or ideally, halts) the use of fossil fuel energy sources, and does so largely by circumventing lawmakers and encouraging private industry. Given the day away from the office for Labor Day, I decided to spend a productive and thought-provoking half-hour watching a summary of his book (and vision) in a TED talk he gave earlier this year. I found the strategy surprisingly interesting and encouraging, and highly recommend a viewing.
Basically, Lovins outlines a strategy that largely makes sense physically, at least from a macroscopic point of view. The basic tenets are practical, sharp, and not really new: make things that require energy smaller and more efficient, then switch to renewable energy sources in a smart and better-connected fashion. Starting with oil, our vehicles use too much of it, so we should make cars lighter (by utilizing new composite materials), thus making them more fuel efficient. At the same time, the switch to electric vehicles would be easier and cheaper because smaller cars need smaller batteries. That, in addition to several other broad concepts of “smart growth” and “alternative commuting” will help lower oil demand, according to Lovins. Makes sense. He was unfortunately light on solutions for the trucking/shipping industry, but I give him the benefit of the doubt given the crunched nature of TED talks.
Now, turn to electricity. About seventy-five percent of our electricity in the US powers buildings. So make them more efficient. Fair enough; we can do this. The Empire State Building did it. The basic concepts apply here: make building loads smaller, then the equipment that services those loads can be smaller, reducing the overall cost of retrofit. In industrial settings, more not-so-sexy technologies can make large strides in energy efficiency, according to Lovins. For example, we use a lot of twisting, small diameter piping in industry; Lovins points out that switches to “fat short straight pipes” can do the trick. And so on, and so on.
Most of the technologies Lovins discusses are not new and make tremendous sense. Where he begins to really make strides however is in making the economic case for each of these solutions. Over the last few years I’ve largely thought that we currently know how to make most efficiency gains in any sector of our energy-using world, but it’s the lack of implementation that is holding us back. What’s needed is a mix of creative policy solutions, overall willingness, and what Lovins points out (much more so than I assumed he would have): business solutions. Lovins and RMI consult with some major players (e.g., the BMWs, Wal-Marts, and Dows of the world), and he paints a very promising future of many major industry giants making a move toward efficiency largely because it makes economic sense. Very encouraging in my opinion.
Lovins also spends some time reassuring us that renewables can integrate into the smart grid seamlessly. He highlights Germany, Portugal, and Denmark as countries making tremendous strides of late, getting 30-50% of their electricity from combinations of wind and solar (largely wind). Wind and solar are both highly variable in nature, but Lovins attempts to make the point that wind and solar (with average capacity factors of ~25% and ~15%, respectively, albeit with large geographic variations), when combined with efficiency and ‘smart grids’ can make up for the full-time 80-90% typical capacity factors of base load coal and nuclear plants without heavy reliance on energy storage. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to take his word on this without more research on statistical distributions of wind and solar output, but he also softly/indirectly acknowledges this shortcoming in his talk (I should note that others are currently working on this kind of research, particularly in California).
In the end, Lovins outlines an energy future that can save $5 trillion, multiply the US economy 2.6 fold, and drop oil, coal, and nuclear reliance to zero. It’s a high-level plan and assessment, but I applaud him for laying it out. It helps motivate me, and I think implicit in his talk is the need for many of us to be working hard on solutions at every level of the energy sector. If we find holes, let’s patch them and revise the plan.
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