Amory Lovins is an environmental scientist and writer who serves as the chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent organization dedicated to sustainability, particularly in the energy sector.
He recently authored the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, which maps out a path to energy efficiency that avoids Capitol Hill altogether.
We spoke about some of his recommended strategies and how the private sector can steer energy advancement, cutting Washington gridlock out of the equation.
SP: This is a very dense, but very colorful and easy to read, book. It’s packed full of information.
AL: It’s written at the Atlantic Monthly level. It took 60 people one and a half years to complete. The gestation period was 18 months, and it kicked the whole time.
SP: Why this book; why now?
AL: It’s the most ambitious thing we’ve tried at the Rocky Mountain Institute, and we don’t lack for ambition.
We felt it was time for a coherent alternative vision of a business-led energy solution. Specifically, we showed how to run a very prosperous 2050 U.S. economy with no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy and a third less natural gas. We showed how to get there with no new inventions, no new act of Congress, led by businesses of profit. It end-runs Washington gridlock and our least effective institutions.
It’s different in at least three respects, besides scope and findings. The first two build on a remark by Gen. Eisenhower — “If the problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” Most people try to make problems smaller to solve, but you may not have enough options to solve it. Therefore, we integrated all four energy-using sectors — transportation, buildings, industry and utilities — because it’s a lot easier to solve together.
When you combine the four sectors and the four innovations you get more than the sum of its parts.
The third point of departure is that this book transcends ideological [aims]. It is not only independent, it also doesn’t care whether you care about profits or jobs or…whatever you care about, this will make [sense]. It cares about outcomes, not motives.
This is also novel in some ways because it’s not relying on internalizing hidden costs like carbon emissions. It assumes all positive and negative externalities are zero.
It’s driven by the c-suite, not K Street. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need policy innovations — that’s part of the mix — but it turns out they can all be executed administratively or on the state level.
SP: If it’s so easy to avoid Washington politics, why do we keep bothering with it today?
AL: If federal policymaking were functional, we would have the certain results that other countries with consistent policies are making. Last year, we cut our wind installations in half while China for the fifth year in a row doubled their wind power installations. We’ve gone from number one to two to three in clean energy investments in the past few years.
Political trench warfare by ideological or technological partisans is getting in the way to do what’s sensible. It’s puzzling to many of us, of all political views. If you actually do want to solve our energy problems for whatever reason you care about — a stronger country, a safer country, a safer world — maybe there’s a way to do this that does not depend on Washington. Congress could help these things happen, but if not, it should and could be end-run.
SP: Where’s the low-hanging fruit? Is one sector easier to exact change in than another?
AL: The basic numbers go like this. There are two big stories: oil and electricity. They’re separate at the moment — less than 1 percent linked. But each of them emits carbon. If you have efficient vehicles, buildings and factories, you save a lot of oil and coal and natural gas that can displace those. One of the departures in this work is using our energy in a way that saves money. We show how to quadruple the energy productivity of buildings and how to double the energy productivity of industry.
In buildings, there’s $1.4 trillion sitting on the table and it costs one-fourth as much to invest [in efficiencies to save it]. It takes attention, mature and competent delivery challenges, and busting through a bunch of barriers. What we add to the story is what’s called “integrative design,” which we apply across buildings, industry and vehicles — optimizing whole systems for benefits. You often make big energy savings that cost less than small savings. Expanding, not diminishing, returns. That’s not in any official studies.
SP: Where do you take the first step?
AL: In general, the underlying motive is to gain competitive advantage. Take autos as an example: most automakers have looked at improvements to take out weight and drag and resistance. Two-thirds of the energy needed to move the vehicle is caused by its weight. At the Frankfurt auto show this year, lightweighting was the theme of the show. Most people do it piece-by-piece, substituting aluminum for steel, but if you really want a game-changer you can go to carbon-fiber structures. Aerospace performance that scales to automotive cost and speed. If you make all our autos this way, it’s like finding a Saudi Arabia under Detroit. And they’re safer — they can absorb 12 times the crash [impact] as steel.
Add the electric powertrain and suddenly you have something as dramatic as going from typewriters to computers. That brings the cost of electric propulsion down very rapidly.
SP: Carbon fiber has been around awhile, but it’s expensive to produce, especially at scale.
AL: What comes first is automakers who realize they can get a huge leap on the competition by going to ultralight carbon fiber structures. Already, three German automakers have announced that they’re going to production with it in three years: Volkswagen, Audi, BMW. That’s pretty exciting.
The reason they didn’t do it earlier is that they’re very good at what they do and they didn’t really see the advancements coming together. They’re now realizing that. The electrification part is more expensive, but we suggest a “feebate” — a fee on inefficient vehicles.
SP: That might make sense in California, but what about a more conservative state like Pennsylvania? Or does adoption become a domino effect?
AL: That’s how solar energy is going — look at Texas, a red state. I don’t think we should suppose that this is a progressive thing only. The nice thing of having 50 states and however many territories is that you have many labs to try things out.
SP: If there’s one big lesson to take away from this book, what is it?
AL: Business can lead and smart policies at whatever level can support and military innovation can accelerate an energy solution that makes our economy stronger and our nation more secure. You don’t need to have any particular political or environment view or set of priorities for this to make sense and make money. The $5 trillion opportunity is on the table and business can lead it. Let’s roll.
This moment feels to me very much like 1976 when I published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that reframed the energy debate. At that time, business-as-usual wasn’t working. Everybody knew it wasn’t working. But there wasn’t a coherent alternative vision of what to do instead and how.
SP: Who needs to read this book the most?
AL: All American leadership, particularly business. Particularly private. We wrote this mainly for business leaders, not political leaders. Congress can’t take things to scale just by passing a law. You actually need people to make and sell and buy and install and finance stuff. We are thankfully in a market economy that has millions of people who are very good at doing that.