For half a century, Amory Lovins has offered imaginative ideas to inspire society to consume energy more wisely, using less energy when possible and producing it ethically and sustainably when it needs to be produced. .
He and the organization he helped found, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), have come up with a steady stream of energy-saving ideas and designs for industry, for huge commercial buildings, for urban planning and even for single-family homes.
His approach has emphasized cost reduction as one of the main benefits of saving energy, but more recently he has also touted its climate benefits.
Lovins, 75, spoke last week at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater as part of the Rae Dorough Lecture Series.
He currently teaches energy efficiency courses at Stanford University as an adjunct professor.
He still has responsibilities at RMI, as chief scientist and president emeritus. He is the author of more than 30 books and hundreds of technical papers, and the recipient of countless US and international awards for his research in energy efficiency.
“The energy saved is the greatest source of energy in the world,” he told the audience. “We doubled renewables (power generation), but it had 28 times less cumulative impact than the savings.”
He noted that renewable energy generators like solar and wind “make pretty much all the headlines because they’re visible,” but “the energy you don’t use” has an almost unimaginable reach. .
Saving energy benefits the climate
As a climate benefit, he said, from 2014 to 2016, “the energy saved globally avoided more than three times as much carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) as all the growth of renewable and nuclear energy“.
His early interests were as much about the outdoors as they were about energy. In the 1960s he worked as a mountain guide while photographing outdoor landscapes and writing about conservation issues. He published his first book, “World Energy Strategies”, at the time of the energy crisis caused by the Arab oil embargo of 1973.
He and his wife, Hunter Lovins, founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in western Colorado in 1982, calling it a “think tank and action group.” The terminology reflects the Institute’s plan not only to offer new ideas, but also to develop designs and technologies to realize them.
Speaking at Bankhead, Lovins cited his home in the Rockies as a demonstration lab of what’s possible when it comes to small-scale energy conservation.
At 7,100 feet, despite winter temperatures that can dip well below freezing, the house requires no combustion heating, he said. Heat is maintained almost entirely by passive means such as “super insulation” and “large super windows that insulate like 16 or 22 sheets of glass but look like 2 and cost less than 3”.
He said the financial savings of not installing and using a furnace outweighs the added costs of windows and insulation.
The house had an influence far beyond local efficiency, he said, as it “helped inspire many hundreds of thousands of European passive buildings with – like ours – no heating and costs of almost normal construction”.
Additionally, comparable building designs have proven effective “in hot, humid climates like Bangkok’s.”
In general, he said, the benefits of investing in infrastructure are overstated and those of smart design are understated.
Financially, reducing electricity demand through design changes brings “considerable benefits”. Reducing demand requires “about a thousand times less capital and recovers it 10 times faster”.
Moving quickly through detailed slides, he described one approach after another to saving energy through innovative design. Some examples :
* Most electric motors work. “Half goes to pumps and fans” which push some of the product through pipes and ducts.
The process is highly inefficient, with 90% of the energy generated in a power plant being wasted due to inefficiencies that worsen as the product completes its journey. By contrast, he said, thoughtful design of pipes and conduits can reduce the friction that inhibits flow and forces pumps to work by 80 to 90 percent.
“If done everywhere, (a thoughtful design) could save around a fifth of the world’s electricity.”
RMI’s approach is to reverse the usual design, combining big pipes with small pumps instead of small pipes with big pumps. Pipes are laid first to ensure low friction flow using approaches such as eliminating elbows to reduce the need for powerful pumps.
* Weight reduction can make cars “several times more efficient even before they are electrified”. Lovins has owned a lightweight carbon fiber electric car for 9 years. The expensive carbon fiber material was “paid for by requiring fewer batteries to power the lighter car”, with fewer batteries requiring less purchased electricity for recharging.
Assembling the car takes less energy and time than a normal car, he said, without the need for painting costs and other maintenance work. “Its quadruple efficiency, at 124 mpg, is uncompromising and with many driver benefits.”
* The electrical industry is changing rapidly, as “powerful disruptors” are changing “faster than most utility cultures can cope.”
Disruptors include the growth of wind power, rapidly becoming cheap photovoltaics, a revolution in lighting technology, and the development of cheap and reliable batteries.
Renewable energy is developing in a “fundamentally different way” than “giant cathedral-shaped power plants, which cost billions of dollars and take many years to license and build.”
Today, he said, an investment that could have built a giant power plant in the past can build a solar cell factory that will produce enough solar cells each year to generate… as much electricity as the power plant eventually would. Thus, solar production in the world is changing faster than cell phones.
While most of his talk focused on the kinds of energy efficiency issues he worked on at RMI and now teaches at Stanford, Lovins took a question from the audience about local controversies, like the solar farm project proposed 347 acres in the North Livermore Valley.
He described it as “a controversy that pits our desire for solar power against our need for open space.
Without addressing the legality of a case currently before the courts, he said a general solution is to “use electricity efficiently”, which includes minimizing the need for a large installation.
Another, “if you want to build solar big,” is to “place it in places that don’t sacrifice important community values…there are things called wires that you can use to move electricity” for years. remote and less sensitive sites.
He cited Stanford University’s recent efforts to “go all solar” but making sure to “put solar (panels) in places that aren’t that sensitive.”
He cited parking lots, canals and rooftops as examples of places unlikely to spark controversy.
Geopolitics and the end of an era
Beyond standard measures of business success, the rapidly changing global energy scene is intertwined with some of today’s major geopolitical currents, Lovins believes.
He is the descendant of Ukrainian grandparents, many of whose Jewish relatives were murdered by the Nazis in 1941. He repeatedly mentioned the “Putin war” in Ukraine.
He believes Putin is “exploding the age of fossil fuels” by forcing Europe and the rest of the world to find more reliable ways to get and save energy.
In the first two weeks of the war, Western countries bought more than $8 billion worth of Russian oil and gas, he recently told the UK Guardian.
It changes quickly. “Putin’s war triggered a European-American led response that could trigger a big drop” in the use of fossil fuels, he told Bankhead’s audience.
“Putin inexorably unleashed all the outcomes he feared,” hastening the end of the fossil fuels that underpin his power.
“If we seize this unique opportunity, as Europe is doing now with impressive focus and determination, then Ukraine’s agony will not have been in vain.”