Smile Politely

Some hope for climate change

Amory Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute have been working for over 25 years on discovering radical efficiencies in energy usage and introducing them into the mass market. His work has begun to make a profound shift in the way our political economy thinks about and uses energy. He was in the basement lecture hall at the University fo Illinois Main Library last week, speaking to a nearly full audience, though he’s a man that deserves to pack Foellinger.

I came away much more hopeful after Lovins’ talk than I did from the Planet U conference. While the conference emphasized the depth and interconnectedness of the problems that face us (and this is vital in the face of so much skepticism), Amory Lovins’ talk emphasized the depth and interconnectedness of the possible solutions that are at hand, at least as far as energy use goes.

Much of what Lovins talked about is explained in greater depth in the book, Winning the Oil Endgame, available for free in electronic format. Lovins and his co-authors analyze the world’s needs going forward to 2025 and beyond and assert that oil can be completely displaced by greater efficiency on the demand side and alternative fuels on the supply side. Oil currently accounts for 41% of US carbon emissions. That pollution source could go to zero in 15 to 20 years. Furthermore, this replacement could be driven by the private sector for whom these efficiencies represent enormous unrealized profits that go out the window every single day. Perhaps the single most important idea to take away is this: Humanity is staggeringly wasteful in its use of energy, but this is not just short-sighted or immoral or stupid, although it is all those things. Eliminating the waste is also a business opportunity on its own terms without government incentive or penalty.

An analysis of the energy usage of the typical car demonstrates this. 87% of the energy that you put into your gas tank is gone before it hits the wheels, lost through mechanical inefficiencies in the engine and drivetrain, overly high aerodynamic drag and excessive tire friction as well as energy lost while idling. Furthermore, only 1/20th of the weight of the car is you. The other 19/20th is steel, chrome and plastic, and all of it has to be moved along with you. What if a manufacturer could reduce the weight of the car to a more reasonable multiple of your weight without any loss in safety or performance?

Toyota brought out a concept car called the 1/X in October 2007 with a body made of carbon fiber and a one liter hybrid engine using the same drivetrain technology as the Prius. The car was about the size of a Prius, too. We’re not talking about a Smartcar here. The Hypercar weighs about 925 lbs, about 30% of the weight of a Prius and about 5 times my weight of 200 pounds. Furthermore, it’s not an apples to apples comparison because the Hypercar included the extra batteries needed to make it a plug-in hybrid.

Well, you might say, there have been lots of concept cars out there that never went anywhere. True, but consider that Toray, a leading maker of carbon fiber, simultaneously announced that it would be making a 20 billion yen investment in expanding its carbon fiber production capacity and starting a research and development center to develop carbon fibre chassis and auto parts which opened in September 2008. Toyota and its partners look like they’re going to change the automobile game again very soon.

Lovins’ talk also looked at the other great source of carbon emissions in the US:  electricity generation. 41% of our emissions come from this sector, of which 92% is made up of coal power. We have opportunities galore here to increase efficiency and create supply in a clean, decentralized fashion. Depending on whose estimates you believe, 40-75% of the energy currently used can be saved through efficiencies available with existing technology. This does not even take account of the savings that can be gained via integrated design principles. Lovins’ own house in Boulder, CO demonstrates some of these possibilities.

Its design takes advantage of superinsulation, highly efficient doors and windows and both passive and active solar energy. But more importantly, the design accounts for the site where he built it and optimizes the whole building, not just discrete systems or parts. When he totaled up the costs, he found that he didn’t even need to install a heating system! It was cheaper upfront to make the house superefficient than to install a system to artificially regulate the temperature. And this was in 1983! I am as old as this house!

Lovins calls this “tunneling through the cost barrier” where an engineer’s passive design is so good that it eliminates both the capital and operating cost of the systems that actively regulate the building. Your house doesn’t need to look weird, either (though weirdness is oft confused with cleverness and elegance). The California electric utility PG&E built a home that looks just like your standard tract house, but uses one-fifth the energy and could have been more efficient had the building code allowed for it.

Here was the most intriguing and hopeful aspect of the talk. Decentralized renewable power sources  like wind, solar, geothermal and small-scale hydroelectric are matching and beating centralized fossil fuel and nuclear power stations on cost per kilowatt-hour right now, even without cap-and-trade or carbon taxes. While accounting for the cost of carbon and an international framework for regulating carbon emissions are both important, they are not essential first steps that, once taken, will unleash all of our creativity. We can start to do this now.

Two of the things we can do at the state level are put feebates into place and decouple utility revenues from sales of the electricity or gas being provided.

Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute has provided applied knowledge on how to intelligently use our technology with care and foresight for over 25 years. I hope I’ve given you some glimpse of the inspiring and heartening possibilities he and his colleagues have patiently described, waiting for our society’s eyes to be opened and ears to be unstopped.


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