Amory Lovins and Technology

I had a chance recently to see Amory Lovins speak. Lovins (not McLovins, as I found myself saying) has a rather impressive resume, but he is bet known as the co-founder, chairman, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a “think and do tank” that specializes in profitable “green” technologies. Early in his talk, Lovins drove home what seems to be his central philosphy: the profit or the environment dichotomy is entirely false. In fact, switching to energy saving technologies is extremely profitable, and any business that expects to survive and compete needs to realize that. He has countless examples or instances where the RMI has partnered with companies to help them retrofit factories, redesign systems, and adopt new materials and technologies that both save energy and dramatically increase profit. He also focuses on what he calls “breaking barriers.” This means designing with efficiency in mind, and optimizing efficiency so standard items that are both expensive and inefficient are unnecessary. One of the examples Lovins uses is his own home, high in the Rocky Mountains, 16 miles west of Aspen, sitting at a beautiful 7100 feet. Even though the home is in an area that can get frost yeear-round, and will dip well below 0°F in the winter, the home does not have a furnace. Want to be more impressed? Well, the home also has a high-falootin’ greenhouse, where they grown a great deal of fruits and vegetables, including bananas. Yes, growing bananas at 7100 feet in Colorado with no furnace. And, Lovins insists that the technology and engineering used to make the home so efficient is actually fairly cheap. Cheap enough that the initial costs are minimal, and the long term costs are much lower than if he had built a conventional home.

Far and away the focus of his talk was on cars. Specifically, the advances that RMI has helped to develop that can make cars lighter, safer, more efficient, and…wait for it….cheaper. The main advance is a composite carbon-fiber body with more crash absorbing power than steel, but at a fraction of the weight. The carbon-fiber is so light that even modern hybrid engines can give you excellent acceleration and towing power. They are more aerodynamic, so they are safe from big rig wind gusts, and because of a reduction in tire width, have as much traction as your standard WMD, err, sorry, I mean SUV.

OK, that part was great, yay technology! But at it’s core I felt his argument was this: Efficiency is profitable, the technology is already there, so if we spread the gospel of the RMI and it’s associated advancements things like CO2 emissions and Peak Oil become irrelevant, they will just get fixed. He actually went so far as to say that Peak Oil didn’t really matter.

This comes awfully close to the “technology will save us” argument, which I particularly get annoyed with. On some levels it makes sense, but realistically I feel it pays little attention to history.

The point, especially in regards to Peak Oil, is not whether or not we will run out of oil in the future. That is a certainty, at some point, non-renewable resources will become exhausted. That is why they are called non-renewable. What is worrisome is the path we will take to get there. Throughout human history, too many wars have been fought over scarce resources for me to put my faith entirely into the market and technology. One can make the argument that we are at a special point in human history where technology can bypass the nastiness that seems to accompany different groups of people fighting over dwindling supplies of some necessary good, but that is still not all that comforting to me.

I also am suspect of arguments like the one Lovins made. The idea that every company can make a big profit and, perhaps more importantly, position themselves as a leader in their industry while saving energy. I am sure there is inertia in all industries, but I find it hard to believe that there are all of these companies passing up profitable ventures. If it is such a no-brainer, as Lovins suggests, then why hasn’t it been adopted wholesale?

In truth I was very excited about most of the talk, and most of my critiques stem from three “party fouls.” First, Lovins was at our University as part of a University-wide speaker series in honor of a geologist who passed away 3 years ago. Yet he was at best dismissive of the use of the earth sciences in addressing global environmental problems. I thought that was bad form. I have heard that Lovins is a big proponent of “speaking to your audience,” or using the correct message for your particular group of listeners. This talk would have been right for a group of people who’s primary concern is how much they have to spend on gas for their next SUV, not for a group of academics with a heavy showing of earth scientists, in honor of a well-known geologist who worked on climate change!

Second, PowerPointless. Lovins used the kind of PowerPoint presentation I have been trained for years to avoid. Text text text, in random colors, tiny print, the works. Graphs with unreadable axes that he did not bother to explain. Stats and numbers and profit margins without any reference or discussion of where the data comes from, or what other forces may have contributed to the trends. If he was a student in my class I would have told him he should have spent more time preparing the presentation. My guess is that he gives this one, or some variant on it, dozens of times a year. He should hire a second year graduate student to smooth it out.

And finally, much of the talk focused on potential energy savings from transportation. Let me rephrase that, much of the talk focused on making more fuel efficient cars. That is a good goal, but not once did he mention applications of these technologies to public transportation, or RMI’s position on creating well designed high-density housing integrated with business and commercial properties, you know, cities. As much as I love the idea of living in a sustainable home at 7100 feet in the Rockies, I also believe that any calculation of the amount of energy required by the house must take into account transportation to and from the house. You know, to the grocery store, hardware store, soccer practice, work…..These things weren’t mentioned once. Again, maybe he was “talking to his audience,” but I felt it a glaring omission. It actually reminded me of a recent trip to Washington D.C. to visit metcaffeination. We went to the National Building Museum, and ended up looking through the Green House Exhibit. Although I thought some of the displays and materials were interesting, almost all of the example homes were in the fricking middle of nowhere! Oh look, I have to drive 30 miles to get to my house but when I am there I can do my laundry with 33% less water. Well, why not put those things in city homes? Near public transport? Within walking distance to work?

OK, a little bit of a diatribe. In general I was impressed by his talk, the examples he gave of profitable and energy saving innovations were really interesting. But, I left the talk in general feeling very disappointed. Lovins missed the mark with me. RMI is doing good things, don’t get me wrong, and Lovins has done a lot of impressive things. Anyone else have similar experiences? I’d be interested to know.

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9 Responses to Amory Lovins and Technology

  1. BrianR says:

    I’ve had his book “Natural Capitalism” on my nightstand for months…haven’t had time to get into it.I’ll have to read it to comment thoughtfully, but my quick thoughts on this is that I do like that people discuss sustainability within the context of our actual system of commerce and economics. Sometimes I get peeved at the relentless onslaught of “how it should be” rhetoric without much thought of implementation.That being said…there’s no one solution. So, even if RMI is doing great things, it’s not the only answer…or even type of answer.Too bad about the crappy presentation…what shame. I do the opposite…I try and make sub-standard science look good with a good presentation 🙂

  2. I guess my point is that cities and public transportation are part of the current system. True, not everywhere, but do you have to grow your own bananas in Colorado to be green? I agree that making cars more fuel efficient would be an enormous step towards energy independence, but I was just shocked that it was his only focus.At least he didn’t have any sound effects with the PowerPoint.

  3. thm says:

    First, the small point: OK, carbon fiber weighs less than steel, although I’m really curious about the energy it takes to manufacture, and the recyclability. On that point, steel is excellent. And steel is malleable, so it can dent without fracturing, and the dents can even be pounded out. What happens to carbon fiber in a crash?Larger point: The other problem with cars is that they take up too damn much space. Or they will if you presume that every trip will be made in a car, and then make parking spaces for those cars. I’ve been trying to make my way through Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, and one thing I’ve picked up from it is that in typical suburban office parks, or shopping centers, there is more space devoted to parking than there is to the buildings that people go to. One thing I’d like to do someday is to take a photo of a suburban office park, then Photoshop in hybrid cars, or whatever Mr. Lovins thinks is the car of the future, into all the parking spots in place of normal cars. Would this be your vision of a future eco-utopia? Not mine.

  4. And following on that, perhaps I can photoshop all of the Rocky Mountains with eco-houses, roughly enough to house a medium sized city worth of people. Repopulate 400,000 Sacramentans outside of Vail, maybe Red Lodge Montana..Then we can photoshop in the necessary roads! This has potential.

  5. Kim says:

    You don’t have to Photoshop in houses. How about if I take my digital camera with me on the way to work and take pictures of the developments sprouting up here, at 7200 feet (which doesn’t look that mountainous; it’s still pinyon-juniper), four hours from the nearest interstate?(And, yeah, I’m part of the problem… and wouldn’t really want to live in Sacramento.)

  6. thm says:

    Thermochronic, that’s the other problem with the eco-cowboy, isolationist, live off the land type of solution for an environmentally progressive future: there are actually a lot of people around, so where are they all going to go when the oil runs out? There’s a touch of misanthropy in the notion that once you’ve set up your (supposedly) sustainable retreat, your problem is solved so the heck with all the unwashed masses who weren’t smart enough to figure out that they, too, needed to buy a dozen acres of wilderness on which to build a self-contained outpost, and to then find some way of supporting themselves that didn’t involve regular interactions with other people. Good thing all the workers in the factories that made the cutting-edge materials for the eco-techno house hadn’t decided that they would have wanted this lifestyle too and moved far away from the factory before the insulation for the house rolled off the assembly line.

  7. Kim – I think my point is that it is not a solution for large groups of people. I don’t intend that everyone should live in Manhattan, but that realistically the long term solution for a growing population has to include densification.And to defend Sacramento (as my hometown), it is a fantastic city. The stretch surrounding I-80 sucks (as does the part of any city near the interstate), but it has an excellent downtown, midtown, riverfront, and music scene. It also has my favorite climate of anywhere I’ve ever lived (as long as you live in the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">right parts<> of course.) I think it is a misunderstood place, but an excellent place to live and/or grow up!

  8. Brian R says:

    thm says: “there are actually a lot of people around”This is the fundamental problem. Overpopulation. Most of these issues of unsustainability are rooted in the simple fact that there’s too many people. Yet, this is an issue that still seems “taboo” to talk about. It will have to be addressed at some point.Clearly, we need to use Earth resources to live the way we do. There’s no free lunch. Movements towards newer and better sources of energy, being more efficient, conserving more, etc. all help. But the fact of the matter is we collectively consume resources. And the more people, the more consumption. Overpopulation has to start to become part of the discussion.

  9. Brian R says:

    if you haven’t seen < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this blog<> yet, it’s great…the author discusses sustainability, growth, and overpopulation very clearly, I recommend it

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