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.