Monday, July 13, 2009

Amory Lovins: Soft Energy and NatCap


Amory Lovins was born in Washington DC in 1947. Educated at Harvard he became a junior research fellow in Merton College, Oxford before joining the British Friends of the Earth where much of his early work on energy took place.

In 1979 he married Hunter Sheldon and the two set up the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in 1982. Hunter was co-author in Amory Lovins’ two most famous books, Factor Four (with Ernst von Weizsacker) in 1996 and Natural Capitalism (with Paul Hawken) in 1999. However the pair had separated as a couple in 1989, divorced in 1999 and Hunter left the RMI in 2002 to pursue other options. This was presented as a mutual agreement at the time, but she appears to have been sacked by the RMI board.

Lovins has won a bucket full of awards and published 29 books. He has worked with a huge number of top companies, and reportedly commands astronomical consulting fees for RMI.


Amory Lovins’ first big concept was the idea of ‘soft energy paths’ shifting away from tradition, centralised ‘hard’ energy systems to a more distributed system of localised networks, energy efficiency and renewables. Generation and distribution are matched to local energy needs. The soft energy concept was scorned at the time (1973-1976) and hard energy is still the prevalent approach in the world, but many of Lovins’ predictions have come true. An interesting spin-off of this work was the formalisation of the ‘backcasting’ concept (designing future scenarios and working back to the present to develop a strategy) by John Robinson which was later adopted by ‘The Natural Step’.

One of the recurrent themes of Lovins’ work is that systems level thinking will lead to large efficiency and economic gains or ‘tunnelling through the cost barriers’. While incremental efficiency improvements may add cost to a project, by aiming for these large Factor 4, Factor 10 or even Factor 20 improvements in efficiency, costs are reduced overall. For example, if you design process plant with short, fat, straight pipes rather than long, thin, convoluted pipes, you can reduce the size of pump motors and other components leading to reduced capital and operating costs. Likewise, with super-insulated buildings you need little or no heating and air-conditioning plant and minimise your operating costs. The RMI building demonstrates this – despite being high in the Rockies they grow their own bananas in the foyer and heat the building with a couple of small wood-stoves and “a 50W dog – if it gets really cold we throw a ball and he generates 100W.”

Lovins has remained implacably opposed to any role for nuclear power in a green future. He characterises nuclear plants as expensive, unreliable and intertwined with the nuclear weapons industry. He claims that other methods of reducing climate change (renewables, efficiency) are 2 to 10 times more effective per dollar than nuclear.

One of Lovin’s gifts, which is at odds with his uber-techno-geek approach to solutions, is his way with words. He has coined phrases such as ‘negawatts’ - the energy you don’t use which he says is more valuable than the energy you do use. Another famous quote is “The markets make a good servant but a bad master, and a worse religion.” This ability to boil an argument down to a memorable catchphrase, usually delivered in a deadpan manner, lifts Lovins above all the other techies in the field.

Like many of the gurus discussed here, it is easy to criticise what Amory Lovins has changed in practice. He released the design for the highly efficient (100mpg) ‘Hypercar’ in 1993, yet it has never got to the prototype stage. The company created to promote the Hypercar went through various collaborations with major motor manufacturers before being reborn as a developer of the ultralight composite materials required to produce such an efficient vehicle.

He has also been criticised for being relentlessly positive and not properly accounting for the risks of his proposals. Certainly, reading Natural Capitalism one is left with the lingering thought “If it really is this easy and obvious, why isn’t everyone doing it?” When the author met him at Schumacher College, UK in 2002, Lovins did not appreciate questioning of any of his points and, when challenged, turned prickly very quickly. He also had a worrying tendency to quote chapter and verse from Natural Capitalism as if quoting from the Bible (although he did reveal himself to be an extremely talented pianist).

While these are undoubtedly weaknesses in a person, they could be argued to be strengths in a guru. Given the amount of negativity and short-sightedness directed at green solutions and the inability of many critics to see the big picture, we need an evangelist for a brighter future – to stretch our imaginations and fire us up for what could be. Lovins is brilliant, resilient and visionary, and, while I for one am resistant to the ‘cult of Amory’ that surrounds him, I still rate him as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the green gurus.

© Terra Infirma 2009, all rights reserved

Labels: , , ,


At September 5, 2009 at 5:01 AM , Blogger Charles Barton said...

An alternative view is that there is so much distortion and downright dishonesty in Lovins presentations of his own view that as Robert Bryce suggest he is a Fakir, not a Guru. Lovins big picture is distorted, and his Guru reputation prevents us from seeing that he is a pied piper who can lead us down a wrong path.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home